Highlights from the Inaugural Conservation Carpentry Fair 2023

Chairat Chongvattanakij

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In the spacious woodshop of RMUTT’s Faculty of Architecture, Japanese master carpenter Yoji Hashizume demonstrated the intricate craft of wood joinery to riveted attendees of the inaugural Conservation Carpentry Fair 2023 (CCF 2023), hosted by UNESCO and RMUTT from February 9th to 12th. 

Asked if he was working according to notated plans, Mr. Hashizume simply replied, “It’s all in my head.”

Such is the virtuosic display of the craftsperson’s practical wisdom, whereby intangible values inculcated through years of training and accumulated experience are given physical expression through adept application of the requisite materials, tools and techniques.

Transmitting an ancient craft

Woodworking demonstration by Mr. Yoji Hashizume
Woodworking demonstration by Mr. Yoji Hashizume. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

That this demonstration should engender such admiration is a testament to the general underappreciation of what Mr. Suntan Viengsima, building designer and advisor at RMUTT’s Faculty of Architecture, described as the subtle “poetry” of woodworking. In an extreme case, Mr. Hla Thaung, an expert carpenter from Myanmar, lamented that a climate of political instability is proving fatal to conservation efforts in Myanmar, where wood is the main construction material of built heritage. 

Meanwhile, in a rapidly aging, technologically advanced nation like Japan, Mr. Hashizume explains that woodworking is now mostly automated, and machines can even cut wood in ways that human carpenters cannot. Moreover, Mr. Suntan concurred with his international colleagues that, today, carpentry is often perceived to be a precarious and materially unrewarding profession. 

How, then, can the survival and propagation of woodworking traditions be ensured?

Panel discussion on “Joinery: The Carpenter’s Poem”
Panel discussion on “Joinery: The Carpenter’s Poem.” Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

Woodwork is the soul of Thai architecture.”

Assist. Prof. Tawan Weerakul,
Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University, Thailand
Explanation of the process involved in preserving wood planks from Mrigadayavan Palace
Explanation of the process involved in preserving wood planks from Mrigadayavan Palace. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

In the Thai context, discussions about formulating a competency framework and charting future directions for the heritage woodworking profession have brought to light current gaps in the training and qualification of conservation carpenters. 

Ms. Jullada Meejul, of the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute (TPQI), encouraged training providers to deliver competency-based rather than time-based training, and to engage with all relevant stakeholders in order to better understand market demands. 

Dr. Vasu Poshyananda, of the Fine Arts Department (FAD), Thailand, commented that training should equip graduates with the means for earning a decent livelihood, and from which they could derive a sense of pride and economic stability. Furthermore, Dr. Vasu urged that heritage conservation be included in the curriculum from the first year of training, rather than treated as an arcane subject to be pursued at the graduate level after the mastery of fundamental skills. 

As Dr. Wimonrat Issarathumnoon, Associate Professor in Architecture at Chulalongkorn University, pointed out, even Master’s students in architecture might possess no command of basic terminology used in describing the anatomy of a traditional Thai house. In this regard, the model of traditional Thai timber architecture provided by Silpakorn University for exhibition at CCF 2023 merited close study.

Traditional Thai timber architecture, exhibition by Silpakorn University
Traditional Thai timber architecture, exhibition by Silpakorn University. Source: UNESCO/C. Chongvattanakij

Bottom-up heritage conservation

We all have a stake in cultural heritage.”

Mr. Suntan Viengsima, Advisor
Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT, Thailand

UNESCO has played an instrumental role in catalyzing a current paradigm shift towards reviving traditional crafts and encouraging a community-based approach in the conservation of built heritage in the Asia-Pacific region. A good example is the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation programme, which has recognized 278 noteworthy conservation projects throughout the region, including 16 from Thailand, since its inception in 2000. Among the award-winning projects from Thailand was the Mrigadayavan Palace Woodshop, in Phetchaburi, which employs local craftspeople with knowledge of traditional carpentry techniques, and which garnered an award of Special Recognition for Sustainable Development in 2021.

Panel discussion on the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

Highlighting a genuine grassroots endeavor, Assistant Professor Thip Srisakulchairak, of the Arsom Silp Institute of the Arts, Thailand, recounted that the conservation work on the Salarian Pavilion of Wat Kutao in Songkhla, which received an UNESCO Honourable Mention in its 2011 awards cycle, initially entailed immersing himself in the local community for six months for the purpose of fostering trust, and for the architect to grasp the significance of the place for its own community. He was then able to enlist the help of the community in the ensuing conservation effort, the men helping to carry out the heavy physical labor, while the women cleaned old roof tiles prior to their re-installation. Notably, even though the reuse of existing materials was necessitated by budget constraints, the practice ultimately contributed to the authenticity of the restoration work.

Documenting value, valued documentation

Old buildings must be cared for like elderly family members.”

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Woralun Boonyasurat,
Department of Thai Art, Chiang Mai University, Thailand

Although heritage conservation professionals agree that conservation interventions must, in principle, respect the integrity and authenticity of the built heritage, practical reality dictates that various constraints be considered and pragmatic solutions devised. For instance, the original material may be a type of wood that is now quite rare, and restoration with the same type of wood, while authentic, would perhaps be prohibitively expensive or even illegal. Even if traditional materials like slaked lime can be successfully employed today, contractors may understandably be hesitant to do so because the process involved would be more time consuming than using modern alternatives. 

Regardless of the decisions made concerning various materials and methodologies, experts emphasize the necessity of thorough documentation in the conservation of any built heritage. In particular, the digital tool, NAVANURAK, which was born out of a collaboration in 2022 between NECTEC and UNESCO, offers conservation professionals a promising resource for heritage documentation and knowledge management in Thailand. Moreover, as Dr. Feng Jing, Chief of Culture Unit at UNESCO Bangkok, notes, “We will also introduce a new online digital repository on timber conservation, [currently] being developed by NECTEC with UNESCO’s support.”

Even when there is no immediate plan for heritage conservation, documentation may still record and safeguard historical or sentimental value for posterity; in addition, it may be used to leverage more advanced technology in future conservation efforts. Such is the case in Pathum Thani Province, where artifacts predating the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767), have been discovered. Nevertheless, many of Pathum Thani’s oldest temples along the Chao Phraya River have already undergone modernization. 

As Assistant Professor Kitisak Witthayakomonlert, of RMUTT’s Faculty of Architecture, clarified, the Local Unit for Conservation of Natural and Cultural Environment (LUCNCE) is tasked with documenting heritage, not with keeping modernization in check. He stressed, however, that any change, whether executed in the name of preservation or modernization, cannot succeed without the blessing of the entire community. 

Sometimes, the documentation itself can also be of aesthetic value, as shown by the impressive exhibitions of measured drawings and vivid sketches by VERNADOC Thailand, and Bangkok Sketchers, at CCF 2023. It is hoped that such documentation may inspire people to see their vernacular architecture in a new light, and learn to cherish what they may previously have taken for granted.

Exhibitions by VERNADOC Thailand and Bangkok Sketchers
Exhibitions by VERNADOC Thailand and Bangkok Sketchers. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

In addition, an accompanying photo contest on “Transmitting the woodworking tradition and the carpenter’s expertise” drew 255 entries, all of which were on display at CCF 2023, thus paying visual tribute to the largely unsung craft of woodworking and the understated grandeur of Thai wooden architecture.

Professional photographers and adjudicators from RMUTT and Baan Lae Suan magazine reviewing entries submitted to the photo contest
Professional photographers and adjudicators from RMUTT and Baan Lae Suan magazine reviewing entries submitted to the photo contest. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT
Award-winning entries from the photo contest
Award-winning entries from the photo contest. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

Material of the future

Citing the global relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the growing commitment towards carbon neutrality among the international community, Mr. Saksit Sommanat, Dean of RMUTT’s Faculty of Architecture, envisioned a future in which sustainable forest management and advances in material science will restore wood to its former glory as the construction material of choice.

Exhibition by the Center of Excellence in Wood Science and Engineering, Walailak University
Exhibition by the Center of Excellence in Wood Science and Engineering, Walailak University. Source: Faculty of Architecture, RMUTT

As a lightweight natural material that affords good thermal and acoustic insulation, wood not only serves in its original form as a carbon sink, but research indicates that it also contributes to the emotional well-being of building occupants, as noted by Dr. Pannipa Chaowana, Researcher at the School of Engineering and Technology, Walailak University, Thailand. The use of engineered wood products has even made possible such remarkable mass timber edifices as the 18-storey Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal, Norway, and the 25-storey Ascent MKE Building, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States. In the spirit of such successes, the future trajectory of the carpentry profession would seem to be soaring skywards. 

Speaking at CCF 2023, Dr. Feng Jing, Chief of the Culture Unit at UNESCO Bangkok, remarked, “I hope that this event will provide the chance to reflect upon our past achievements and the knowledge that has been built up. At the same time, I hope that we can also network and creatively identify new priorities for our future efforts together.”

Jointly organized by UNESCO and RMUTT’s Faculty of Architecture, with the support of the SCG Foundation, the Conservation Carpentry Fair 2023 was the first event of its kind in Thailand, featuring panel discussions with heritage conservation experts, workshops with carpenters hailing from three different nations, a photo contest adjudicated by professional photographers, and exhibitions by RMUTT, Silpakorn University, Walailak University, NECTEC, UNESCO, Bangkok Sketchers and VERNADOC Thailand.

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Chairat Chongvattanakij

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