«Landscape does not have to be so controlled; it will, nature helps the landscape evolve». In conversation with Tawatchai Kobkaikit, TK studio’s founder and managing director
A forest in a densely urbanized city to counteract mankind actions
Moving in search of a better life, people across the globe have deserted traditional socio-economic systems, broken ecological bonds with nature, and flocked to urban centers. In efforts to counteract what has been done to our landscapes as a result of mankind’s actions is a forest in a densely urbanized city. Located at the eastern fringes of Bangkok, known as the forest in a concrete jungle, is a biodiverse forest around six kilometers away from Suvarnabhumi Airport; portraying the relationship between man and forest along with creating an urban ecological haven that is designed for the primary intent of instigating awareness on the environment and its detrimental factors of deforestation and educating the public on such matters. TK Studio’s founder and managing director, Tawatchai Kobkaikit explains, «when PTT came to us with this idea of wanting to create a project in an abandoned site we started thinking of it as a typical landscape project; one with several activities and services in order to promote urban forests and the idea of ‘green landscapes’. The client rejected the idea of having services nestled into the urban forest that was proposed; which was against what we have learnt for years as landscape architects. Soon after we altered the idea and tried to see what they wanted: a ‘green’ land that would grow to become an untamed forest with a building that serves introductory purposes for visitors coming in. We looked at the idea as though we were creating a church; a forest that would with time become a monument in an urbanized city, hence the name The Metro-Forest, it would grow to become one of the first of its kind in the city of Bangkok».
The relationship between urbanized centers and environmental degradation
In late 1999, the United Nations announced that more than fifty percent of the human race now lives in urbanized centers and as time progressed in order to reinforce the congested urban populations, humanity has taken resources from around the planet and intensified them in cities. While these approaches may sustain a modern city, these actions result in environmental degradation; by extracting natural resources from their indigenous areas creates deforestation and soil erosion and by placing them into cities this creates issues concerning waste disposal and water and air pollution. The population in Bangkok exceeds ten million people, for that reason it is difficult to allocate money for environmental management when basic needs are of immediate concern. Through The Metro-Forest comes a novel approach to landscape architecture that dispels the stigma of manicured and aesthetic landscapes in a city that reflects the opposite of such: man-made and impersonal. Coexisting with nature as opposed to controlling it is what is evident in the Bangkok based forest. What was once an unchecked suburban area dotted by illegal dump sites, now is a five-acre landscape of wild nature, The Metro-Forest revises the effects that cities have left on our environment such as urban heat island, urban sprawl and flood-prone developments by adopting native plant varieties. « PTT bought the piece of land years ago and wanted to create a gas station but the place was not a functioning neighborhood yet. The site in itself was on the fringe of Bangkok between an airport and the periphery of low-density housing and single detached housing projects. Like many places in Bangkok, land filling is required before having it developed, having around two to three meters of empty soil which gets with time filled with
cacti cat-tail reeds: Typha angustifolia L. and water. The land was left abandoned for years with no real fencing and as a result people discarded unwanted materials. First thing we had to tackle was clearing out all the cacti cat-tail reeds and the dumped material in order to start the site survey to know the elevations and start the typical beginnings of a project».
The Metro-Forest project and the natural wilderness of green ecologies
The project features native plant species in the forest with a skywalk of 200m at various heights above ground and up to 12 meters for the ease of access and to also minimize the disturbance of the forest as well as granting close-up views for users of the maturing canopies along the project. The visitor moves along visually from an exhibition centre to the observation tower with the forest being the linkage between these two points. Measuring up to a total of seventy-five percent natural forests, ten percent water resources and the rest being a multipurpose area and an exhibition venue. The forest constitutes to a total of around 60,000 trees of more than 279 plating species. Unlike typical landscapes of Asian culture, the Metro-Forest project emphasizes the natural wilderness of green ecologies in an attempt to reverse the trends of suburban sprawl, urban heat island and flood-prone developments through the incorporation of historically local lowland tropical tree species as well as trees of historic significance in educational and informative manner. Approximately 37,000m2 of earthwork was introduced and was topped off with 6,000m2 of planting soil, the pre-mixture organic soil consisted of three-parts topsoil, one-part raw rice husk, one-part coconut coir dust and one-part chicken manure. This soil terrain was deemed an appropriate medium for lowland species along with adopting the idea of berms and adding topography in order to create micro-ecologies which will increase the land’s richness in biodiversity. The species that were introduced were a large variety of trees ranging between fast and slow growing plants with different heights, foliage and growth periods that provide shade in order to mimic a real forest. Kobkaikit justifies, «Bangkok is a lowland and floods almost every year and at certain times of the year the salt water would intrude the rivers and small canals. Plants that are required to inhabit the land and create the forest effect that we were looking for had to be native ones and could withstand all these circumstances. Plants from the Dipterocarpus family such as Dipterocarpus alatus, Hopea odorata, Lumnitzera racemosa, Sonneratia caseolaris, and Excoecaria agallocha L. were native species that proved suitable for this kind of project. Each place is named after the existing plant habitats which are majority of that area». The commitment conveyed by the PTT Reforestation Institute to instill a large-scale public awareness of forest management and the gravity of environmental stewardship in Thailand managed to apply the project for the LEED Platinum NC. «There were three designers, an architect and myself, as well as an exhibition designer; he helped us in guiding us on what to add inside the building. Award winning Japanese botanist and expert in plant ecology, Dr. Akira Miyawaki who is also a professor at Yokohama National University, whom theory has guided us in creating an eco-forest that would require less energy to be developed for this project. We also had a LEED AP specialist for the project; to understand how to achieve the LEED certificate for not only the building but the project as a whole».
Creating communities of native, forest-like ecologies as a planting method
The planting method that was adopted for this project originated from Dr. Akira Miyawaki, constituting planting several – four to five to be more specific – density of 4 saplings/ m2 on a raised fertile berm, with good irrigation system. The installation of Miyawaki’s eco forest berm has created a unique fast growing of eco forest landscape, which has proven that this particular forest can shorten the growing time of 30 years forest to only 10 years. By grouping trees together based on their needs in terms of water, humidity and sunlight a microclimate is achieved. By means of this approach there is a decrease in the overall demand on water, less energy is needed and less employees needed to prune and maintain the forest. The native plants planted play a vital role and are derived from the native flora of Thailand and with the presence of rain, sunlight and all the natural processes that trees undergo the landscape will persevere and continue to sculpt the image of what a real forest looks like. «Landscape does not have to be so controlled; it will, in time, become attractive as it ages, nature helps the landscape evolve. As landscape architects, we studied landscapes influenced by artists and that a landscape should be aesthetic, but in truth, one should not think of controlling nature and molding it into a picturesque landscape but rather leave it as it is. This type of biodiversity landscape will be productive for human environment and other creatures. In the past we favored static-looking landscapes and having aesthetic plants regardless of the seasons». The project challenges what a typical man made landscape constitutes; Tawatchai Kobkaikit divulges, «due to the site’s small area we had to create a landscape that sort of tricked the naked eye into thinking it is a larger forest than what it is, along with PTT’s promotion a large number of visitors were attracted to explore the project. We had expected around one hundred visitors a day, but in reality, we had around one thousand people coming in everyday; around ten times more than what we had expected. Publicity and news channels following the opening also played a factor in attracting more people to the forest. For which a forest does not have to look tidy such as landscapes in the past, to show a different side to what an uncontrolled landscape would look like».
Founder and managing director of TK studio, Kobkaikit graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the Department of Landscape Architecture at Chulalongkorn University in 1991 then accomplished his Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1996. His design philosophy lies in the environmental concerns, natural processes, arts and cultures. In order to ensure the design responses well to the site, Tawatchai always conducts thorough cross-professional analysis. He works with his team to explore the design alternatives through research, using new software, hand sketches, building physical models, and sometimes even testing details with 1:1 models on site. Hence, all landscape design delivered by Tawatchai are functional, lively, and be able to co-exist with nature well.