Bangkok (1932-1942) / 1.2 Pre-1932 Ratchadamnoen Boulevard—An Example of Modernization in Bangkok

Located in the heart of the city, Ratchadamnoen Boulevard has always been the focus of major urban development in Bangkok especially during the Fifth Reign (1868-1910). After King Chulalongkorn (see post 1.1 for details) finished his first official visit to Europe in 1897, he started a new urban renewal project in Bangkok attempting to transform this old city into a modern metropolis like a developed European city1. To start with, they came up with the construction of Ratchadamnoen Boulevard taking the Champs-Elysees in Paris as an example to learn from. In order to achieve Bangkok’s modernization, direct western influences and absolute power of the king could be clearly found through this project, which set the foundation for further construction when political system started to change. To some extent the form of the boulevard could reflect the political condition and background at the time.

Fig. 01 Map of 1899 Bangkok. The first part of Ratchadamnoen Boulevard was cut in 1899. The Outer Boulevard runs southward 1.5 km as a straight tree-lines artery2.

Fig. 02 The Outer Ratchadamnoen Boulevard starts at the Royal Plaza in front of Anantasamakhom Throne Hall, photographed in 19463.

The boulevard was planned as a cut through the original urban fabric connecting the Grand Palace and the Dusit Palace. In this way, the royal temple and the royal residences were related to a new suburb where Anantasamakhom Throne Hall, summer palaces and residential architecture for princes, who would soon come back from after their studies abroad, were to be built. There were three parts of the boulevard including the Outer, the Central and the Inner1. The Outer Ratchadamnoen Boulevard starts from the Royal Plaza to Bang Lumpoo Canal and runs southward around 1.5km with a straight tree-lined artery, crossing Padung Krung Kasem Ring Canal. After a sudden turn crossing the bridge, the Central Boulevard runs westward together with the tree lines on the two sides. The direction of the boulevard shifted back to southward after reaching Lord Canal at Phan Bibhob-lila Bridge and it ends at the Grand Palace, known as the Inner Ratchadamnoen Boulevard1. Thus, a smooth and modern link between the royal palaces was created by this tree-lined boulevard.

Fig. 03 Map of 1925 Bangkok4.

Fig. 04 A view towards Anantasamakhom Throne Hall5.

Fig. 05 A view towards the Grand Palace6.

The tree-lined boulevard was clearly inspired by European models. It was believed that this boulevard learned from the Mall of London, where a wide artery runs directly to Buckingham Palace and the Champs-Elysees in Paris. However, according to the king’s letter7 he was particularly attracted by Italianate art and cities and the royal hired a team of Italian experts in charge of cutting this boulevard. Even the opening ceremony of this boulevard in 1907 was in western styles although in Siam there had been a royal custom of processions before.

Nevertheless, unlike the arteries in European countries which soon became public places for transportation and social activities, the boulevard here wasn’t for daily public use but for the king, which explained the reason why the name of the street means Royal Passage in Thai. Palaces, royal residences and governmental buildings were all along the street and its fifty-eight meters width was mainly for horse drawn carriages and automobiles than sidewalks8. It could be regarded as a modernization for the royal families instead for the common people. It wasn’t until the redevelopment in 1941 that this boulevard started to be actively used by the public.

References

  1. Sirikiatikul, Pinai. Remaking modern Bangkok: Urban renewal on Rajadamnern Boulevard, 1932-1957. University of London, University College London (United Kingdom), 2007.
  2. Map courtesy of Sanor Ninladej.
  3. National Archive, Bangkok. William Hunt Collection.
  4. Royal Military Survey Department, Bangkok.
  5. National Archive, Bangkok.
  6. B., Devis. The Siam Society under Five Reigns, 1989. P.52.
  7. King Chulalongkorn. Letter to Queen Saowapa during his first trip to Europe in 1897, quoted in Muang Boram 24 no.2, April-June, 1998.
  8. Smithies, Michael. Old Bangkok. Singapore:Oxford University Press, 1986. P.40.

3 Comments on “Bangkok (1932-1942) / 1.2 Pre-1932 Ratchadamnoen Boulevard—An Example of Modernization in Bangkok

  1. Thailand was another example where an Asian county imported foreign idea, thinking it would speak of modernisation internationally. Usually after a period of time, the nation will reintroduce ‘nationalism’ back into the urban fabric. Resulting in half Western and half Asian product, same condition is common in Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
    I think it is in the Asian blood that ‘culture’ is very important for each nation.

  2. It was interesting how most of the so called modernization of a country were actually imitations of the western architecture. It has somehow demonstrated how most asian countries were looking up to the western, deeming the import of westernized ideas to be prestigious. It was like the older form of the present globalization, if cities had successfully find back their own culture in modernization, may globalization be the same.

  3. The construction of Ratchadamnoen Boulevard was regarded as the symbol of modernization for Bangkok during that period.But what is quite ironic for this so-called modernization is, the use of Boulevard was not for the public, but for the king and the royal family, as you pointed out. When Haussmann conducted his new plan on Paris and constructed Boulevard for the sake of city’s ventilation and the accessibility for the army, Bangkok’s case did not try to tackle the current civic situation, which is to build the fifty-eight meters wide road mainly for horse-drawn carriages and automobiles for the King. That also shows a “modernization” as a form and imitation rather than as an idea that tries to tackle with the context with knowledge, which is quite common on the urbanization process on the history of the third world.

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