Spaces: Edition 5

Jim Thompson's House

Bangkok, Thailand

The original main entrance from the canal, and centre of the house.

Bangkok.the epitome of the modern metropolis, and yet perfectly blended with cultural history. In the heart of this bustling city is a gathering of traditional Thai architecture and a lush jungle garden.

This is Jim Thompson’s House. 

Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson

The story of Jim Thompson is legendary, to say the least. After serving in the US armed forces during WW2, Thompson, an architect and business man, settled in Thailand. Here, his entrepreneurial spirit found an opportunity in the silk industry. Thompson invested time and effort, to authentically revive the local silk industry. He was royally awarded The Order of the White Elephant, for his services to Thailand. 

On an afternoon walk during a trip to Malaysia, Thompson disappeared. It is said that he left his cigarettes and a book he was reading on a side table on the porch of his friend/s home when he left, a sign that he intended to return. After a two week manhunt, and years later, his body has not being found.

Jim Thompson's Bangkok home layout. Watercolour by Graham Byfield

The house is located on about half an acre of land (one Rai), on the Mahanak Canal. To build his house, Thompson gathered 6 houses from different parts of the country. Each traditional teak house was dismantled and transported to Bangkok. He then hired a carpenter who rebuilt and joined the houses together, a project that finally finished in 1959.

Jim collected artifacts and pieces of art from around Southeast Asia and brought them together in his home, some of which can be seen today. Sculptures, paintings and porcelain are dotted around the house, some pieces dating as far back as the 18th century. Thompson, later on in his life, viewed his collection as more than just a personal collection, but an effort to rescue them from loss or destruction, and as a preservation of culture. 

The house is a gorgeous embodiment of Thai architecture. It stands on stilts, up to 2 meters off the ground in certain areas. This is a traditional building method in Thailand, and is done to avoid flooding during the long rainy seasons of the region. The supporting columns of the house, and in turn the walls all lean in at a slight angle. This is said to give a sense of height and grace. The roof ends are of beautiful craftsmanship are said to be inspired by serpent motifs of the era. Houses of this style were assembled, rather than built. The wall panels, floors, roof and other elements of the building were prefabricated off site and put together on site, no nails required.

Small adaptations were made to the house that served Thompson’s more western tastes, and helped with aesthetics and conveniences. Guests are greeted by black and white marble tiles (said to have come from Italy) in the entrance gallery, which is home to a sturdy wooden stairway to the main floor. Thai homes   traditionally have their stairs outside the house, a personal adjustment made to suit the Jim Thompson's western taste. All rooms are sectioned off from one another with raised thresholds; these are believed to keep evil spirits from creeping in to the house at night, and disturbing the sleep of it’s inhabitants. The raised thresholds do however serve as structural supports for the walls, and hold them firmly in their frames and keeping infants from crawling outside.

In the corner of the yard is a spirit house. These are found outside homes and businesses everywhere. It is believed that when a structure is built, the spirits that live on the grounds are disturbed. To pay respect and apologies, the spirit houses are built, and small offerings of food and drink are placed outside the spirit houses in an effort to appease the spirits.

What gives this house great appeal is it’s surroundings. Thompson was fond of lush foliage and landscaped his yard to be so. The house is surrounded by dense, jungle-like vegetation. A walk in the garden gives a sense of peace, and an escape from the noisy streets of the Bangkok. Dotted around the main house and in the garden are smaller structures that he used as offices, a painting space and a library.

Traditional Thai architecture is an amalgamation of form, function and belief. The use of wood and traditional artisan methods of building make for exquisite structures that spark a sense of awe. Although not a completely accurate benchmark for one to understand Thai architecture, Jim Thompson’s house is an excellent place to start, and a great example of how one can merge western and Thai building styles, without losing the authenticity of the latter.

The house, which is now a museum, is a must see for any travelers visiting Bangkok. Find out more about Jim Thompson, his house and his work on their website. 

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See more of Gareth Zebron's work on 500px.