Wat Chaiwatthanaram's Master Mason
In this blog post, WMF Program Director for Wat Chaiwatthanaram Conservation Project Jeff Allen talks about Khun Mali, Master Mason of Wat Chaiwatthanaram, whose skill and experience encompasses a thirty year career in masonry conservation.
The Wat Chaiwatthanaram masonry technicians are an uber-experienced group, most have been working with masonry for years. They are an ideal mature complement to the new crop of young conservators the project also employs.
The mortar so-to-speak that holds the veteran technicians together Mali Choomchooboon. With over thirty years working with the Fine Arts Department of Thailand, Khun Mali has worked on just about every Ayutthaya monument, and she even recollects some involvement at Wat Chaiwatthanaram during the mid-1990s comprehensive FAD restoration campaign. Ever since she can remember, Khun Mali’s specialty has been masonry repairs, mainly infill and reconstruction of Ayutthaya’s temple monuments. On site at Wat Chaiwatthanaram she orchestrates the technicians’ group and divides tasks according to the skills and capabilities of each person. It’s all done with a certain sense of patience and genteel professionalism.
Recently the technicians were all clustered on level four (there are twelve floors of scaffolding at Meru C3, and eight merus that surround a large central prang, or tower). There they had just removed poorly assembled modern masonry reconstructions, the outcome of a previous restoration campaign. In the 1990s when the jungle was cut back from Wat Chaiwatthanaram, many of the graceful and decorative curved lotus bud-shaped forms that scaled-up the Merus’ façades were tumbledown and if still standing were loosely adhered at best. Almost all lost their decorative stucco finishes. In the 1990s, as part of the rush for World Heritage Listing, they were hurriedly rebuilt.
Most turned into simplified straight-sided pyramidal stacks carelessly lathered with blobs of cement mortar in between brick courses. The cement is toxic to historic brickwork: its salts rot the older bricks, its stiffness is inflexible to softer historic materials, and it also looks incongruously cold and industrial to the mellower-aged limed mortars in the surrounding masonry. As part of Meru C3’s conservation plan, working with the local FAD regional office, World Monuments Fund designed interventions to remove cement mortars where they are part of modern rebuilt architectural elements that damage original fabric and compromise the integrity of the Merus.
In front of one of the lotus shapes I found Khun Mali. To her right she had Khun Tee charged with mixing bedding and finishing mortars—he had at least a half-dozen buckets of sand, water and lime arranged in a semi-circle around him, stirring concoctions scooped with samples from each. To her left was Khun Nu, and with various stacks of bricks to his sides he shaped new bricks to fit. Without much verbal exchange— almost telepathic in nature— materials came to Khun Mali: a brick from her left timed to a new batch of mortar from her right. Guided by a metal framing she carefully reconstructed a 90cm tall lotus shape. As the disassembled mass rose back to its original lotus proportions, like painters working on a canvas, every so often the three gathered and stood back on the scaffolding to review their work quietly commenting to each other on their next move. Occasionally Khun Mali conferred with WMF’s Chief Conservator Josephine D’Ilario who adds conservation guidance to the process.
Around the corner were the veterans Khun Pan, Khun Lengee and Khun Keh following up, all carefully applying finishing mortar to the recently conserved string courses that lie between the lotus bud shapes. A major responsibility is to seal up all the cracks and gaps where monsoon rains can penetrate. Working ahead of them all was Khun Jet, who made sure the surviving historic stuccos were stabilized before the masonry interventions take place. He is a master at grouting the voids between the masonry substrates and overlying stuccos.
The goal at Meru C3’s exterior is not to reconstruct, but to stabilize and enhance its ruinous form to repel water, and present a more honest form true to its historic construction. That is not as easy as it sounds, because there have been many renovations and interventions in the past. Deciphering Wat Chaiwatthanaram’s initial construction and history of change helps us define our work in light of internationally-accepted conservation concepts. Working with Khun Mali and Khun Jo, and following our basic intervention philosophy we review and plan each action in advance. As a whole, these kinds of individual case-by-case evaluations refine the conservation plan for not just Meru C3, but the other seven merus ahead of us too. Khun Mali is not sure how long she will continue along that process, but WMF welcomes her guidance to the next generations as long as she desires. She said she prefers continue working with her bricks than retire. Her efforts could fold into a future that may also incorporate the ultimate Wat Chaiwatthanaram chapter for WMF: tackling conservation of the towering central prang!