An Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand Restores Nature's Balance
BY CAROLINE ROBERTS
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ELEPHANT WORLD/BANGKOK PROJECT STUDIO
For the past five decades, commercial activity has slowly devastated the forests of Surin, a province of northeast Thailand. And for the native Kui people who relied on the once-lush woodlands, that’s meant weathering extreme drought and economic hardship—as well as relocating the elephants that had lived alongside them for centuries.
Seeking to reverse the area’s march toward inhabitability, the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization built Elephant World Cultural Courtyard. Completed last year by architecture firm Bangkok Project Studio, the five-year project delivered a flexible center for 200 returning elephants that’s designed to attract and educate tourists, as well as honor the unique relationship local residents have with the animals.
For Bangkok Project Studio founder Boonserm Premthada, the goal was to create a massive facility that will “help visitors learn to coexist with animals and the environment, and teach them about empathy,” he says. “Architecture tends to be human-centered. We wanted to change that.”
—Boonserm Premthada, Bangkok Project Studio, Bangkok, Thailand
All Together Now
The project spans 8,130 square meters (87,510 square feet) and includes a flexible programming space, elephant hospital, temple, graveyard for elephants and museum dedicated to showcasing the Kui culture.
Rather than only build up, Premthada built out, designing interlocking patios and courtyards of various sizes, connected by paths of different scales. The effect blurs the boundary between indoor and outdoor, and evokes the interconnected nature of the humans and elephants that will share the space.
“Most buildings tend to focus more on the prominence of the building than the essence and depth of the project,” he says.
Likewise, Bangkok Project Studio was eager to involve stakeholders throughout the planning phase. But that was a tough task early on, as local residents had grown wary of organizations that wanted to use their name without delivering economic impact or security in return.
“In the beginning, the Kui people did not trust me,” he says. That attitude shifted not through shiny brochures and outsized promises but through face-to-face meetings with locals and sharing detailed plans to use local labor during project execution, including both Kui residents and engineering firm Evotech. The project team was also careful to highlight early and often how local resources wouldn’t be further depleted during construction.
2015: Surin Provincial Administrative Organization sponsors an initiative to design and build Elephant World Cultural Courtyard. The organization invites Bangkok Project Studio to serve as architect and project leader.
2016: The project plan is finalized.
2017: The construction phase begins.
2020: The project is completed.
More than 480,000 clay bricks were made by hand from loam in the area, an undertaking that employed dozens of local workers. In the central courtyard, excavated soil was strengthened with basalt rock and shaped into mounds that visually echo the undulating hills elephants roll on to keep cool. The basalt was mined from a village 40 minutes away, and the process of mining to groundwater level created a useful reservoir, says Premthada.
The project’s crowning visual feature is a sprawling canopy—made of 1.5-meter-thick (4.9-foot) wood panels—that soars above a large, open space used for cultural events, religious ceremonies and recreation. Concrete benches provide seating for up to 800 visitors, while concrete pots carefully situated under ventilation and irrigation openings in the roof will, over time, be filled with trees aimed at providing shade for the elephants.
The dramatic design is also intended to encourage people to capture and post photos online, driving interest in the facility through social media. “The elephants—and the architecture—attract the press and the public to the area,” he says.
founder and lead architect, Bangkok Project Studio, Bangkok, Thailand
What projects are you currently working on?
The Mangrove Learning Center with the Thai Red Cross Society, a restaurant in a rural area of Thailand and a Thailand Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Every project I work on is focused on sustainability.
How long have you worked as an architect?
It’s been 31 years. I come from a working-class background and began working during college.
How did you find your project career focus?
I graduated in Thailand and never studied abroad, which has kept my ideas pure and free from outside influence. Even now, I work in a small studio with only two other people. It’s very different from working in a big company, and I think it allows me to spend my time eyeing the future and trying to create something meaningful and positive for the next generation.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I have no spare time. I work all the time.
A robust home—combined with the capabilities to attract and host large crowds of tourists—means economic security is within reach. Still, Premthada believes this project could be merely the first step toward greater prosperity.
“This will hopefully lead to other projects in the future,” he says, such as reforestation initiatives, additional water infrastructure and potentially a manufacturing center to use elephant dung in coffee production. In the meantime, though, the steady trickle of tourists (even during the pandemic) and the surge in elephants that have been returned to the area are reasons enough to celebrate. PM