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Reinventing the playground: Supermachine Studio's 10 Cal Tower in Thailand

AR_EA 2015 Winner

AR_EA 2015 Winner

Drive 100 kilometres or so south of Bangkok and you reach Bangsaen Beach in Chonburi Province, a getaway spot  which has been a favourite with Thais for decades. At the weekend, it’s crowded with visitors, typically from the provinces, here to enjoy an affordable beach holiday. During the week, Bangsaen is a sleepier sort of town, especially in the public park at the south end of the beach where the local government enlarged the seaside promenade and concrete piazza to accommodate weekend visitors.

‘Everything about the Labyrinth, or 10 Cal Tower – so named for the average amount of energy you’ll expend walking around the staircase – is playful’

But last year something changed. A red concrete staircase tower was built at the end of this beachfront location – and it has had a striking effect. Stand and watch for a while, and you’ll notice the impact of this béton brut structure. You’ll see groups of people having lunch together on the lawn under its shade. You’ll see others using the tower as an easy-to-memorise meeting point for morning exercise, a chat or a stroll. You’ll see people go up to explore and come down laughing. In the evening, it’s a favourite place for couples to watch the sunset together. You can lose yourself in its pathways, just for a bit. It is a structure which has been taken up by the community, and one which is comfortable in its context.

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Supermachine studio’s vertical playground

Everything about the Labyrinth, or 10 Cal Tower – so named for the average amount of energy you’ll expend walking around the staircase – is playful. The vertical concrete labyrinthine staircase (it’s 8.5 metres high) has carried the idea of play upwards and outwards – reimagining a ‘playground’ as a ‘play-about’, or perhaps a ‘play-through’. It is meant for all people to explore, with the hope that it will strengthen relationships as they do so. It’s a refreshing alternative to a conventional recreation facility.

Site plan

Site plan of the Labyrinth

The staircase has been created by Supermachine Studio: a young, fun and energetic team of architects from Bangkok headed by Pitupong Chaowakul with his multi-skilled crew Sujinda Khawkam, Kasidis Peuktes and Mint Mintly. Considerable technical and material support has been provided by the project owner, Siam Cement Group (SCG), the biggest construction material manufacturer in Thailand, and the collaboration between architectural practice and cement firm marks the occasion of SCG’s 100-year anniversary. (As part of a broader community architecture project celebrating this milestone, SCG has also invited two other renowned Thai practices to submit public facility designs for Bangsaen Beach. DBALP has been commissioned to design a library, while the Department of Architecture will design a multi-purpose pavilion. For travellers who love architecture, Bangsaen Beach is an interesting new destination.)

‘To create the Labyrinth, Supermachine began the design process by considering a central question: how will people live in the near future?’

Pitupong Chaowakul is a young architect who looks to capture in his designs the everyday life and banality of Thai contemporary culture. For him, it seems the purpose of architecture is not only to design something to serve the needs of a client – but to say something about changes in context too. Chaowakul founded his Supermachine Studio in 2009. He graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and gained his master’s degree from the Berlage Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In terms of critical mindset, communication, making a statement, and making things fun, Pitupong has driven Supermachine for years. He has considerable range, working on projects of different types and scale – from interior design projects such as the Bangkok University Student Lounge and Saatchi & Saatchi offices, to the annual concert event ‘Big Mountain Music Festival’, where he and Supermachine handle everything from masterplanning and lighting to stage design.

sections

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Sections through the vertical playground

To create the Labyrinth, Supermachine began the design process by considering a central question: how will people live in the near future? The practice reinterpreted the role of a playground by defining it as a meeting place among adults and children, families, friends and sweethearts rather than simply the kind of recreation facility as seen in traditional playspace design. The solution was a community play area, with the stacking concrete labyrinth offering many possibilities for people of all ages to climb or play around. The structure offers many combinations of crossing routes and circulation. It is another way to encourage people to meet each other in reality rather than just chatting virtually via computer or smartphone.

There are strong echoes of Escher’s 1953 Relativity lithograph. Indeed, Supermachin used Escher’s print to represent the idea of the tower’s complex circulation and also to make the prototype model. The challenge was to fit 10 complex paths into a compact construction site of 7.80 x 10.26m2 on the public park’s existing lawn. The main load-bearing construction is located at the middle of the tower and it holds these 10 concrete paths, which are cantilevered and widen in the air. The width of the paths varies from 0.6 to 1 metre, so when you walk along them, you might touch someone or be touched by them. A new relationship could begin.

Recently, at the 100 Model Exhibition in Bangkok’s Architects Expo 2015, Pitupong and Supermachine pushed the idea of this tower to its limit. They created a model of the ‘50 Cal Tower’, five times higher than the prototype – an urban version for a city context driven by technology and social media. Underpinning the approach is how people of different ages are changing the ways they spend time. It is easy to sit back and click on devices – but there is also an impetus from following what friends and family are doing. Daily sports and activities are tracked and shared digitally, so you may be more likely to follow others’ lead into the real world: getting outdoors, becoming more active and joining your friends. With the idea of a giant vertical playground, the architects are prompting us to move from passive observer to active participant.

plans

Second and fourth level plans

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Today, as every morning, you can see the real-world 10 Cal Tower as a big red sculpture in front of the deep blue background. But there will be soon be more green. Trees have been planted around it, and branches will be allowed to grow through the voids, encouraging people climbing up and down to explore their relationship with nature.

This is an architecture of active movement. It is architecture that can be used to enhance social interaction and engagement. In this way, the winning project shows us what architecture can be and can promote: not just linear journeys based on the most efficient route or the fastest track, but rather a delight in ebb, flow and meander. It is a place for the community to explore, meet and spend time together. There is possibility here.

10 Cal Tower

Architect: Supermachine Studio

Photographs: Wison Tungthunya

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