Bangkok (1890-1910)/ Imposition of the Western Urban Form: Segmented City

1820 map
Figure 1. 1820 Map of Bangkok© 2002, Bangkok, place, practice, and representation


1901 map
Figure 2. 1901 Map of Bangkok©1999, Bangkok then and now

The form of city Bangkok undergone dramatic changes at the beginning of the 20th century due to its modernization and westernization process. The old sacred city was laid out and expanded in a concentric ring pattern around the city pillar, complying with the ancient cosmological concept (Rudiger, 1986) (fig.1). To accommodate the new functional zones and the changing demographic condition of a modern city, the urban spaced started to sprawl. As new developments were mostly conducted in the former suburban areas, the old fabric were preserved (fig.2). The new urban form is shaped simultaneously by the top-down planning strategy of the monarchy and by the bottom-up construction activities of different groups of citizens.

To the north of the old sacred city where used to be agricultural land, Rama V established the new political center, Dusit district. A clear gridiron plan is used in this area. New palaces were built around it in the suburban areas. The aristocracy were believed to be influenced by the western ideology that pursued a quiet and graceful living condition isolated from the urban congestions. The inner city inside the city walls was no longer living spaces for the monarchy but used as civic buildings or the living spaces for the urban poor (Askew, 2002).

European quarter
Figure 3. Street view in the European neighborhood © c. 1900, Bangkok Then and Now

To the south of the old sacred city along the river, new commercial center evolved from the pre-existing condition. It was traditionally the residential and trading cluster for the Chinese merchants. In the 1900s the increasing European population concentrated in the nearby neighborhoods for its convenient transportation and pleasant waterfront environment. The consular, foreign companies, banks, and European residential areas were built further south, detached from the congested Chinese community (Beek, 1999). Several straight roads formed the main fabric of the district (fig.3).

Figure 4. Thai residential area along the river © c. 1900, Bangkok Then and Now

During the same period of time not much changes happened to the indigenous residential quarters of Thai people. The Thai residential areas were strung out along the many waterways where rows of older thatched dwellings persists and a few floating houses still cling to the banks of the river and principal creeks (Sternstein, 1976). In contrast with the living quarters of the higher classes, the living environment of ordinary people didn’t benefit much from the modernization process (fig.4).

The urban sprawl of Bangkok in 1900s was primarily driven by the western town planning view and ideology, i.e. the political center representing the national identity, the new suburban living quarters for the higher classes. The straight form of the new fabrics were in strong contrast with the old ones which were more organic. As Evers and Korff (2000) argued, instead of a symbiosis, there is a divorce between tradition and modernity in Bangkok. It is no longer a city with one structure and one center but several structures with differing centers emerged. We can hardly find any common characteristics in the different part of the city among different groups of people. Even though there might be social connections behind, the city in its physical sense was in a segmented condition with the western and modern form superimposed on the old sacred city.



Evers, H. & Korff, R. (2000). Southeast Asian Urbanism : the Meaning and Power of Social Space, New York : St. Martin’s Press.

Rudiger, K. (1986). Bangkok : Urban System and Everyday Life, Saarbrucken, Fort Lauderdale : Breitenbach

Sternstein, L. (1976). Thailand : the Environment of Modernisation, Auckland : McGraw-Hill

Beek, S. (1999). Bangkok Then and Now. Nonthaburi : AB Publications

4 Comments on “Bangkok (1890-1910)/ Imposition of the Western Urban Form: Segmented City

  1. This inspires me in thinking on which kind of city is better: a city with several structures with different centres showing more diversity in cultural and perspective, or a city with one structure and one centre showing one identity. Bangkok is an example of the former i would say, and Hong Kong could actually be an example of the latter in the world’s eye, an international city with just commercial glass wall buildings. A divorce between tradition and modernity might sound negative, but it could also be read as a clear and effective mutual-survival of both historical and modern development. A good and effective plan is therefore needed in preserving the historical side of a city, and in which I personally think that Bangkok has done a great job in keeping her history to the world.

  2. It is interesting to compare Bangkok case to Baghdad as both geographical shared a main river across the city and having western imposition of urban planning. However, it seems that western ideas still possessed with different opinions on modernising Asian cities. In the case of Bangkok, there was the centralised commercial centre as focus, while that for Baghdad, more egalitarian planning method was proposed with intertwined districts of different hierarchy. As mention in this writing, the way of planning maybe influence to the political will, yet it is interesting to see in Baghdad’s case the high level freedom of the regime given to foreign planner to plan their city.

  3. I would like to add some more points on the previous comment. It is indeed important to preserve the historical legacy of the city which will give its citizens more unique cultural identity and richer collective memory. I guess the more crucial issue is, what role such historical sites play from an urban point of view. The issue that the author raised is that there wasn’t much interaction between different parts of the city and they were not really benefiting each other. In light of the highly segregated situation, I would not say that such historical preservation is the most meaningful way to do it.

    Regarding the post itself, the overall structure is quite clear and visuals are well chosen to help illustrate arguments. I am curious about the reasons why it turned out to be a divorce between the modern and the historical. As mentioned in the post, the implementation of civic center and new suburban living quarters were the common western ideology at the time. But in its home countries such as Europe or America, the situation might be different.Is there special Bangkok contextual factors that contribute to such divorce?

  4. I agree that the historical photographs are absolutely indicative of the different regimes at work – from its planning to the materiality of its architecture and so on. It would be great if the annotations and summaries of the references and bibliography would point to this strong theme as well. In your post, there is a strong analysis of the waterfront. Perhaps go deeper into this aspect in order to reveal different sensibilities in dealing with the edges of water through the question of urban planning, infrastructure construction, and so on. At the end of the day, maybe you will discover multiple processes at work, rather than purely modern (western) versus indigenous (local). Discuss the debates, conflicts and collaborations.

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