thai pavilion at the venice biennale studies the shared architecture of elephants and humans

May 17, 2021

at the 2021 venice architecture biennale, the thai pavilion explores what architecture can learn from the relationship between elephants and the kuy people — an ethnic group in thailand’s tha tum district. ‘changes have affected their villages of people and elephants over the centuries,’ the curatorial team, led by apiradee kasemsook, shares with designboom. ‘what never changes with time, however, is the inseparable bond between the two.’ the pavilion’s exhibitor is boonserm premthada, the architect responsible for designing ‘elephant world’ — a government funded initiative that includes a museum, a flexible events and recreation space, and an observation tower. the complex provides a source of stable income for the kuy people as well as the region’s elephants.

over time, with deforestation happening at an increasing pace, many elephants in thailand have been left without necessary sustenance. these animals are often forced to wander in tourist cities or labor in forest camps until they fall ill and die. however, boonserm premthada says that the complex, which is located in the tha tum district, is not for people to lament the past, but rather a place where local people can take pride in their culture, while educating others about their history and traditions. the architect says that teaching people and animals to ‘coexist with love’ is the project’s overarching message — a sentiment particularly fitting for the biennale, given its theme: how will we live together?

the exhibition at the thai pavilion — appropriately titled ‘elephant’ — asks, in an age of conflict, what can be learned from tha tum, where humans and elephants have lived side by side for centuries. ‘the architecture in tha tum is elementary but is embedded with much consideration for one another, as elephants are considered members of the household,’ the curatorial team tells designboom.

‘a typical house is one where a generous section is dedicated to elephants,’ the team continues. ‘a man needs a shading structure, so there is one for an elephant, too. there is a shrine related to their lives with elephants. a house shall never cast its shadow onto the shadows of the shrine, and vice versa. and when one leaves another, there is a graveyard for the kuy; and their companions rest in another graveyard nearby.’

the pavilion’s focal point is an installation, designed by boonserm premthada, that is inspired by the simple but considered structures found in northeast thailand. representing the living quarters of both humans and elephants, the installation comprises two levels: a lower level for humans, and an elevated structure that references the region’s elephant houses.

image by spaceshift studio

constructed inside the arsenale’s sale d’armi building, using materials sourced locally in italy, the two parts of the timber installation (shown below) are integrated to provide mutual support for each other. meanwhile, the large sloping roof acts as a screen onto which the team’s research and the life of its ‘twin’ pavilion in tha tum is projected.

earlier this year, the team behind the pavilion — which includes a wide range of builders, carpenters, and bricklayers — completed a ‘twin’ project in tha tum. with its opening coinciding with thailand’s national elephant day, the structure mirrors the one in venice — albeit at a larger scale. ‘we think there’s much for architects to learn from non-architects,’ says the team, a belief that will be reflected in the pavilion and its presentation. the exhibition will question what parties should be involved in a project’s construction — just people, or animals as well?

the installation is accompanied by an instagram page, which, over the past months, has been sharing stories from some of the people involved in the exhibition and the curator’s research. for example, the community has been coming up with different ways to make ‘living together’ more sustainable. an elephant consumes a large amount of food, and, with more than 200 elephants in the community, tonnes of elephant dung are produced each day. as this dung is full of fiber, the community is turning the waste into paper that can be used for a variety of purposes. ‘can architecture learn from this outlook on how we deal with materials?’ questions the team.

‘with two pavilions running parallel, the thai pavilion for the venice biennale believes that venice or tha tum, human or elephant, can all learn from one another,’ the team concludes. ‘whatever the future brings, the kuy villages may serve as a microcosm of how to live together — even for different scales and species. and their modest house will remind us that our future buildings shall too strive to embrace those different to us.’ the 2021 venice architecture biennale remains on view until november 21, 2021. see designboom’s ongoing coverage of the event here.

an ‘elephant house’ in northeast thailand | image by bangkok project studio

the installation at the 2021 venice biennaleimage by fulvio toso / kanokwan luengsrichai / spaceshift studio

the installation at the 2021 venice biennaleimage by fulvio toso / kanokwan luengsrichai / spaceshift studio

the installation at the 2021 venice biennaleimage by fulvio toso / kanokwan luengsrichai / spaceshift studio

the installation at the 2021 venice biennaleimage by fulvio toso / kanokwan luengsrichai / spaceshift studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

detail of the pavilion constructed in surin, thailand image by bangkok project studio

location image by bangkok project studio

site plan image by bangkok project studio

examples of the structures in the region image by bangkok project studio

project info:

name: elephant location: arsenale, venice event: 17th international architecture exhibition / venice architecture biennale 2021

commissioners: office of contemporary art and culture (OCAC), ministry of culture; association of siamese architects under royal patronage (ASA) curator: apiradee kasemsook assistant curators: nawan yudhanahas; salila trakulvech; sompoom tangchupong exhibitor: boonserm premthada advisors: vimolluck chuchat, OCAC; suvimol vimolkanjana, OCAC; ajaphol dusitnanond, ASA; chana sampalung, ASA; chutayaves sinthuphan, ASA with the support of: contemporary art promotion fund; lighting and equipment public company (L&E); SCG cement – building materials acknowledgments: andrea marcon, honorary consul general; kanokwan luengsrichai; fulvio toso photography: spaceshift studio; bangkok project studio