Bangkok: How a mall was built

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.

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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.

Workers climb on the roof to pull down the main beams.

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:

The demolition work progressed quickly.

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.

Foundations layer
This machine is used to lay the foundations for the building. Here on day one, when it was not yet built up.

The machine used to thump into the ground those huge cement rods. This alone took upwards of 4 months.

This machine pushed down in the ground huge metallic rods to stabilize the foundations.

 

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.

darevils in a crane
To build the crane, workers climb without any security.

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 first cement basis provided the basis for building the other floors.

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…

 

Scaffoldings
The building process required laying a layer of reinforced concrete then building columns and pouring another layer of reinforced concrete above.

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.

Coquettish even on a construction site.

This did not mean that the work was not hard, for ladies more than anyone.

Binding
Workers unite to finish a portion of the armature.

Ladies had to carry metal rods like anyone else, sometimes better, sometimes worst than men…

Ladies on construction site
Ladies struggle with carrying metallic rods across the construction site.

Odd situations

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.

Hamac on scaffolding
A worker hangs a hamac on the scaffolding to take a rest.

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.

Playing on construction site
Two workers in flip flops play while a third is using a circular saw to cut a piece of wood.
edge
A worker stands on the edge of the building as the day draws to a close.

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.

Safety not really a concern as these workers climb on unstable rods or work directly underneath.

In some cases, a worker can be holding a metal rod with his flip-flops while another worker hammers it into place…

 

Feet in danger!
A flip-flop worker is holding a metal bar with his uncovered feet, while a fellow worker hammers by the side.

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.

Casings
The workers prepare casings where they will let the cement flow. Acrobatics in flip-flops? nothing to shudder about. Nor using soldering irons with the wire hanging in water.

Then, let us not forget about the acrobat climbing metal rods in flip-flops…

Flip-flop worker climbing
Flip-flop workers climbing metallic rods.

 

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.

Construction
Construction progressed quickly and simultaneously as can be grasped from this picture..

 

Good humor

Foreman
Foreman makes a sign to his workers as they leave the construction site

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.

Supporting columns of the building
The workers group together to bind the iron rods that will make one of the supporting columns of the building.

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.

Life in the balance
A life in the balance: the construction workers in Bangkok

Of course, even construction workers have smartphones, so these guys dismounting the crane did not miss taking some pics of the scenery.

 

Dismounting crane
Busy with dismounting the main crane, these two workers still find the time to take a picture of the environment from their high-perched observation point.

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.

Nightfall on construction site
The end of the construction nightfall

The end result

Of course, we are in Thailand, so an important part of the buildup was… installing a spirit house on the roof!

how a mall was built: Spirit house
After the Commons was almost completed, first thing they did was install 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.

 

interior of the commons
Interior arrangement at the Commons

 

The Commons
The years of dangerous work were all for this: a fancy eating place for Bangkok’s elite.

If this project interested you, please leave your comments and/or feel free to share it.

 

 

 

Mirrors and illusions

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Sometimes, you can make interesting photography in the most boring of places. Take a mall, for instance. But when you look more closely, you can sometimes take interesting photos. Photos that will bring the viewer to question his eyes in a maze of mirrors and illusions.

Ingredients for this photoshoot

The main ingredient was the place, which is the Festival Walk mall, in Kowloon Tong. The mall has the particularity of having an intricate set of escalators which are equipped with mirrors, hence providing a very interesting visual effect when photographed from above.

I originally shot this series in colors, but then transformed them into black and white, as color detracted from the original impression.

Look at this picture, for instance:

To contrast and show the different effects.

And compare it with this one:

Criss-crossing escalators and their reflections lead to a real visual vertigo.

The force of black and white

The black and white picture takes away all the confusion and the points of attachment (which in themselves could also induce another element of confusion). Look for instance at the blue bag of the lady on first escalator and the blue t-shirt of the guy below. The eye bounces between the two similar colors.

In black and white, the lines and perspectives guide our eye, alone. The picture becomes very simple to read. Intersecting lines and reflections do trouble our brain and lead us to wonder which is real, which is an illusion.

When is color relevant?

In some cases, similar pictures can still be used in color.

Here, another case where you can’t tell what is reality or reflection… Except for a slight deformation in the reflection.

Here, for example, the muted tone of the above scene (reality) is dominated by the vivid tones of the reflection. Hence leading the eye below rather than above. It is a case where illusion looks better than reality…

How to get there?

Now, this is a place which is very easy to get to. Just get down to the MTR station Kowloon Tong. A long coridoor leads straight from the MTR to the mall. For the best effect, go straight to the top.