The authentic vernacular and classical
creations of Ong-ard Satrabhandhu stand as vigorous,
if lone, way signs to a civilized future.
ONG-ARD HAS FOCUSED HIS SEARCH FOR THE AUTHENTIC in the vernacular and classical language of the sophisticated works found in such diverse places as Italy and China, Nepal and India. In Italy, he has visited all of the villas of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) — looking, drawing, and measuring — to try to understand their mysterious, enduring attraction. Palladio’s architecture is a source of interest for many reasons not the least of which is that he worked in a very methodical way. Like Palladio, Ong-ard has drawn from the classical architecture of the past to derive a set of components that can be used in different combinations for different projects and clients. (All of Palladio’s villas employ a code of proportional relationships, derived in part from the architecture of ancient Rome.) Incidentally, Colin Rowe — Ong-ard’s esteemed professor at Cornell — wrote the well-known treatise “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” (1947), a text that discusses architectural and organizational similarities in the works of Palladio and Le Corbusier.
Ong-ard is a disciplined and careful designer who has transcended any hint of formula through his sensitivity to scale and proportion and by an innate and inventive compositional skill, an aspect of design that is basically intuitive. The courtyard and the deep sheltering overhangs seen in Thailand and the classicizing fronts of villas of the Veneto in the north of Italy are used repeatedly by Ong-ard and Palladio respectively, and never seem formulaic. It is difficult to both delicately balance a respect for the past and the demands of a new architecture and infuse a place with sentiment but not cross the line into sentimentality. Perhaps it is the handling of light, the atmosphere of repose, the subtle understatement, the fascination with and rigorous use of proportion and scale, and the tactile celebration of the materials that transcend issues of style and taste.
Ong-ard has also traveled in China to study family and religious buildings, especially the beautiful mid seventeenth-century wang family compound in Jingsheng, which coincidently dates from almost the same time as Palladio. The architect’s travels in Italy and China and his thoughtful appraisals have linked two strikingly different architectures that had previously not been compared.
Ong-ard’s work, however, is not related to only these influences. He is deeply aware, too, of the local architecture and its picturesque tradition so well known to visitors of Thailand, especially Chiang Mai and the northern provinces. His work in fact has helped bring recognition to the plight of traditional Lanna buildings and temples whose steeply pitched and repeated room forms are so characteristic of the vernacular architecture for which he has been a defender and advocate for preservation.
But it would be a mistake to consider these works only through the lens of preservation and style. Ong-ard’s research and study of other works from a broad and inclusive list of sources is concerned with design principles, not just visual effects. it was his early inspiration, le corbusier, who advised in his “Three reminders to Architects”: The plan is the generator — and Ong-ard has not forgotten this principle. Particularly for him the influence of the chinese vernacular dwellings with their remarkable plans, such as the courtyard houses in Beijing, are almost the most important formal precedents to Ong-ard as they ground his work culturally as well as organizationally. The architectural promenade mentioned so frequently by Le Corbusier is of primary concern, so that the result of this design principle is a rich spatial experience, which is deeply resonant with traditional architecture and with the aspirations of modernity.
WHAT ONG-ARD DISCOVERED through his research — using drawing and photography, techniques that are almost entirely visual and not just historical or especially academic—is that certain attributes of clarity, modesty, proportion, scale, and repeated building elements are shared by most of his sources of inspiration. In other words what this quiet, talented architect found in these examples and seeks in his own work are attributes that seem to render the ego of the architect almost invisible or anonymous as if the works emerged almost without effort, from their place and situation. Such effortlessness was known in Italy, in the day of Palladio, as Sprezzatura, making the difficult seem easy.
One might ask what forces have directed the search in Ong-ard’s nearly one-half century of investigation and discovery. The early works of strict modernism, as well as the middle works of formal and stylistic experiments, were abandoned for an expression that seems new and old, traditional and modern, conservative but radical. The return to basic principles, to an architecture of modesty and self-effacement is strangely compelling to the visitor. Compelling in its familiarity — but a familiarity that seems strange and experimental. There is also an overriding refinement of material, form, detail, and feeling. understated, the works are still oddly forceful in their restraint in part because of the way decisions have been orchestrated and realized.
What ong-ard Satrabhandhu’s architecture achieves is a nearly seamless bridge between tradition and invention. Time thus is paused in these works, which seem to hover between past and present. one is reminded of the “still point in a turning world” meditation drawn by the poet T.S. Eliot in his poem “Burnt Norton” of 1935: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past. / … except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
Errol Barron, FAIA
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- Forum, Academic Assemblage, 1971