Saturday, January 30, 2010



Ayutthaya (full name Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, "impenetrable city” พระนครศรีอยุธยา) was the capital of the kingdom of Siam, the name under which Thailand was known in ancient times.

Location of Ayutthaya in Thailand.

It was a splendid city, founded in 1350 by King U-Thong, who arrived to this place trying to escape the pest epidemic in China. Erected in the conjunction of three rivers, Ayutthaya soon became one of the major cities in Asia, with its magnificent Buddhist temples and gorgeous palaces .

After 400 years of glory Ayutthaya was invaded by armies from Burma (now also known as Mynamar) in 1767, who burned, looted and devastated the city, leaving it in ruins and destroyed many of its literary and artistic jewels. The capital of Siam was in the following moved to Bangkok, and a lot of the remains of the old city to museums.

Ayutthaya Reconstructions of Ayutthaya
3D images courtesy of Osmosis and the University of Melbourne, Australia


The layout and location of Ayutthaya were closely linked to water. It was built in an island, in the delta of three rivers. Additionally, canals were built to facilitate communication within the city.

Engraving of Ayutthaya in 1683 by an Italian traveler.


The ancient Siamese capital contains many remains of monuments that evoke its previous greatness, some of them will be discussed in this blog.

The term Wat used in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand refers to a temple. While the word wat literally means school, it actually refers to a Buddhist temple housing a school for monks. In everyday language it refers to any temple except for mosques.

Within the wats, we can distinguish a few types:
- Chedi, a bell-shaped structure, also called stupa where the relics of Buddha are kept.

Chedi at Wat Yai Chaimonkol
Photo C. Zeballos

- Prang, is a tower that usually culminates in a point and is richly adorned, characteristic for major temples

Prang in Wat Ratchaburana
Photo C. Zeballos

Buddhist cosmology considers Mount Meru, where the relics of Buddha are preserved, as the center of the universe. It is believed that buildings like Prangs or Chedis are attempts to replicate Mount Meru. Buddha's relics are preserved in these structures in order to prove that Buddha is the most important being in the universe, that he obtained enlightenment and showed others the path to it and therefore deserves to reside in the center of universe (Press here to see basic concepts of Buddhism)

Mahathat is the most important temple among the hundreds in Ayutthaya, and considered the center of the universe. As the center of faith it is located in the city center. Besides that it houses the relics of Buddha, Wat Mahathat was also the place where he resided as the Supreme Patriarch and the leader of the Buddhist monks.
This temple, built in 1374, originally used laterite, but was later restored with bricks.
The complex consists of over 200 Chedis, amongst which a large Prang was prominent. It collapsed 25 May 1904.

Old photo of Wat Mahathat before the main Prang collapsed.

It is believed that the temples were distributed so that the main building was located in the center and the Hall of ordinations and Viharn or Vihara (monastery) were symmetrically in front and behind the main building.

Reconstruction of Wat Mahathat.
Image courtesy of Anuwat Toenjohem

Current status of Wat Mahathat

One interesting detail of the Wat is a Buddha head, which is embraced by a tree, as if Nature would envelope him and claim him for itself. This head is currently the subject of much veneration.


It was the administrative center of the city and consisted of a set of buildings and gardens.
Each area was divided by fortifications.

Distribution of the ruins of the Royal Palace
Image Google Earth

In the center, several throne halls were located, as the monarch resided in the innermost area. In the outer part, the offices of the government could be found.

These halls, in specific, the San Petch Prasat Hall, shows a Thai like style, ie. sloping ceilings and profuse decoration. It was used for reception of foreign dignitaries and acts of coronation.

Reconstruction of San Petch Prasat Hall
Image courtesy of Anuwat Toenjohem

The royal temple was located in the outermost part.

Wat Phra Sri Sanpeth was originally constructed in 1448 as a private chapel for the king, but was renovated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It was a temple located in the administrative center of the Palais Royal. No monks resided in this temple. It solely housed a Buddha image covered in gold.

When the Burmese invaded the town, they tried to melt the gold, but ended up burning both the statue and the temple. Today a replica of the statue can be seen.

The three Chedis that compose this temple are believed to house the ashes of three important kings, likewise the relics of Buddha. The small buildings facing the Chedis served as location for small ceremonies.

Reconstruction of Wat Phra Sri Sanpeth
3D Image courtesy of Osmosis and the University of Melbourne, Australia


The Chaiwatthanaram Wat temple is the one that impressed me the most in Ayutthaya.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

It was built in 1630 and is believed to have been constructed by King Prasatthong to commemorate the victory over its neighbor Cambodia. Interestingly, its architecture is similar to that of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The distribution of the buildings was carefully planned, according to Buddhist cosmology.

Reconstruction of Wat Chaiwatthanaram.
Image courtesy Virayit Letsutvichai

Its main prang is of monumental scale. It is a structure that reaches a height of 35 m and is believed to symbolize Mount Meru. It is surrounded by minor Prangs and galleries, symbolizing cosmic mountains and oceans. More than 100 statues of Buddha, most of them beheaded, are kept in the main Prang.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Detail of Main Prang.
Photo C. Zeballos

The ruins of the ancient capital today build the Historical Park of Ayutthaya, which was recognized as World Heritage by the UNESCO in 1991.

Press here to see 360 degree views of Ayutthaya


On October 2011 the Ayutthaya area was affected by the worst flooding in decades in Thailand. I hope everything goes well soon for these kind people and for their invaluable heritage.

Photo courtesy of Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images



Thursday, January 28, 2010



The Kyoto Concert Hall is adjacent to Tadao Ando's Garden of Fine Arts. The Kyoto Concert Hall was designed by another internationally renowned Japanese figure, Arata Isozaki.

Isozaki, (1931 -) was a disciple of Kenzo Tange, a prestigious master of architecture in the 60s. Arata Isozaki has designed buildings in Asia, Europe and America, and has been a visiting professor at numerous universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Yale. His work skillfully combines the sensibility of traditional Japanese architecture with Western postmodernism, innovating in the use and juxtaposition of materials, using eclectic details and blending elements of the past with technologically sophisticated details.

The Kyoto Concert Hall is an example of his professional expertise. It is a 5-story building, planned to commemorate the 1200 anniversary of the founding of Kyoto city, opened in 1995 and since then dedicated to the dissemination of classical music, either instumental or choral.

Photo courtesy of D'Arne & Ming

The building houses two concert halls. The Main Hall, has a capacity of 1833 seats and the small hexagonal ensemble -designed for small concerts- contains 500 seats. In addition, it contains offices and large and spacious waiting rooms.

Isozaki faces the difficult task of achieving a harmonious fusion between past and present, in a city of rich historical heritage such as Kyoto. However, he does not literally copy traditional Japanese elements from the past, nor impose a strange Western architecture.

Plants of the Concert Hall

As Paul Goldberger,a critic from the New York Times, mentioned:
"the real fusion is not between cultures but between eras, between the acceptance of forms transmitted to us and those to come."

Isozaki's scheme, courtesy

Isozaki's proposal combines both styles in a series of volumes, in which the massive orthogonal concert hall is screened by the graceful arrange of curved glass screens. Their winding silhouettes result in the building's main facade, whose setback from the street creates an atrium that allows a better observation of the venue.

It is noteworthy that the building is not entered from the main facade, but from the side. As Isozaki himself recalls,

"I made the approach complex and difficult to understand spatially... the way the Hall is long, bending in various ways and then spiralling upwards. the approach to a temple in Kyoto is never straight. It bends and turns. That is the technique used to make a small place seem more extensive. I use that technique three-dimensionally, not two-dimensionally. "

At the corner, a stunning sheer volume of conical shape is placed surrounded by clear, calm water. In its first floor the cone houses a French food restaurant (I do not recommend the Japanese style crepes), which can be accessed by a bridge over the water, designed by Isozaki as a remembrance to Japan's tradition. A few blocks of natural stone limit the pool, whose rough surface contrasts with the fine finishing details of the structure.

But the main function of this great black drum is hosting the Ensemble and the ramps that lead to higher areas. Frank L. Wright had a similar idea at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Richard Meier did the same in his High Museum in Atlanta: both developed their circulations as helical ramps that allow the access to the various levels.
At the core of the black drum, the helicoid houses a geometric interior design. Its walls are not vertical, but tilted in the opposite direction to the generatrix of the cone, containing a series of twelve columns that evoke the Zodiac signs, symbols of ancient astrology. Its ceiling is a triangular net of cambered beams, while the design of the floor creates an optical illusion reminiscent of Escher's impossible perspectives.

There are large foyers, a prelude to the main hall and the Ensemble, ideal for post-concert gatherings. Here, Isozaki locates a series of suspended translucent glass partitions that protect the interior from the direct sunlight without interfering with its spectacular view of the nearby botanical garden and evoke the shoji or traditional Japanese screen made of paper and wood.

The main concert hall is a rectangular box, such as the one in the theaters in Boston or Vienna.

This space is the most exquisite one in the building, every detail in his wooden interior has been taken into account to provide comfort, lighting, acoustics during the performances.

It is sober, precise, and serene as a Japanese temple. The interior hosts an impressive organ of over 7000 tubes, which is the visual spot, perpendicular to the room's longitudinal axis.
The hexagonal Ensemble is designed for small concerts or chamber music and can accommodate 500 spectators.The entire lighting system is mounted on a triangular grid, arranged within an metallic ellipse, which Isozaki called a "stellar constellation", and it appears to float as a spacecraft on top of the stage.

Here, in brief, polyphonic chorus will execute the soft notes of a traditional Japanese song. In time, the notes of a Strauss minuet coming from the flutes will float among the fine wooden lattice slats, which so delicately and graciously adorn the lower part of the room.


Saturday, January 23, 2010



Search for "Dubai + architecture" in Google and you will find numerous fantastic projects that had given this city the reputation of an "urban Neverland". However that is not the real image you get when you visit the place. Yes, Dubai has the Burj Al Arab, the Palm Jumeirah Island, the World islands (a man-made archipelago resembling the world map), one of the most modern metro systems in the world and the Burj Dubai (or Burj Khalifa), the tallest building in the world. But is there is not any Revolving Tower, or the flower-shaped hotel or Zaha Hadid's Dancing Towers, all projects canceled or indefinitely postponed by the crisis.

Dancing Towers. Project by Zaha Hadid.

However, very little is mentioned about Dubai’s traditional architecture and the spectacular and dynamic process of modernization that the emirate has undergone in just a few decades. Even among the ones who criticize Dubai as superficial and frivolous, seem to have little interest about the emirate's vernacular architecture.

This article, therefore, aims to show some key features of the most characteristic domestic residential typology of Dubai: the wind tower, also present in other emirates such as Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and in countries like Qatar and Bahrain.


Dubai is not "a country" as is commonly mistaken, although it was similar to one until recent years. Before the 19th century it was a small village on the route between Europe and India, occasionally inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes who lived in the desert and whose economy was based on diving for pearls. The tribes were in charge of dignitaries called “emirs”, who are a sort of princes, and their domains were called “emirates”.

Dubai in 1822. Model at the Museum of Dubai.

In 1833, a clan living in Abu Dhabi decided to move and they settled in Dubai, becoming an independent emirate. Given the continuous threat from the Ottoman Turks, Dubai and other emirates signed the Treaty of Truce with the British in 1835, offering benefits in exchange for military protection and trade. In fact, in 1892 Dubai became a British protectorate.

Men drinking coffee and smoking shisha, a traditional pipe.

Local woman in traditional dress. Dubai Museum.

In 1935 the Japanese invented an artificial way to cultivate pearls (called Akoya pearls), which brought a negative impact on the economy in Dubai. Consequently, there was a greater interest to shift its economy towards international trade, by developing a major port in the Gulf.
In the 50s there were high poverty rates in Dubai. Its streets were not paved, water was scarce, the buildings did not have air conditioning and there were only two schools for girls. That situation was aggravated by a fire in 1955.

Dubai in 1950

In 1968 the British withdrew from the area leaving the Emirates as a group of principalities arguing among themselves. In 1971 Dubai decides to join another 5 emirates to form a new country, the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is Abu Dhabi (Qatar and Bahrain were also invited to join them but decided to maintain their independence). Fortunately for them, oil was discovered, a resource that completely changed the fate of this small country.

Dubai Creek in 1950

Dubai Creek today. Photo courtesy of Anton


The natural geography of the area was an estuary (a landform consisting of a penetration of the sea in the coast) or creek, which, despite its shallow depth, offered natural conditions for development of a port. Dubai Creek, was extended in the 50s to facilitate the port's functions. This creek divided the original city into two parts: Deira and Bur Dubai northeast to southwest.

Dubai Creek in 1960
Dubai Creek today

The urban pattern is organic, since there was no urban planning and the city grew spontaneously. Using Kevin Lynch’s terminology, mosques served as both symbolic and utilitarian city landmarks, present in the everyday experience of Islam, while the souq or markets were trading nodes, especially for gold and spices, As for the neighborhoods, Bastakiya housed the immigrant population from Bastak, Persia, and were those who introduced and developed the brick-made wind towers made in Dubai.


Due to the nomadic lifestyle that characterized the Bedouins in the last century and given the harsh climate and scarce resources, the architecture tended to be ephemeral. Even in the more stable settlements such as Dubai, the buildings’ lifespan was an average of only 5 years.
The houses of the original population were built in Dubai barasti style, made of dried palm leaves, called Areesh, covered in mats or panels (usually imported from Iran or Oman) and wooden poles (since there are no trees in the desert the wood was imported from India). The wooden doors were also imported from India. No nails were used.

Model of a house in barasti style. Sheik Saeed Al-Maktoum house.

Despite the simplicity of its organization, the design of the houses was very effective to deal with extreme temperatures.

These houses in this re-creation of a fishing village near the banks of Al Shindagha are very effecting in dropping down the torrid temperature.

Wind towers were built temporarily in summer and taken down during winter. Preferably the towers were located over the social area, mounted on poles planted in a square distribution. However, this type of house, despite its relatively low cost, was under continuous risk of collapsing due to fires or storms.


The Persian immigration during the 19th century, brought to Dubai new and more stable construction method , coupled with the increasing development and modernization of Dubai, leading to sedentarization.
The new techniques used underwater stone and coral. The mortars used lime deposits found in the estuary. Coral and shells were also burnt to be used as lime for plastering the walls. The sarooj was a kind of cement imported from Iran and used as waterproof material, often used in the finishing of baths. Interestingly, the stones were arranged diagonally, changing its direction alternately, forming a zigzag pattern.

Different types of wood were used for the structure, or for doors and windows. The wood was imported from the African coast (particularly from Tanzania) and India. Because the sand was not a propitious ground to support large loads, the interior walls tended to be lighter and not have a very deep foundation.


The first houses built of masonry had two stories, organized in simple layouts. One example is the house of Um Al Sheef Maljis Ghorfat that despite having been made in the 50s, was built in the style of the first houses. Just as all vernacular architecture in the Emirates, it is very simple, practical and functional, expressing their technology and designed to meet the demands of a harsh environment.

Maljis Ghorfat Um Al Sheef house

The construction is light, the mezzanines are supported by a lattice of wooden beams that support coral stones.

The interior is a unique room, with windows located on both sides and at different heights, creating cross ventilation when opened. The small circular upper holes allow warm air to escape, which tends to rise toward the ceiling of the room.

To reduce the effect of the heat, the houses were built very close together forming narrow passages (sikka) so that the high walls of buildings provide shade during much of the day.
The narrow passages are opened to small squares, where you can appreciate the volumetry of the houses, harmoniously arranged in a succession of sizes, views, levels and depths.

Spatial sequence of narrow streets and squares.

The big houses are usually organized around a courtyard, and consisted of two stories (not counting the wind towers). This arrangement increased airflow to the rooms while offering a courtyard in the desert climate, a technique used by Arabs for centuries.

At the same time, courtyards, closed galleries and the few openings to the outside are an expression of Islam, extremely private, particularly in regard to women.


The so called barajils or wind towers are the most distinctive element of the architecture in the emirates. They have a prismatic form, and they are open on all four sides forming an X.

All the towers vary in thir design, ornament and layout.

This cylindrical tower in a house in Sharjah, the emirate north of Dubai, is unique in the UAE.

The towers extract the hot air by conduction, such as a fireplace does, and produce refreshing breezes. A ventilation system is mandatory, given the high temperatures and extreme humidity of Dubai.

The typical protruding wooden beams enhance the structure's resistance and at the same time serve as scaffolding to facilitate the tower's maintenance.

Using a model of the Bukash house, Dr Anne Coles and Peter Jackson carried out computer analysis of airflow in the towers. In blue color you can see how the breeze from outside is captured and taken inside the home, even with the doors closed.In green color, the indoor air is sucked and taken out of the house.


In the 70s when the production of oil and port developed began to bring to Dubai development, many families moved into modern houses while the traditional ones were neglected, abandoned or demolished by developers.

However, from the mid-80s an effort to recover, preserve and even to rebuild Dubai-s traditional heritage is being carried out. As a result there are several buildings that have been declared monuments or areas that are recovered as monumental areas.

Moreover, and contrary to what is shown on the internet, most urban architectural developments in Dubai contain elements of vernacular architecture, and although in some cases the results are kitschy, in others there is a serious effort to try to find their own identity.

The Madinat Jumeirah Hotel (adjacent to the Burj Al Arab) and the Lake Panorama Hotel (next to the Burj Dubai) are perhaps too literal in their interpretation of Dubai’s traditional architecture, occasionally resembling historicism and nostalgia. However,, in an urban level, they use the basic layout of the traditional neighborhoods such as Bastakiya and reinterpret them, adding landscape elements such as vegetation and water. The result are fresh and visually appealing spaces.

Madinat Jumeirah Hotel

I think the reappraising of traditional architecture in the midst of the modernization of Dubai is an externalization of the character of its people. That is why it is so common to see a local man wearing his traditional white kandora while driving a Ferrari, or a local woman completely covered in black abaya, carrying a colorful Louis Vuitton purse.

Together with Mr. Abdulrahman and architect Ahmed Bukash, former owners of the splendid Bukash house (used for computer analysis), now demolished by the government to make way for property development. My eternal gratitude for their warm hospitality and generosity.