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This season’s MPavilion designer and founder of Bangkok-based architecture practice All(zone), Rachaporn Choochuey embraces the lightness and informality of fabric-based architecture in an effort to foster new and flexible thinking.

By Isla Sutherland

Since the inception of MPavilion in 2014, every year a temporary installation is assembled in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, providing a stage for a five-month cultural program that takes place within, beneath and around the commissioned structure.

An ongoing initiative of the Naomi Milgrom Foundation, MPavilion is now in its ninth iteration and, in December, took up residence in Queen Victoria Gardens in the form of a vivid, textural tensile canopy in silken saffron.

The architect behind the design is Rachaporn Choochuey of Bangkok-based practice All(zone). She says she wanted the pavilion to evoke the experience of sitting beneath a tree, both in the gentle movement of the fabric and the dappled shadows created by the canopy’s waffled underbelly.

Embracing architecture in its lightest form, the gabled structure appears pitched like a tent on splayed steel legs.  A dazzling beacon of light-play and fluidity, the pavilion’s saffron colour was chosen by Choochuey for its resemblance to a Buddhist monk’s robes. The woven underside of the canopy references traditional hanging paper-cut decorations used in Thai festivals. Together, these components have offered a warm and relaxed awning for the suite of art,  music and educational events that have been presented at MPavilion over the past months.

The playful, lightweight style is emblematic of All(zone)’s widely recognised architectural interventions, which are informed by Bangkok’s tropical climate and a philosophy of “living lightly”. Since co-founding All(zone) in 2009, Choochuey has worked regularly with this kind of shading architecture, which she sees as the basic typology for  tropical living.

“It’s the minimum form of a space that we would think of when we think of something that gives us shelter,” she says. “The porosity in our projects has a lot to do with managing the climate without needing heavy  mechanical systems for cooling. We like to use ‘primitive’ techniques for dealing with the conditions, such as shade and natural ventilation.”

The approach has led to great success. The practice was behind the design of Thailand’s first contemporary art gallery—MAIIAM in Chiang Mai—and its work has featured at the Guggenheim Museum, Chicago Architecture Biennial, Vitra Design Museum and Triennale di Milano. 

The museum in Chiang Mai was designed with a facade made from thousands of tiny, mirrored tiles, which atomise the building’s solid form into its habitat. “I try to do architecture that blends in with the environment. It has substance, but at the same time, it has this transparency,” explains Choochuey.

All(zone)’s other experiments in shading architecture have included an intricate fabric roof for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, or the woven “marmalade sky” a temporary, transparent magenta shade that lightly dyes  the horizon—for Bangkok’s Wonderfruit Festival. Working on temporary architecture projects has afforded Choochuey the opportunity to experiment with unconventional expressions, regularly playing in fabric-based architecture, using local and upcycled materials ranging from fishing nets to silk offcuts to create approachable, irreverent and functional spaces.

But fabric architecture, Choochuey explains, comes with its own unique set of challenges. “The software we have now deals with architecture as a rigid element, like brick walls, concrete floors, glass and steel—but not as soft material,”  she says. “It’s impossible to create the effect of these materials in our current architectural software.”

In creating the MPavilion, for example, Choochuey and her team had to rely on scale models in order to understand how the fabric would behave and to grasp the true essence of its material form. A prime example of a simple premise with complex resolution, Choochuey’s MPavilion experiments with forms and materials likely never used before in Australia.

The canopy comprises three layers: an outer layer of fishing nets, giving the appearance of transparency from afar; a middle waterproof layer crafted from an innovative polyacrylate membrane, as transparent as glass but far lighter; and a perforated filter layer which generates the dappled shadows.

While the sustainability of temporary architecture might seem questionable, Choochuey says working with lighter structures enables the possibility for modification where more unyielding structures would be demolished.

“What we try to do conceptually is imagine a design that would allow things to change,” she says. “In this case, with the MPavilion, it is very clear that its first life will be these few months in Queen Victoria Gardens. Then it will be relocated, where it will stay for another 20 years.” 

As Choochuey rightly identifies, the MPavilion will likely outlive many of today’s contemporary buildings. More than that, the light-touch design remains open to future adaptations and possibly even new, unexpected uses.

The adaptability of Choochuey’s temporary architecture prototypes can be seen across a number of All(zone)’s projects. In Lighthouse, an ongoing experiment in low-income housing solutions with “less rigid materiality and energy”, the approach is applied to the problems of housing affordability and human security. These micro-dwellings made from a metal grid and walls of nylon netting can be assembled in just four hours within abandoned lots and unutilised buildings.

During the peak of the pandemic, All(zone)’s temporary architecture solutions also helped address the domestic transmission between hospital workers that was being exacerbated by substandard living conditions. Choochuey hopes her temporary architecture might help us to consider a wider repertoire of materials and methods, as well as revise our social credo for permanence in buildings that can ultimately, in some cases, result in the opposite, given that such buildings are often demolished when they are no longer wanted or considered fit for purpose.

While Choochuey speaks somewhat sceptically about the necessity of her commission during a time of global upheaval, her design could not be more timely. After suffering the longest pandemic-related lockdown of anywhere in the world, Melburnians have come to rely on their public outdoor spaces more than ever. All(zone)’s structure is a welcome injection of colour and community that enables the celebration of culture and togetherness in the outdoors.

“When we started thinking about the pavilion, we were thinking about the need to see people again,” Choochuey says. “We had just gotten out of the peak of Covid. It was really bad in Thailand in mid-2021. We knew we didn’t want to be in a room with walls or confined to a small space; it should be a place to celebrate public life.”

This desire for unconfined gathering spaces is reflected in the design’s deliberate lack of tension. Its loose, billowy form embraces the lightness and informality so courted by the community after the tumult of these past few years. Choochuey shows us how her style of pared-back architecture leaves space for people and poetry, redefining the juncture at which a structure becomes a container for human life.

The ninth MPavilion is open to the public until 6 April.