“If I were to die, I would want to be remembered. Death is common and natural. What we do when we alive makes life counts. It is the most important thing to value ourselves until we reach the end of life and realize its true meaning”
Khun Duang – Duangrit Bunnag, a well-known architect, quotes the above statement. Most of his juniors prefer calling him ‘Pi” to ‘Khun’ due to a respect for his true identity, his (different) thought and his (to the point) talk. Many people share the same thought as his yet hesitate to speak out. He is the one and only who does everything based on the realistic context, gets recognition and being accepted by 1/3 of the people on this planet.
Google may provide information about him that everyone is well aware. He is a great architect who has 24 hours just like everybody else and decided to spend them wisely from doing multiple things. He is the owner of Duanrit Buunag Co, Ltd and manages more than 16 businesses such as hotel, coffee shops, restaurants, fashion line, publishing as well as the owner of the most chic location on Chaopraya River, the Jam Factory, where we are allowed to sit down for an exclusive interview and learn his experiences.
There are many definitions of a (Thai) architect, we are also curious to know his definition of an architect. He answers half-jokingly with a cheerful laughter, “Survival” and utterly explains, “For an occupation perspective, there is a funny limitation in Thai culture about respect which you may call it an unfortunate because Thai architects are not allowed to talk about themselves, present or market their work and whoever tries to do so will be disapproved. This is the main reason many great Thai architects work on their career silently. I myself have been fighting off envy for over 30 years. I was banned because there were people who did not want to see me get better and become more successful. It is the cronyism. It is the ugly truth that discourages many great architects. This is why the growth rate of architecture occupation in Thailand is much lower and slower than our neighboring countries.”
What is the direction of Thai architects going forward?
There are many young Thai architects who get recognized internationally these days. Foreigners start to know more about our architects and accept our work. It is a good sign and a good vibe. It gives us hope. What they have to do next is to step out of their comfort zone, be sure to communicate very well with mass media before initiating a communication with the public. They need to make public understand what they think or make people realize what they can do or offer to Thai society and Thai people in general.
For an example, they need to question what Thai people would benefit from building another high-rise building or it only benefits the project owner who pays them while local people and community do not gain anything from it. It depends on how they would like to treat and honor their occupation. The next generation of architects should decide between monetary compensation and the public interest. In my opinion, our words do not really mean anything whenever we speak up and nobody seems to listen.
In my previous years, I choose to speak in the seminar that covers the topics I was interested in. For instance, creativity matters. We have been doing a research on this topic for over 20 years about how to promote creativity in Thai people within 5-10 minutes. I would like to see Thais with creative minds like Steve Job because I strongly believe that it will promote the country economy. I began to speak and help Thais become good observers by searching for new possibility from an existing situation. This sentence is my ultimate goal. I would like Thais to be quick in being creative.
A lot of people may, however, be looking for new ideas. I can guarantee that it is not going to be found. They are chasing for long lost things. In fact, we need to do the opposite. We just need to question if there is any possibility rather than asking what is the new idea. Most importantly, we need to be sure a context to support what we are looking for. The mechanism of being creative is just that simple. We need to design all of the known contexts.
The difference and similarity between an executive vs an architect
They are both the same thing to me. I am working as if I am playing. I cannot tell whether I am relaxing or working because I feel that both are the same. I am happy while I am working and I could be tense while I am relaxing. I cannot really tell for sure. They are all mixed up (laugh). I do use the architect’s skill sets in management. Many times I have to use the executive’s skill sets whenever I wear the architect’s hat. Both of these roles are indistinguishable in my opinion.
Currently, I have 16 companies under my belt and none is architectural-related business except for one, Duangrit Bunnag Company. Remainders are the restaurant, coffee house, bookstore, fashion, printing house, media, and hotel. I do not separate my time but would rather manage all of them at the same time. One minute I can be an architect, the next I can be an executive and many times I have to wear both hats simultaneously (laugh) so I do not really know the difference between these two.
The main problem with having too many businesses is cash flow. We just have to go search for the new fund or look for new investors. Building a business is not as difficult but day-to-day operation and keep it moving forward are. I love solving problems so I enjoy fixing the challenges that thrown my way and am willing to be suffering doing that. If you ever asked where did I get this idea from, it would have been a saying of ‘life is about fixing bigger problems’. So I feel the challenges and do not hesitate to take them on. Many times they come with pain, sorrow and immense suffering before I can overcome those difficulties but they all make us stronger and better.
This is also my focal motivation when I decided to launch Duangrit Bunnag Company in 1998. The company once closed down due to an economic problem. I started to relaunch it with a crazy idea that it was the worst of the worst at the time so there should not be any worst (laugh). My company took on very small scale project of 30,000 baht back then. I did not overthink or felt bad for accepting a small project. Later down the road, we hardly take on small projects. Not because we hate them but we have much more staff. The fee received does not help cover the overhead cost so we have to decline the opportunity for these small projects.
I cannot tell exactly because I love every piece of my work. But my well-known projects that were granted the awards are The Naka Phuket and Costa Lanta in Krabi. Most of my work is the hotel design. The reason I got an award was it turned out great and answered the market needs. It was all referral when hotel guests knew that it was my design. It has pushed my work to become one of the best in the country. Somehow there were no new clients though but knowing that my work got noticed and accepted. I usually have different thought process for every piece of my work which depends on the situation and surrounding context. I will connect them all to achieve the results. My design is somewhat like jazz music. It is never the same regardless of how often the music is played.
Most importantly, I do not use inspiration in my design because the context of our thought process will usually drive the work and the end results will finally show up. I think it is wrong for those who use the inspiration to drive their design. Inspiration does not exist in my book. We all would have been starved to death if we were waiting for inspiration before we can get to work. For this reason, I do not have my signature design. Every time I try my best and think there is no other way out, there is always one out there. It is called paradox in English. Your signature work will show when you do it naturally without adding too many elements. I hear people tell me that sometimes my work looks like a box while sometimes it looks like a well-balanced design of Yin and Yang, a combination of flexibility and inflexibility. I do notice that as well but it was not at all my intention. I keep changing from the arch to the square shape and many others. Let’s put it this way. You would not be wearing the same outfit every day, would you? (smile)
Your design secret weapon
(laugh) I have none. Before I start designing anything, I will check all of the possibility and context including but not limited to functionality, material, location. I will be sure everyone on my team understands and see the big picture then we will start working on scoping down by asking everyone the possibility they may have seen or noticed. It must have been a tangible possibility as well. When everyone is excited and on the same page, we will begin to sketch.
What do you need most at the moment?
Money (laugh). I need money to pay my staff and rent. I do not want to be rich. Just enough money to survive. There are many staff under my wings. Our fashion line started because I have a staff who is very talented and I love to support her. So I decided to invest and create a brand for her and the products sell. Everything I am doing is all about people around me. My intention is to have money to support these people who work with and for me. I personally do not need much. Actually, I am happy with what I have now and I am also happy knowing that my staff have a better life, have enough money to support their family and children.
Why do you support the talents?Is there any other way around? Everybody dies. The fact is how we prefer to die. If we died with 200 million baht in the bank, this money will be shared among those who live. People will forget you by just a blink of an eye and you have nothing left. But if you build a team of talented people, says 10-20 or 100 people and they all have a better life because of you. Are you a legend? If you want to die as a legend, it should involve helping someone else, somebody who is not related to you.
You will need to make a difference in human life and you will be remembered when your last day comes. I want to die as a legend so I do not hesitate to do so as much as I possibly can. I do not care how many lives I help. It could be hundreds, thousands or hundred thousands of life I want to be sure that when I die, people will remember and talk about my good deeds. It is not for my own sake but for the sake of my family. Knowing what I do will affect my descendants after I die is called a value in our life. It is everyone’s responsibility to make a difference in other people’s life. This is the ultimate meaning of one’s life.
Awards and conclusions of the previous and current generations of the architect
The generation before me is not interesting but the ones after my generation are because they don’t envy each other. They support one another without jealousy. They encourage an open discussion, solve any disagreement, no cronyism and continue to work together. But the generation before my time, on a contrary, does not have any sportsmanship.
Your key success
Patience and the art of letting go (swift response). I am the most stubborn person you have ever known. I do not care for any harsh words and will pretty much just let it go. I will keep doing until I achieve the results. This works for any occupation. Just keep doing until you are the only one standing when others have given up. For an example, my seniors did not like me and always discouraged me. How do you live with discouragement? Keep working is the answer. I did not have much in life because of poverty. No money, no work, and no return. Giving up is never in my head. I had to work hard to get some money for food. I kept telling myself that I would keep doing until the end of the road regardless of how bad the obstacles are.
The qualification of being successful is poverty. You must be poor first and you will develop some patience and no looking back attitude. You have to fight it off because you have no choice. Get rid of all personal emotions as much as you can. No one creates these feelings but us. They do not exist too. I think it is very nonsense. You may think all of the dramas add some spices to your life but in terms of work life, these dramas cannot help anything but sabotaging yourself. Instead, you should deal with the current situations. I am not a positive thinker but a realist. When we see any issues with realistic attitude, we see the truth. Neither positive nor negative. I am an anti-positive thinking because I believe that you must have had a negative mindset as a background before you tell yourself to think positively. Most of the failures come from spending too much time criticizing or thinking without any actions.
What is the role of an architect for a society?
It is not about being an architect. You can be somebody in the society. If your society does not work, you will fail as we. For instance, the whole country is poor including yourself but you are the only one who listens to other people’s story, you have a very high chance to survive.
When I make any political comments and believe I should speak up, I will do so because I know a lot of people and the society will benefit from my talk. If everything in the society fails and everyone decides to keep quiet, this will definitely deteriorate our country’s development. Importantly, I do not speak up to support my own or personal belief. I only speak up when it involves the benefits of the majority of people or when I know for sure that Thailand will lose the benefit to other countries. I do not comment on individuals. I do not care how good or bad these politicians are. But I am ready to speak against that person when the decision affects the country’s benefit. So do you. Everyone should stand up and speak up for the sake of the whole country. This is way more proud that being an architect.”