Temples of Consumerism
Undertaking Thailand’s Political Tactics through Bangkok Shopping Mall.

Temples of Consumerism: Undertaking Thailand’s Political Tactics through Bangkok Shopping Mall investigates the role of shopping malls as physical tools used by Thailand’s monarchy as a means of superimposing its ideologies on the citizens and perpetuating the existing system and status quo.

Temples of Consumerism subverts the role of escalators as architectural mechanisms within the shopping mall, proposing an interiorized never-ending loop of moving walkways which specifically traverse eleven existing structures in the renowned commercial district Siam-Ratchaprasong. The devotees, who end up in this walkway loop, are placed on a spiritual hierarchy regulated by the merit score system which measures them by the time and money spent within the closed system. At the exit of each mall, the devotees must offer an amount of their merit score to the actors who orchestrated these malls, an insufficient score means the expulsion from the system and exclusion from Thai society.

By using the same architectural tools that the actors / merit-makers have implemented on the citizens, the escalator loop is a metaphor for how the devotees’ have become an integral part of completing and sustaining this interdependent system between the government and the modern capitalist society that coexist with the traditional Buddhist landscape, and how Bangkok has sustained itself through the never-ending cycle of merit-making.

Temples of Consumerism has been developed with Benson Joseph at the Syracuse University School of Architecture.

KOOZ What prompted the project?

PS The project was born out of an interest in the pivotal role played by shopping malls for the Thai. As a person who grew up in Bangkok, and who spent most of his leisure time immersed within these dream-like environments, despite not particularly enjoying shopping but rather enjoying the sense of safeness and security, I was particularly engaged in the idea of undertaking further research on the architectural design of these environments and their addictive qualities.

In the Summer of 2020, I received a traveling grant from The SOURCE at Syracuse University to travel back to Bangkok and conduct my research on malls. As a point of departure, I started looking into the Crown Property Bureau, a quasi-government agency that manages the properties of the King of Thailand whilst also owning most of the land of inner Bangkok. Through the research undertaken at the National Archive and the National Library of Thailand, it was soon evident that the monarchy plays an instrumental role in the emergence of these structures as it both socially and economically profits from the construction of these leisurely amusement parks and their ultimately pleasing and entertaining qualities for the middle class.

That same summer, protestors occupied the streets of Bangkok demanding the reform of the crown with the youth collectively revealing the hidden narrative of the monarchy which had been loved by the urban middle class since the reform of 1957. As the richest kingdom in the world, and by means of their wealth, the latter has extensively used their power to gain the trust of the people and exploiting this in favour of its own benefits whilst laws as “Lese-Majeste” forbid the people from criticising it. These recent protests and the sudden change in the collective opinion towards the crown, played a fundamental role in the research and our ambition of actively exploring the relationships between the malls and institutions of Kingship, Buddhism, the Nation, and private investors within the Siam-Ratchaprasong shopping district.

KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

PS Temples of Consumerism takes as a point of departure subtle acts of resistance from the realms of art and architecture and implements these as an approach to break the illusions of the dream-like aura which envelops these structures in the commercial district of Siam-Ratchaprasong in downtown Bangkok.

The project sought to raise questions that gravitate around the potential of design to cultivate a sense of individual peaceful agency within a tightly controlled network of commodities that, in this specific case, are owned and managed by the monarchy.

To date there is a parallel narrative that runs between the power behind the state and the investors behind the Siam-Ratchaprasong shopping district. Architectures as Srapathum Palace, Pathumwanaram Temple, the Royal Police Headquarter, and Royal Bangkok Sports Club are effectively hidden behind rows of gigantic malls which appear as spectacles whilst concealing the before mentioned institutions of the “merit-makers” with their investments and landholdings within the area. To this end, and by connecting all escalators in the eleven existing malls into one loop, the project seeks to create a sequence of merit-making rituals that subverts the malls’ mechanisms whilst highlighting the absurdity of the shopping district.

The satirical dystopia of the thesis is a metaphor for the hierarchical ideologies implemented through common Thai Buddhist beliefs by the governing systems, reflected in the architecture of the mall.

KOOZ How does the project explore the tradition and culture of “merit making”?

PS Temples of Consumerism explores consumption as the new act of making merit and the mall as the temple that mediates the relationship that is shared between the people who are called to service and those who are said to be touched by divine intervention.

The idea of merit-making was originally adopted from Thai Buddhist thought, as a means of supporting the new nationalist ideology when the monarchy was protecting itself from the insurgency of the Communist threat at the time of the Cold War. Merit-making is embedded in Thai culture whilst also traditionally being practiced among Thai Buddhists as a means of offering a donation with the intention of receiving the benefit of better karma in return. The more merit one makes, the higher chance that one has of reaching the upper heavenly realm within your next reincarnated life. It is a philosophical concept that governs and dictates certain attitudes of the modern Thai Buddhist population.

While merit-making is social, it also has become a modern economic act. As part of the rebranding of the monarchy as of 1957, merit-making and the idea of receiving better karma was adopted as a tool to offer people a sense of security, protection, and abundance. With the economic boom and the introduction to modern ways of life, this idea of donating money was translated into the practice of lobbying by the merit-makers transforming merit into a currency. The more money one puts into merit-making, the more merit Thai Buddhists obtain, leading to the replacement of the temples as the main public spaces of the city by shopping malls. The religious merit-making system was thus seamlessly adopted by the new capitalist economy to legitimize business acts whilst redressing capitalism as a moral choice.

The shopping malls in Siam-Ratchaprasong district are composed of regulating tactics and strategies designed to optimize this massive volume of profit-generating machines and amplify the grandeur of the merit makers through technologies like concrete, glass, air-conditioning, and escalators. Within these structures, escalators add the diagonal dimension to the experience and deny the distinction between separate compartments and floors, that are limited by the structural logic of the building and are the main regulating mechanism that have shaped shopping mall design to be as efficient as they are today.

The merit-making escalator loop implemented throughout Temples of Consumerism aims to both reveal the values and behavioral patterns of what it means to be a true Thai Buddhists in modern Bangkok, whilst speculating on how the shopping district and the city work politically and financially through the process of merit-making.

KOOZ What drew you to focus on the shopping mall as a site for this dystopian speculation?

PS As a profoundly Buddhist country which has more than 95% of Buddhist citizens, I was interested in the sense of addiction and draw to such a consumer-oriented typology by a society that should supposedly not indulge into this culture.

Since the 1990s, the emergence of shopping malls has transformed the city of Bangkok, with the largest concentration of malls situated in the shopping district of Siam-Ratchaprasong, a tourist spot which projects a modern and democratic image of Thailand to the world. The site contains eleven malls, eight shrines, commercial hotels, a temple, a palace, the police headquarters, the Royal Bangkok sports club, as well as a series of slums. The Siam Interchange Skytrain Station and the 1500 ft long skywalk bridge that connects the eleven malls onto the elevated walkway have made this site a major network node of the city.

The modern consumerist temples take the center stage as apparently secular, neutral, and non-political structures which constitute a sense of false urbanism where both commodity and spectacle are interwoven.

The system of the merit makers, specifically the monarchy, has been one of the main agents behind the construction of these malls and shrines, as the former are meant to amplify the grandeur of the crown’s extensive landholdings and financial investments. The site thus highlights the reality of the system of merit-making that has sustained the merit makers whilst their power nodes are concealed behind walls and forests, letting the modern consumerist temples take the center stage as apparently secular, neutral, and non-political structures which constitute a sense of false urbanism where both commodity and spectacle are interwoven.

The satirical dystopia of the thesis is a metaphor for the hierarchical ideologies implemented through common Thai Buddhist beliefs by the governing systems, reflected in the architecture of the mall, where the narrative of shopping at shopping malls is overlaid upon the narrative of making-merit at buddhist temples, and where ones spiritual or social status is based on one’s merit score, calculated from the money spent shopping.

The satirical exaggeration of the narrative helped us showcase how the ‘commoners’ have become an integral part in sustaining this interdependent system between government and the modern capitalist society that coexist with the traditional buddhist landscape.

KOOZ How does the project deploy narrative and architecture as tools for critical thinking?

PS The satirical exaggeration of the narrative has hopefully allowed us to shine a light on this unique condition and helped us showcase how the ‘commoners’ have now become an integral part in completing and sustaining this interdependent system between government and the modern capitalist society that coexist with the traditional buddhist landscape. Our hypothetical loop offers the opportunity to study, understand, and learn from the strategies used by these overarching systems.

For the mini exhibition for the Britton Memorial Awards Thesis Prize Competition we curated a shrine, in which we imagine the narrative where visitors are encouraged to step and kneel down on the merit-makers rug to learn more about the thesis on the pamphlets and to donate to Thai Rights Now by placing cash in the dog bowl that serves as the donation box. The snippets of drawings were printed and mounted onto small golden frames, hung on a grid as if each drawing is a commercialized item selling in mall. We eventually sold one of the drawings for $375, where all the proceeds went to Thai Rights Now. Currently, we are planning to open a pop-up store, a physical manifestation of one of the stores inside the shopping malls, comparing the narrative of circumambulation around the Buddha to shopping on an escalator loop. We have noticed that playful subversive techniques that re-crafted narratives involved with everyday banal subjects and objects offer seamless permeability of the heavy topics into everyday lived experiences, beginning with conversations among the mass public.

KOOZ What is for you the power of the architectural imaginary?

PS Lèse-majesté in Thailand forbids anyone to defame, insult, or threaten the monarch. To this end, the architectural imagination has allowed us to subtly assert a critical narrative on and around the politics of Thailand whilst researching and speculating through not predetermined and unconventional methods.

As part of the research, in May of 2021, we exhibited Plastic Crown, a garment that recreates the Thai king’s 17lb golden crown with plastic bottles. In additional to the actual crown, the video art of this piece was also projected onto the facade of The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY as part of The Living Room Conversations series, in collaboration with Urban Video Project and funded by the SOURCE Grant. By projecting the plastic crown, designed to be worn by student protestors in Thailand as a means of blurring their facial identity, onto the facade of an iconic urban building, the project sought to bridge the distance between the police brutality faced by the Thai youth and the students at Syracuse.

In December 2021, in collaboration with Boston for Thai Democracy, an organization under Thai Rights Now, we designed a protest rally at King Bhumibol Square in Cambridge which sought to raise awareness on the lese majeste law in Thailand. The event, which occurred on December 5th, coincided with the late King’s birthday and Thai Father’s Day and subverted the traditional religious adornment practice for the king by covering the King Bhumibol monument with a large gift box covered with gold leaves. Although at first glimpse the rally appeared as a gift to the monarch, the peaceful performance which followed featured 50 protestors who questioned the existence of the square whom was dedicated to an endorser of a military coup and an oppressor of free speech.

We hope to continue to undertake this research this upcoming Fall at Harvard Graduate School of Design within the master’s in design studies. In the upcoming two years, we plan to adapt the research framework of Temples of Consumerism as a template to collaborate with other students of other satellite nations in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. By virtue of a four-year long partnership and close collaboration, we have noticed many common threads between our two cultures; Benson Joseph is Haitien and I (Pin Sangkaeo) am a Thai citizen. The events and policies shared amongst these cultures are reflected in their struggle to retain independence. We are creating an opportunity to study the effect of indoctrination tactics through the built environment economically, socially and culturally using design(imagination) as a tools, method, and vignette for evolution.


Pin Sangkaeo and Benson Joseph, who call themselves (snobs), are anti-disciplinary designers and creative directors who share a (snobby) desire in doing experimental research that bridges academia to the public world within the existing infrastructures of consumer culture. (snobs) could stand for Snide and Nefarious Opposition to Basic Society, or Stupid Noisy Offensive Bullsh*t, or Sensitive and Obnoxious Bunch of Superiors, among many others.

Their (snobby) work has employed, deployed and observed subversive measures to achieve an acute understanding and manipulation of existing modes of production, using unconventional methods for research, fabrication and peer reviews to expand the range of possible and undefined mediums as essential tools to subtly subvert established power structures and pedagogical order. (snobs) have taken on several independent and collaborative (snobby) projects using various mediums which have included public intervention, exhibition design, sculptural installation, set design, graphic design, collage art, video art and symposiums. They received Bachelor of Architecture from Syracuse University and are pursuing Master in Design Studies at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

29 Jun 2022
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