Super Ordinary

By exploring their own limits, Bangkok design firm Supermachine – led by founder Jack Chaowakul – are challenging the boundaries of modern Thai architecture

With his hectic daily schedule, I've arranged to meet Jack Chaowakul – founder of Bangkok-based architectural studio Supermachine – in a two hour gap between client meetings. We're sitting in Open House, a stylish combination of design library, high-end cafes and gourmet restaurants, full of muted shades and tones, which occupies the top floor of the city's über glamorous Central Embassy shopping mall. It is, as it soon turns out, the complete opposite of Pitupong's preferred vision of modern design.

“I generally use architecture to criticise contemporary society,” begins Chaowakul. “Take for example my design for the 10 Cal Tower.” A good place to start, this rather ingenious design for a playground in the small town of Bangsaen, some 100 kilometres south of Bangkok, saw Supermachine win the 2015 Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award. The name comes from the calories you burn climbing to the top.

A tribute to the gravity-defying drawings of M.C. Escher, this 8.5 metre-high, rusty-red concrete staircase variously twists and turns, encouraging children and adults alike to explore. Importantly, it also provides them with opportunities to meet. “In cities like Bangkok, we most often meet friends in shopping malls – as we are doing now,” remarks Chaowakul. “When my brother takes his kids out, they go to indoor centres, where the children play while the parents watch, bored – playing on their phones.” He used the success of the 10 Cal Tower to later come up with a conceptual 50 Cal design.

Chaowakul was raised in Ubon Ratchathani, a small city in Thailand's rural northeast region known as Isaan, where his parents – both doctors – had moved from Bangkok. “My parents were very highly educated people, and they moved to Ubon for four years as part of their training. However, they liked it there so much that they ended up staying, and my mother still lives there.” After graduating from high school, he went to Bangkok to study at Chulalongkorn University’s famed Faculty of Architecture, then later enrolled for a master’s at the Berlage Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam, which is where he says he first learned to be 'super critical' of the design world.

He brought this direct approach back to Thailand, where he has challenged ideas and preconceptions ever since, while simultaneously shining a spotlight on the 'super ordinary', as he explained in his low-key 2014 TEDx Talk, the 'Beauty of Banality'.

“I'm just a guy from Ubon, who loves ordinary things and loves local life. I'm down-to-earth and into nature, and I really like to travel,” he says. Every year, Chaowakul plans a holiday for his entire team of eight and it is expected everyone attend. “For one work trip, I took the whole office to Nepal and we trekked to the Annapurna Base Camp. Next time I want to go to Everest!” Another year they headed to Europe to see “Museum after museum after museum” and examined the works of Le Corbusier.

“At Supermachine, we're more like a family than co-workers,” explains Chaowakul. “On any day, I'm their boss, father and brother. I like to educate and challenge my team, give them responsibility, and show them that they're capable of anything.” To be super ordinary, you might say. “Through our work we hope that we demonstrate the extraordinary qualities of space and design – but through work by ordinary people.”