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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DECEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 50

Building A Name in Paris
The French capital plays host to an exhibition by Thailand's Renaissance Man
By JIM ALGIE Bangkok

Sumet's headquarters for The Nation group in Bangkok reflects the way art and environment have influenced his architectural designs
Asiaweek Pictures

With a 16-year-old malt whisky in one hand and a pipe stuffed with cherry tobacco in the other, Thai painter, architect and Europhile Sumet Jumsai is explaining why he is finally putting some of his canvases up for sale. "I don't like the idea of selling them, because they're part of my flesh and blood," he says in a Prince Charles British accent. "But there's no room to keep them in my house, and, anyhow, my children think they're hopelessly conventional and outdated."

This is not a view shared by the people at the Galerie Atelier Visconti in Paris, where the first solo exhibition of Sumet's joyously colourful works runs from Nov. 30 until the middle of January. Judging by the lengthy list of European aristocrats and famous names invited to the vernissage - including exiled Hollywood director and old friend Roman Polanski - "Guernica, Typewriters, Racing Cars, and Einstein" is likely to be one of the most talked-about exhibitions in the French capital this winter.

Sumet, who has a studio in Paris, finds life there artistically liberating. "There are no constraints. It's a free city," he says. It's also where he studied as a young man before going on to Britain's Cambridge University. There, he was shaped by the works of two of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century - Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and Swiss architect Le Corbusier. "The two of them went hand in hand for me," he says. "They were part of my generation in the early 1960s - plus Vivaldi and modern jazz. And I'm still at it because I come from that generation."

Thailand's Renaissance Man opens his show in Paris

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's 'Development As Freedom'

Picasso's masterwork about the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, is a key influence in the paintings 60-year-old Sumet has executed for the Paris exhibition. And the Spanish master's Cubism can be clearly seen in the extraordinary two buildings he designed in 1990 for the Nation group of publications in Bangkok. He says: "On the west side, quite recognizable, is the anthropomorphic - the chief editor sitting at his computer," he says. "But as you come around to the east side, the shape of the editor becomes more and more abstract, until you come right round the building and he becomes a completely abstract form permeated by electronic circuitry."

So - Picasso, Cubism, Le Corbusier. Which came first, painting or architecture? "I was drawing and painting from an early age," says Sumet, "but my father didn't want me to be an artist. For him, that meant being a pauper. There was no market for modern art in those days. So I decided to compromise and study architecture as it was the nearest thing to art. But I discovered that architecture - I mean real architecture - is art. It's a very important form of art, and it's also a form of poetry in concrete and steel, wood and glass." No surprise, then, that leading sculptors and painters - including another great Spanish artist of the 20th century, Joan Miró - have colored and shaped Sumet's architectural thinking.

But the Thai is much more than an architect who paints with verve, or a painter who designs exceptional buildings. He has also produced an important book, NAGA, Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific, which features contributions from his old friend Buckminster Fuller, the American innovator and author. And, working with the Thai government's Fine Arts Department for the past 35 years, Sumet has helped save many historic buildings, houses and temples from the wrecker's ball.

'Typewriter 5' is one the pieces on show in Paris. The sale is likely to be one of the most talked-about on the French art circuit this winter
Asiaweek Pictures

Somehow, this Renaissance Man still manages to find time for his family (he has two grown children - one a painter and the other a student of architecture), to ski whenever he can and to support humanitarian causes, including the Duang Prateep Foundation, of which he is chairman. This grassroots organization helps the destitute residents of Bangkok's most squalid district, the shanty town of Klong Toey. Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sumet discussed the project with Britain's Princess Anne. "She's president of the Save the Children Fund, which has a branch in the northeast of Thailand," he says. "So I suggested to Her Royal Highness that she come and visit the slum people here on her next trip. She's a very good person - a tribute to the royal family." So is Sumet in his own way. He is a direct descendant of Thailand's King Rama III, who lived from 1788 to 1851.

In what was evidently a busy time in Davos, Sumet says he also struck up an acquaintance with Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa ("Such a warm and charming man, such a humanist."), and received a Crystal Award for his contribution to architecture over the past three decades.

Now, though, he feels he has had enough of architecture. Other than working on a design for a United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, he is devoting most of his time to painting. "I've been in semi-retirement from architecture for many years now," he says. "I wanted to get away from the business side of things - running the office. It's such a hassle. New partners are looking after the show so I can be free of it. But the more I try to retire, the more work I seem to be doing. The supreme aim in my life is to do nothing, which is the most difficult thing. When I say nothing, I mean going back to art - pure art."

Even if he does turn his back on architecture, Sumet's legacy stands tall for all to see. And that includes his whimsical "Robot Building," the Bank of Asia's headquarters on Sathorn Road in Bangkok, which was opened in 1986. The original inspiration for the 20-story building, complete with "eyes" and "antennae," came from his son's toy robot. But the building's apparently jokey simplicity masks the fact that the elements in the exterior design have real purpose. For instance, the oversized "bolts" and "caterpillar wheels" serve as sunshades and canopies.

As for his solo debut on the Paris art scene, Sumet says he is not nervous about what the critics might say. "I'm too old for that," he insists. But not too old to continue to surprise.

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