Travel Blog Part 1: Bangkok

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On first impression, driving down the highway into the city from the airport, Bangkok is impressively large and modern. The city rises up like New York, but also sprawls out like Los Angeles, seemingly forever. Bangkok is a port city of more than eight million, with the city proper occupying some 300 square miles along the Chao Phraya River delta.  Its metro region now sprawls unevenly into six adjacent provinces, comprising 14 million people – almost a quarter of the country’s population. The city’s economy is strong, as it is a major Southeast Asian banking, business, and health care center.


Khao San Road

It’s also one of the top tourist destinations in the world, attracting visitors from around the world to its ubiquitous shopping – with more than a half dozen multistory malls and surface markets like Chatuchak that extend over several city blocks.

There are so many different areas to explore, all buzzing with activity. And of course there is the city’s extensive nightlife; relatively unrestricted and somewhat renowned red-light districts; rich history and beautiful culture.  The city is still developing like crazy, with high-rise office and residential towers going up chock-a-block with small, exquisite temples, and ever more in-city malls offering luxury goods, on streets lined with tiny food stalls and vendors providing everything from kitchen hardware to clothes.

And, of course, another draw of Bangkok is the fantastic variety and quality of food; from street food to fine dining this city offers every different type of cuisine at a range of qualities for generally affordable prices. I’m a big fan of street food when it’s done right, and Bangkok has no shortage of it. From sweets like mango with sticky rice, to satay sticks, to classics like Pad Thai, it’s nice to be able eat deliciously and cheaply some days.


Wat Arun

It is worth spending a good day or two to visit some of the historic and cultural monuments of the city. Wat Arun, built on the bank of the Chao Praya River, is a beautiful Buddhist temple, with a towering “prang,” or spire, in the center. It’s ornately decorated with shards of colorful porcelain, reminiscent of Gaudi or the Watts Towers, but obviously markedly different architecturally. The stairs that lead up to the top of the spire are some of the steepest stairs I have ever climbed, but the view at the top is worth it.

Across the river, set behind four high walls, The Grand Palace compound is probably Bangkok’s most popular tourist destination. It is one of the most impressive architectural and historical assets of the city. You could spend all day looking around the different temples, pavilions, halls, gardens, etc. The amazing sculptural and mural work surrounding Wat Phra Kaew, or The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is enough to make the trip worthwhile.  Regarded as the most sacred temple in Thailand, Wat Phra Kaew houses a cluster of fascinating and elaborately decorated structures, statues, paintings, and corridors. Although we’re always looking to get off the beaten path, sometimes there’s a reason that certain places are highly frequented by tourists.


Bangkok backstreet

This fascinating, full-spirited city will continue to thrive economically and socially in the following decades, however, as its population increases, sustainability challenges become more urgent in light of climate change, and its development profile remains stuck in high gear while livability gets squeezed still further, is an open question.  Today the city still functions.  It’s still an exciting, indeed crazy and mesmerizing place to visit.  As a rising megacity on the front lines of coastal change, I hope it begins adapting sooner rather than later.

Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, have been wracked over the past decade with occasional paroxysms of political upheaval.  There are strong political divides that have fairly recently cracked open a society which had previously been fairly well-united under the royal family.  While still revered, that institution has been weakened in recent years.  At the same time, national political consensus has been split by a populist regime that has won several democratic elections but may have ruled corruptly; the prime minister has won the support of the least economically fortunate but has incurred the enmity of the middle and upper classes.  There is also a north-south split, nationwide.  Recent eruptions of political violence have turned ugly and deadly, with the “yellow shirts” seeking to undemocratically overthrow the prime minister (who is supported by the “red shirts”).  It is too soon to tell where this will lead, but it is enormously sad to watch the confusion and violence in such a vital place.

Shigeru Ban Named Pritzker Laureate 2014



Courtesy of Shigeru Ban Architects

“Shigeru Ban is a tireless architect whose work exudes optimism. Where others may see insurmountable challenges, Ban sees a call to action. Where others might take a tested path, he sees the opportunity to innovate. He is a committed teacher who is not only a role model for younger generation, but also an inspiration.” — Pritzker Jury 2014

Citing his innovative approach to structure and material as well as his commitment to compassionate design, the Pritzker Jury has selected Japanese architect Shigeru Ban as the 2014 winner of the Pritzker Prize. Ban is the thirty-eighth recipient of the Pritzker Prize and its seventh Japanese recipient.

Ban first gained international recognition for his experimental, creative use of unconventional materials, particularly paper and cardboard. However, he has more recently gained fame for bringing low-cost, high-quality design to those most in need of it, such as refugees and victims of natural disaster.

According to the jury, the Pritzker Prize recognizes architects who both display “excellence in built work and who make a significant and consistent contribution to humanity.” Shigeru Ban, whose approach is as innovative as it is humanitarian, “reflects this spirit of the prize to the fullest.” Click here for a selection of some of Shigeru Ban’s work.


Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House, Korea, 2010
Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai


Curtain Wall House, Tokyo, Japan, 1995
Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai















Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2013
Photo by Stephen Goodenough


Post-Tsunami housing project in Kirinda, Sri Lanka. 2007











Paper Log House, Bhuj, India, 2001
Photo by Kartikeya Shodhan


Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010
Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects












Shigeru Ban Architects 

Pritzker Prize

Women In Architecture: Norma Merrick Sklarek


Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928-2012)

Norma Sklarek was born in Harlem, New York. She graduated from Columbia University School of Architecture in 1950. Sklarek was the first African American woman to be licensed as an architect in New York and California, in 1954 and 1962 respectively.

After receiving her degree, Sklarek was unable to find work at an architecture firm, and took a job at the New York Department of Public Works. She then got a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. She became the first African American director at the Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, California in 1966, and she worked with the Jon Jerde Partnership.

She became the first African American woman member of the AIA in 1959, the first African American woman to be elevated to the AIA College of Fellows in 1980, and the first woman to receive the AIA Whitney Young Award in 2008. In 1985, she became the first African American woman architect to form her own architectural firm – Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, the largest woman owned architectural firm in the United States at the time. Among Sklarek’s designs are the San Bernardino City Hall in San Bernardino, California, the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, the Los Angeles International Airport Terminal One, and the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo, Japan. 

Among Sklarek’s designs are the San Bernardino City Hall in San Bernardino California, the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport and the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo, Japan.

Following her retirement, she served on the California Architects Board. She also served for several years as Chair of the AIA National Ethics Council. In her honor, Howard University offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award.


Fox Plaza, San Francisco, California


San Bernardino City Hall, San Bernardino, California

















Fox, Austin M. Louise Blanchard Bethune: Buffalo Feminist and America’s First Women Architect. Accessed 12 Dec. 2013 <>

Julia Morgan Awarded 2014 AIA Gold Medal



Julia Morgan, FAIA, (1872-1957)


Julia Morgan becomes the first female to receive the AIA Gold Medal 


St. John’s Presbyterian Church; Berkeley, CA (1908-1916) / Julia Morgan. Image courtesy of Mark Anthony Wilson; Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has announced their decision to posthumously award the 2014  to Julia Morgan, FAIA, “whose extensive body of work has served as an inspiration to a generation of female architects.”

The AIA Gold Medal, voted on annually, is considered the profession’s highest honor an individual can receive. The Gold Medal honors those whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. Morgan’s legacy will be honored at the AIA 2014 National Convention and Design Exposition in Chicago.

As the AIA described in a press release, “What stands out most is the vast array of architectural styles [Morgan] employed: Tudor and Georgian houses, Romanesque Revival churches, and Spanish Colonial country estates with an Islamic tinge. Her late-period Beaux-Arts education gave her the ability to design in these historic styles, gathering up motifs and methods from all of Western architectural history to select the approach most appropriate for each unique site and context.”


Asilomar YWCA; Pacific Heights, CA (1913-1928) / Julia Morgan. Image courtesy of Joel Puliatti; Julia Morgan, Architect of Beauty

“She designed buildings to fit her clients, blending design strategy with structural articulation in a way that was expressive and contextual, leaving us a legacy of treasures that were as revered when she created them as they are cherished today,” wrote AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.

Morgan’s legacy will be honored at the AIA  and Design Exposition in Chicago. Read the AIA’s complete biography of Morgan here.











Rosenfield, Karissa. “Julia Morgan Awarded 2014 AIA Gold Medal” 12 Dec 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 13 Dec 2013. <>

Women in Architecture: Natalie de Blois


Natalie de Blois

“Her mind and hands, worked marvels in design — and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of S.O.M., owed much more to her than was attributed by either S.O.M. or the client.”


Lever House

Natalie de Blois (1921-2013), was born in Paterson, New Jersey into a family of engineers. In a 2004 interview with the late architectural historian Detlef Mertins, de Blois recalled that she wanted to become an architect from the age of ten or twelve and found support from her parents – her father a civil engineer and her mother, a school teacher. She earned her architecture degree at Columbia University in 1944.

DeBlois began her career at a New York firm, Ketchum, Gina, and Sharpe, but  after “rebuffing the affections” of one of the firm’s male architects, she was fired. She then joined Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM).

One of a few women architects during the Fifties and Sixties – a period the New York Times‘ David Dunlap in a recent tribute described as “architecture’s ‘Mad Men’ era” – de Blois played key roles in the design of corporate skyscrapers during her time at the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, first in New York, then in Chicago.

She was the senior designer for many of SOM’s most renowned commissions as well as a mother to four sons. De Blois was in a league of her own.

While in the New York office, she worked closely with Gordon Bunshaft on the Lever House (1948-51), Istanbul Hilton Hotel (1953-55), Connecticut General Life Insurance Building (1954-57), Pepsi-Cola Co. Headquarters (1960), Union Carbide Headquarters (1957-60), the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Library and Museum (1965), and others. In the 1960’s, she moved to SOM’s Chicago office, where she became an associate partner, but never full partner. In 1964, she was the first female at SOM to become an associate partner. In 1964, she was the first female at SOM to become an associate partner.


Pepsi-Cola Corporation World Headquarters, 1960. Image from Ezra Stoller, via SOM.

These postwar corporate landmarks are most often attributed to Skidmore partner Gordon Bunshaft, whom de Blois worked with as a team. In the obituary written by David Dunlap for the New York Times, Beverly Willis remembers, “There wasn’t anybody in the country quite like Natalie, because there was no one else working for a firm quite like Skidmore,” now one of the largest architectural firms in the world, known for high-end commercial buildings in the modern international style. “At that point, there were only five or six women across the U.S. who had a substantial architectural practice,” Ms. Willis said. “And, of course, Natalie was doing bigger buildings, and she was doing them in the heart of Manhattan. These were celebrated buildings that the press fawned over, but Natalie’s name was never mentioned.” Nathaniel Owings, one of the founders of SOM, wrote of her in his autobiography that “her mind and hands worked marvels in design–and only she and God would ever know just how many great solutions, with the imprimatur of one of the male heroes of SOM, owed much more to her than was attributed by either SOM or the client.”

After moving from New York to Chicago, de Blois founded the group Chicago Women in Architecture in 1973 to promote greater awareness of women’s issues within the profession. The group still exists today, working to advance the status of women in architecture. Convening at the “Women and Minorities” conference at Washington University in St. Louis in 1973, de Blois joined forces with Judy Edelman and the National Women in Architecture Task Force of the American Institute of Architects. She later coordinated the Houston installation of the Women in Architecture exhibition, originally on display at the Brooklyn Museum in 1977.


Lincoln Center Library, 1965. Image from SOM.

Despite her enormous contributions to SOM’s portfolio, de Blois was never elevated to full partnership and left the firm in 1974. That same year, she was honored as a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. An inspired and enthusiastic teacher, she taught from 1980 to 1993 at the University of Texas at Austin, where a scholarship was later named for her. She received the Romieniec Award of the Texas AIA for distinguished achievement in education in 1998. The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation continues de Blois’s legacy and dedication to supporting women by expanding knowledge about women’s contributions to the built environment, including the lightness and elegant proportions of the modern icons she herself designed.






AD Classics: Lever House / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

DoCoMoMO – Natalie de Blois: Mid-Century Modern Trailblazer, 1921-2013

Read Natalie de Blois’s profile in the BWAF Dynamic National Archive of Women of the Built Environment.

Natalie de Blois explained her life, career and major building projects through animated anecdotes in the SOM Journal interview with Detlef Mertins in 2004.

Listen to the 1987 Architectural League recording of Natalie de Blois in conversation with architect Françoise Bollack, one in the series “Three Modern Architects,” in which she discusses the full scope of her career.

Smithsoniam Magazine: Design Decoded – Pepsi Cola the mad men years


Dunal, David W. “An Architect Whose Work Stood Out, Even if She Did Not.” 31 July 2013. NY Times. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <>

Kamin, Blair. “Natalie de Blois, pioneering architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” 30 July 2013. Chicago Tribune. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <>

“Natalie de Blois, FAIA, in Memoriam.” 06 Aug 2013. Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <>

Natalie De Blois Interviewed by Detlef Mertins, SOM Journal 4. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 06 Dec 2013. Web. <>.

Owings, Nathaniel Alexander. The Spaces in Between; an Architect’s Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.

Smith, Amy. “Then There’s This: A Pioneer Among Women Architects-Celebrated designer Natalie de Blois helped Austin’s future.” 31 July 2013. The Austin Chronicle. Accessed 06 Dec 2013. Web. <>