THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMOS CHANG, AN ARCHITECT BEHIND THE LONGLASTING BUILT ENVIRONMENT OF BANGKOK CHRISTIAN COLLEGE
In 1900, after nearly 50 years of having been provided western-style educational services, Bangkok Christian High School, Thailand’s oldest private school went through a relocation from the Wat Kradeejeen sub district (today’s Kudejeen district) to an extensive 6.32-acre land on Pramuan Road in Silom. Due to its relocation and the continual development of its educational qualities and standards at that time, the Ministry of Education certified its status as Siam’s first school before the name was changed to ‘Bangkok Christian College’ in 1912 following an expansion of the curriculum to encompass all levels of secondary education.
The time when M.B. Palmer was the school’s Head Master (1919-1938) was the transitional period when Bangkok Christian College was planning to expand its curriculum to encompass the university level following a policy proposed by the Presbyterian Mission in New York. In 1926, a property was prepared for the expansion with the purchase of a 31.6-acre estate in Baan Klouy (an area on Sukhumvit Road and today’s Bangkok Planetarium) being made for the construction of the university. The plan was disrupted for after the end of the Second World War, the global community entered the Cold War period that caused The Church of Christ in Thailand and its proposal to establish the university in the country to be turned down under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s administration. The rejection was made following the concern that if a private organization were allowed to establish a university, other groups of individuals with support from powerful communism countries would be able to use such ground to establish higher educational institutions in the country, which could obstruct the government’s attempt to control the political ideology of its young citizens in the future (Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram was also the appointed Dean of Chulalongkorn University at the time). Once the intention to establish the university in Thailand didn’t go as planned, the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of capital prepared by Presbyterian Mission New York was used in the improvement of Silliman University in the Philippines instead.
Decades had passed and it was during the end of the 1950s that the executive personnel of the Presbyterian Mission traveled from New York to visit the school and found the buildings to be old and outdated. The board of administration came up with the idea of selling the Baan Klouy land initially planned to be the site of the university and using the money for the construction of new school buildings on Pramuan Road. The project would involve the demolition of the old and deteriorating structures and the construction of an entirely new architectural program for the school. It didn’t take long following for Horace Ribern, the representative of the Presbyterian Mission in Bangkok to meet with Daniel M. Patterson, the organization’s treasurer and the man who introduced Linne Tholin, the veteran engineer who had been leading several prominent projects in Chicago to be the supervisor of the upcoming project in Bangkok. Architect of Chinese-descent, Amos I. T. Chang (1916-1998) was a member of the First Presbyterian Church and had been working in Thailand on other projects for a certain period of time. Chang was assigned the task of overseeing the design of the entire architectural program with Taylor M. Potter, the Head of the Architectural Department of The Church of Christ in Thailand (the department was responsible for the design of the new church of the First Presbyterian Church in Chiang Mai) serving as the project’s consultant and Alex C. Berr being named the head engineer who would be supervising the entire construction.
During the period between 1950 and 1960, Amos I. T. Chang was a considerably influential architect in both the professional and academic arenas and it is a real shame that not that many people know about his works and the ideas behind his architecture. Amos I. T. Chang was born in 1916 in a town called Puning of Guangdong province of China. He graduated from Nanking Christian High School in 1935 and later pursued his education in civil engineering at National Chung King University, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1939. Throughout the period even before and after his graduation, Chang was working as a professional engineer in China for 12 years (from 1934 to 1945). He later went on to enroll in the architectural program and obtained his master’s degree from Princeton University, the United States of America. He received his master’s and later Ph.D. in 1949 and 1952, respectively, before taking the position as an architectural professor in the master’s degree program at Princeton University between 1951 and 1952. The period from 1952 to 1967 was the time when he traveled to Thailand and stayed in the country where he worked on projects while pursuing his academic interests. Chang wrote an interesting book on architectural theory called The Tao of Architecture (1956), which was printed and released by Princeton University Press. What Amos I. T. Chang proposes in the book is his interest in what he calls the ‘Intangible Content in Architectural Form’ as he attempts to present his own view and reinterpretation of architectural practice as well as design through Lao Tzu’s philosophy taken from the book called Tao Te Ching. The concept is reflected in the design of the two new buildings of Bangkok Christian College, the M. B. Palmer Building (originally called Building 2) (1963-1965) and The Chapel (1968-1971).
If we take a closer look at the architectural program of the project, M. B. Palmer manipulated all the buildings to be in a north-south orientation while the five principle buildings (one was demolished and replaced by the Sirinart Building in 1992) resting in an east-west orientation for intake of the natural seasonal winds. In the early days of the school, the classrooms bore no walls or partitions allowing for the wind to flow through.
In the meantime, with the main building standing in this particular direction, the buildings facing towards the south and west were naturally exposed to the sun. Amos I. T. Chang came up with a solution to the problem by turning the space into a corridor that connected itself to the classrooms. Such program resulted in the corridor being naturally lit by the sunlight while its presence helped to prevent the afternoon sun from reaching the classrooms. The design of the gimmick of the façade was executed in a way that allowed for the light to interact with the form of the building’s columns and sun protection panels, consequentially creating interesting shadows on the exterior surface. Chang calls such effect Intangible Content, which plays with human’s perceptions, because to him, such psychological effects that architectural elements and programs have on users are just as important as a building’s spatial functionalities.
The void within the main building was designed into a courtyard for students to rest and relax. The proportion was configured to be in physical relation with the building’s height as well as other voids between different architectural structures in the program, following what Walter Gropius (1883-1969), a prominent architect of Modernism, proposed at 1930’s CIAM 3 conference in Brussels. The main stairway of each building was decorated with a mural painting done on a massive ceramic tile installed on the wall of the four main stairways. The paintings have Saeng-arun Ratkasikorn (1922-1979) in charge of their artistic direction and each features a different subject matter from Art and Culture to Imagination of Knowledge, Future World and Sport for Good Health, with an additional piece on the wall of the now demolished building being called ‘Creation of the World (Genesis)’.
For ‘The Chapel,’ Amos I. T. Chang materialized the design to have symbolic biblical references with a physical form that is similar to Noah’s Ark, expressing the chance of survival granted to the human race by God. The edifice can host up to 1,300-1,600 users with the main structure being designed to have a towering concrete roof whose form gradually narrows, creating interesting curved lines. The design also resonates with one of the concepts Chang proposes in The Tao of Architecture; ‘…the leaving of traces of change of the way a form is perceived, which is relatable to the concept users, who collectively experience the space, have for a particular form.” The openings are situated to be of a lower height and contribute to the brightness of the interior space, as well as the seemingly floatable interior structure, while the design conveys the biblical connotation by comparing the structure to that of Noah’s Ark. The light also creates an interesting presence of shadows on the main structure, allowing for the ‘Intangible Content’ to make Its appearance. In addition, the top of the upper roof structure is designed to have circular-shaped openings. What these circular skylights do is bring in natural light to interact with the building’s interior space. One of the interesting elements of the design is the interior sloped walkways, which was Alex C. Berr, the project’s supervising engineer’s, intention to change this particular part of the design to accommodate users with walking difficulties and wheelchairs while the ramp’s physical presence facilitates a greater spatial flow for the building’s interior space.
Apart from the buildings of Bangkok Christian College, Amos I. T. Chang also designed a number of memorable projects during his time in Thailand such as the Baptist Student Center, the Chinese Embassy and the addition of the U.S. Embassy’s building in Bangkok. Chang also worked as a visiting professor at the Faculty of Thai Architecture, Silpakorn University for a brief period at the end of the 1960s with Dr. Amos Chang Chang-itdhikul being his Thai name. His architectural ideas had a great deal of influence on university professors in Thailand back in the day with several of his articles being translated into Thai language and published in the annual journal of the Faculty of Architecture while Chang himself was invited to present his academic work at the international academic conference held in Thailand at the time.
In 1967, Amos I. T. Chang decided to return to the United States (one of the reasons was, presumably, The Architecture Profession Act, B.E. 2508 (1965) that prohibited foreign architects from working in Thailand), where he worked as a professor of architecture in the master’s degree program at Kansas State University. He passed away on Monday morning of August 3rd, 1998. After his departure, the Faculty of Architecture named one of its exhibition rooms the ‘Chang Gallery’ in honor of Amos I. T. Chang and the contributions he made to the university.
TEXT: WICHIT HORYINGSAWAD