The start of the project
This project started when I was living in Bangkok, in the posh area of Thonglor at soi 17. Just next door to my condo, in 2013, they started destroying an old house to make way for a new construction. As I had an unparalleled view from above, I decided to follow the progress of the construction. The original was to make it a sort of timelapse of the changes on the construction site, but with time, the real interest focused on the workers. Then it became the story of how a mall was built, namely “the Commons” mall in Bangkok. And more largely, a documentation of the working conditions on Thai construction sites and the workers along with the quirks and peculiarities of work in Thailand.
The hidden actors of Bangkok’s rise
Thus, the project moved towards telling the story of those workers who have made possible the fast rise of Bangkok. In a way, it is also an ethnological study of a micro-society.
It all starts with destroying
In Bangkok, in prime locations, new projects often start with destroying old buildings. The construction site of the Commons was no exception, as they destroyed an old restaurant that occupied two stories in the back of the land. Probably an inefficient use of space for such valuable land.
Of course, here most of the work was done by hand by workers with barely any protection against the hazards (no safety shoes, no helmets, if you notice the picture).
A picture of the context and the general idea of the location:
Laying the foundations
Once the old house was torn apart and the rubble taken away, started the extensive work of laying the foundations. As a reminder, Bangkok is built on a former swamp, and the land is foundering by an average of 6 cms a year (huge by geological standards!). Hence, before building the main structure, the construction company kept on driving into the ground huge cement stilts to ensure the stability of the final construction.
The machine used to thump into the ground those huge cement rods. This alone took upwards of 4 months.
Preparing the construction itself
In a second stage, the workers started preparing the infrastructure for the construction work properly said. This involved mounting a crane. On that occasion, I had the utter surprise of seeing workers climbing up in the branches of a crane without any safety gear. But this was only the start of an incredible few years witnessing how the Thai construction workers got their job done.
Once the foundations were laid, and a central cemented base was solidified, the central crane was used to lift all the heavy materials on the additional stories as they were being built.
The building process
The building process involves laying layers of reinforced concrete, building support columns with more reinforced concrete, then building another floor above, often all at the same time. A fascinating work but done with a happy-go-lucky stance and total disregard for safety. As in this picture, you can see how many workers wear a helmet…
Strangely for a construction site, a lot of ladies worked there. And despite the dust and the hard work, they never failed to try to be coquettish even on the construction site.
This did not mean that the work was not hard, for ladies more than anyone.
Ladies had to carry metal rods like anyone else, sometimes better, sometimes worst than men…
Often, this construction site offered quite quirky moments. From a lady taking a rest in a hammock hung on the scaffolding… to guys playing in flip flops on a construction site.
Probably the most striking was the total lack of regard for safety. The workers often came working with flip flops, almost never wore a helmet and played in a very relaxed manner around other workers. Like in this case.
Safety : Thai-style approach
Probably, the most concerning part of the whole work was the fact that workers seemed to be completely ignorant of elementary safety rules on a construction site. Furthermore, most of them wandered on the working place either in flip-flops or without any safety gear such as helmets or protective shoes.
In some cases, a worker can be holding a metal rod with his flip-flops while another worker hammers it into place…
The issue of electric shocks and elementary safety precautions, such as wearing shoes when climbing on tight surfaces seemed totally lost on these workers. A soldering iron was used, for example, with the wire hanging partly in water in the picture below.
Then, let us not forget about the acrobat climbing metal rods in flip-flops…
An incredible pace
Thanks to the breakneck pace and the extended hours (7 AM to 10 PM), the construction site moved very quickly, and as can be seen in this picture, where three different floors are being built simultaneously. Sometimes, this breakneck pace ends tragically, when structural issues cause a collapse of the construction.
Despite the difficult working conditions and the heat, most of these workers had a good-natured disposition, having fun when they could and often joking among them. And at the core, it had to be a teamwork.
The final stages
Towards the end of the building, the main crane was dismounted in favor of a small roof-mounted crane. In order to pour cement, the crane carried a worker who had to action the lever allowing the cement to flow.
This was the occasion for some spectacular pictures of the worker on the sunset.
Of course, even construction workers have smartphones, so these guys dismounting the crane did not miss taking some pics of the scenery.
As the construction neared its end, it was time for a nostalgic picture closing the story. Here, the building was basically completed and the roof was already installed.
The end result
Of course, we are in Thailand, so an important part of the buildup was… installing a spirit house on the roof!
I visited the Commons immediately after it was opened, and it was really remarkable to contrast the finished product with the years of work that preceded. Today, the Commons is a very posh mall and open-air restaurant. Nobody has any idea how this mall was built, nor of the efforts of the workers in building it. It is highly likely that any of the workers of the construction site will never be able to experience this mall, given its steep prices.
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