Jenny Stedman

Contemporising Lanna Thai Architecture and identity Culture, community and religion are the backbone of Thailand’s dynamic vernacular tradition, without it Thai architecture would merely be a representation of its past. This essay will examine Northern Thai architecture in two parts; first it will study the customs and traditions that underpin domestic house-building and secondly it will identify the dynamics and transmission of its traditions. It will also examine some of the dilemmas in light of cultural change and globalisation, and its implications within the built environment. By doing so it we are able to gain insight into how vernacular architecture has intrinsic value within their culture, which is applicable not only to Thailand but to other cultures. The integration of the spiritual, human needs, traditional technology, social organization and religion were what created architecture which was unique to Thailand, but also what created their rich culture, including their dress, music and food.

  An architect must understand the many important elements in a house plan, which go beyond simply understanding principles of different kinds of arrangements. The challenge is trying to comprehend these principles from their connections with the society concerned (Sorensen 1982, p. 3). Vernacular architecture from Thailand during the Lanna era, 1292 to 1775 (region highlighted in Figure 1) was culturally relevant, a direct expression of the Thai peoples’ beliefs and social conditions, relationships and environments. The architecture was a direct response to the agricultural lifestyle and the people’s desire to live with nature. More than a practical solution to climate, the vernacular house is an expression of oneself (p. 61), a sign of status, symbol of social integration, culture, spiritual and religious beliefs (Pinijvarasin 2004, p.69).


  Thomsen in his ‘Two houses in Thailand’ (1982, p. 92) describes how Ban Mae Mai (a village 20km north of Lampang) relies on the environment and the unified effort of villagers to sustain their way of life (Figure 2). Through social integration of the families within the village, they are able to sustain an economy by pooling resources and labor to work on farms and build homes. This rural village system and community orientated way of living generates a self-sustaining village economy (Charernsupkul 1979, p. 44-45). However, globalisation have caused imbalances in the village and have prompted cultural change.


   According to Raglan’s “The Temple and the House”, vernacular dwellings’ religious and secular aspects are indistinct.  Raglan’s aphorism ‘house as a temple’ (1964, p.40) also applies to Lanna architecture as Buddhists’ often hosted ceremonies, including birth, marriage and death, within their own home (Tharavichitkun 2004, p. 58).


   Rituals, including those which are relevant to house building are becoming less frequent or only partially practiced since many older practices were also consequence of environmental conditions. Rituals which occur throughout the construction process aim to protect the house against malevolent forces disturbed by its construction (Dumarcay 1987, p.17). However, some rituals have ceased due to convenient vehicle transportation and technology. For example, there is no longer a necessity to build houses only when there is enough water in the rivers for logs to be easily transported.  However, less significant building traditions remain; like placing flowers on the roof ridge and offering food to construction workers (Dumarcay 1987, p.14-15).



   Vernacular dwellings were built on stilts in low-land flood plains (Figure 4) so that houses would be safe from flood but near a sufficient water source for farming (Boonjub 2009, p.8). The structure was clad in solid material to keep out insects and ants, and the plaited bamboo floor if not woven too tightly could be easily cleaned. (Sorensen 1982, p. 2) The under croft space was used for a variety of purposes, including storage for farming tools, a place for weaving and rice grinding, as ventilation and a way to observe outside (Boonjub 2009, p.9).


   Vernacular Lanna architecture predominantly used timber, but for more recent examples of vernacular architecture of the northern region this is no longer the case. Teak has becoming increasing scarce from heavy deforestation a result of farming practices and Thai development strategies (Deland 2002), and nowadays is expensive and impractical. Thatch was originally used prior to the 20th century, and have been replaced with clay tiles and then with corrugated concrete tiles and metal sheeting (Punpairoj 2010, p.94). Concrete block, steel, concrete, brick and glass are replacing timber in most construction as they are cheaper, easier to obtain and have an extended life (Thungsakul 2001, p.125). These material changes gives rise to the same two themes which Vellinga (2004) describes to have occurred in the Minangkabau villages in Indonesia; a decline in old vernacular houses and a revival of vernacular houses using traditional style but with different materials, techniques and requirements (Dumarcay 1987, p.18). It is arguable that the vernacular house style has changed while the pattern of the plan and space remains unchanged (Punpairoj 2010, p. 70)



   Customary determinants of house building include; beliefs in superstitions, soothsaying and astrological writings, the types of building materials and tools used (Charernsupkul, p. 57).  The whole plan, use and form of different details of a house often have to do with the cultural and traditional background of the local group (Sorensen 1982, p. 3). Both old vernacular and revival style Lanna architecture has an inherent spiritual and physical connection with people. Thai architecture, while they varied between each region, have the same common character and influence on perceptions through sight, sound and body contact, this is referred to as “sense-impression” (Chitranukroh, p. 118, 129). For example, the characteristic tall gable roof (Figure 6) and inward leaning structure (seen throughout Thailand and not just Lanna Thai) is a physical symbolism of spirituality within the house (Figure 9), and reflects the Buddhist’s desire to reach Nirvana (Pinijvarasin 2004, p.68). Other such symbolic gestures are made throughout the house, and is a direct expression of the desires of the occupant (Dumarcay 1987, p.2).

   While the gable roof shape has continued throughout the years, it has undergone significant changes due to the nature of the materials used (Figure 6). Figure 11 illustrates how houses have changed due to the change in material, from wood (Figure 4) to concrete (Figure 10). In Figure 7, the tiled roof, stone cladding on the columns, garage with corrugated metal roof make the house appear to have been influenced by western bungalow style houses, but the elements are still essentially Thai. Timber (now expensive and therefore a sign of wealth), is expressed on the exterior of the building as cladding. In addition, whilst the downstairs is partially enclosed, the front room is open to the street and used for surveillance.


   Buildings which had previously been built according to the resistance of wood using timber joinery and was quick to assemble on the day deemed to be auspicious. The roof framing was the most complex part of the dwelling to construct, as it required skilled trademen and involved more time to construct (Boonjab 2009, p.13). Contemporary buildings which are built with situ concrete take even longer to construct since concrete requires time to cure. This meant that the community became less involved in the ceremonial aspect of constructing the house, and more toward celebrating the day of completion.



   There are also hybrid styles which combine concrete and timber construction.  Figure 8 are some examples of some hybrid houses in typical small village in northern Thailand, called Pa Laeo. The hybrids typically build in the under croft in concrete and the upper level with timber (Punairoj, p.12). In Haagensen’s, ‘A Socio-Architectural Case Study of North Thailand’, he describes villages as having developed based on a “highly materialistic and functional approach” (1982, p. 113). He also states that contemporary vernacular is ill-suited functionally, aesthetically and environmentally, (Haagensen 1982, p. 113). While Haagensen case is applicable in regards to the environment, there are some advantages which would seem to outweigh the disadvantage of limiting the flow of air through the building. The enclosed space provides much needed extra room within the house, which could be used in the shortage of land and increase in family members. The absence of an open under croft meant an increase in veranda or porch space or large openings) at the front of the house in which people would go about their daily routines and still be able to observe the street (Punairoj 2010, p.135).


   Other observations describes the contemporary vernacular architecture as having explicitly omitted human, political, and social issues to become what he dubs as ‘the invisible’ (Kanitpun, p35). He observes that these contemporized vernacular homes are more often lacking the spiritual meaning behind building traditions, instead using characteristics of Lanna architecture like the high pitched roof and open spaces for purely aesthetic purposes, ‘fluidity and lightness of space’ (p.138).


   Cultural changes in Thailand have been largely imposed by the monarchy, tourism and globalisation (Johnson 2011, p.521). Thailand has been urbanising at a rapid rate and taking many of its cultural and architectural developments from other cultures. As a result, there is growing concern about the increasing gap between culture and the built environment.


    New building techniques have occurred simply because the vernacular house does not satisfy the needs for modern lifestyles (Punpairoj 2010, p.88). Alternatively, constructions companies started  property developments (possibly inspired by the wealth in western countries) as a way to generate money. Without enough interest or finance, developments such which weren’t sold immediately ran out of funding and often were left unfinished like those shown in Figure 12. Although there are a number of factors for lack of success in such a scheme, the two most noticeable factors is the lack of community involvement and response to culture. These houses were too remote and without much around it offered very little in the way of quality of life for either foreigners or Thais. Particularly for Thais it lacked sensory-experiences, such as spaces to occupy outside the house so that people could engage with the street. These houses were not relatable as they required some sort of experiential feature like plants and flowers for aroma and textures (Chitranukroh, p. 128).



   In addition, the prices of these houses were often too high for the average villager to afford. The income distribution and high density are cause of discrepancy between the way of living in urban and rural areas of Thailand. Living standards are often higher in the village than in low-income urban housing, and due to the mild-climate, the quality of the dwelling often reflects the condition of land tenure and income. (Yeung 1983, p. 104) The low standard of living in and around cities meant that generally those who came from rural towns would move to the city only to earn money and send it home to the rest of the family to pay for construction costs. Thais generally sought houses in places they identified with, usually their home town, near their parent’s house. This was because they often had to leave their children in the care of their parents while they were living in the city to work.


   The idea that successful Thai architecture has some aesthetic which reflects ‘thainess’ may not be key to contemporized Lanna architecture. While it is true that Thailand’s architectural identity has changed as a result of new construction technologies, materials, and infrastructure also have beneficial implications on the people. Technologies have given the people greater freedom and better standards for health, cleanliness and convenience (Horayangkura 2001, p.28). These transformed vernacular houses are more often reflecting the tastes of the individual, rather than the community as a whole (Pinijvarasin 2004, p. 73). For example, the house in Figure 13 and 14, although stylistically it contrasts the other houses within the neighbourhood (looking like it would fit better in a Caucasian suburban neighbourhood), it reflects characteristics of the owner. It fits within the Thai cultural expectations of the house as an expression of the desires of the occupant, and its situation within the town indicates (offset from the street) and construction reveal the social standings of its occupants (Dumarcay 1987, p.2).


   The failure of a project is in part a lax of the architect; modern styles brought back by young architects who study abroad struggle to respond contextually to Thailand. An architect of the ALA (Northern Thai branch of the Association of Siamese Architects) annual conference 2006 (Johnson, 2011, p.526) protested the high-modern style saying that native Lanna-Thai architects were the most qualified people to design for their region, but should take inspiration from Lanna culture and architecture instead of getting ‘caught up’ in Caucasian trends. In a sense this is true, Lanna architecture has responded to the needs of northern Thai’s and modern examples have not by comparison. Understanding and being able to prioritise which of elements; spiritual, human needs, traditional technology, social organization and religion are more culturally relevant at the time is some of the immediate dilemmas which architects are faced with when designing. However, vernacular architecture forms an exemplar of how architecture should respond to a culture and should be studied for inspiration;

   “Vernacular building traditions have been often viewed with ideas of romantic past, poverty and underdevelopment. In contrast to the stereotypes of backward or old fashioned past, vernacular buildings have well responded and reacted to technological and cultural changes. The vernacular traditions allow for creativity, innovation and change. The adaptability of them has also created appropriate ecological solutions.” (Punpairoj 2010, p. 77-78)


   Culturally responsive architecture needs to address an array of dilemmas, including but not limited to, peoples’ beliefs and social conditions, relationships and environments. Vernacular architecture during the Lanna era in Thailand was culturally rich, influenced by religion and climate. Globalisation slowly connected villagers to modern resources and with the increasingly limited supply of current resources, the people were forced to modify their building traditions to suit. Some building traditions were discarded because they were no longer relevant, but most aesthetic and functional characteristics remained. However, with the trending nature of architecture as a discipline, young architects and construction companies alike adopted modern architectural styles from abroad into the Lanna style. Two of the examples above demonstrate how people protested this move, but the house in Pa Laeo is one among many which shows that it can also be embraced. The successful examples show a common theme; it should express sentiment in traditional Thai architecture. As in most cultures, Lanna houses are not only a personal and shared expression of identity, but a symbol of beliefs, religion and tradition. The Thai house is a symbolic place; one which unites itself with the social, spiritual and metaphysical values of the community.





1. Charernsupkul, A. (1979). Northern Thai Domestic Architecture and Rituals in House Building. 43-60.


2. Chitranukroh. Sentiment in Traditional Thai Architecture. 117-132


3. Deland, C. O. (2002). Deforestation in Northern Thailand: The result of Hmong Farming Practices or Thai Development Strategies? Singapore, National University of Singapore: 483-498.


4. Haagensen. (1982). A Socio-Architectural Case Study of North. Two Houses in Thailand. House in East and South-east Asia. Izikowitz: 100-115.


5. Horayangkura, V. (2001). The architecture of Thailand. Transforming traditions: Architecture in the Asean countries. J. Lim: 224-261.


6. Jaijongrak, R. (1996). Traditional Thai houses. Bangkok: Association of Siamese Architects. 63


7. Johnson, A (2011). Re-centreing the city: Spirits, local wisdom, and urban design at the Three Kings Monument of Chiang Mai. 511-531


8. Pinijvarasin, W. (2004). Experiences of well-being in Thai vernacular houses. Melbourne, Australia: The University of Melbourne. 47-77.


9. Raglan, L. (1964). The Temple and the House. New York: W.W. Norton. 40


10. Rachadaporn Kanitpun, The Visible & Invisible in Thai Architecture Culture: The Problem of the Reduction & Discourses on Thai Architecture. Faculty of Architecture, Thammasat University.


11. Sorensen, I. (1982). House in East and Southeast Asia, Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies


12. Stedman, J. (2008) Personal photos from Thailand.


13. Thomsen. (1982). Two Houses in Thailand. House in East and South-east Asia. Izikowitz: 81-100


14. Tharavichitkun, Burin (2011) Rethinking Thai architecture and cultural identity. PhD thesis, University of Westminster, School of Architecture and the Built Environment.


15. Thungsakul, N (2001). A syntactic analysis of spatial configuration towards the understanding of continuity and change in vernacular living space: A case study in the upper northeast of Thailand. PhD thesis, Philosophy, University of Florida.


16. Yeung, Y. M. (1983). A Place to live: More effective Low-cost housing in Asia.


17. Thailand map adapted from image found online: