The Design for Disaster group researches elegant solutions to the messy problems of human and natural disasters. As the collective gets an (eerily prescient) exhibition at BACC, we catch up with its head, Vipavee Kunavichayanont, 32, who talks about turning fear into action.

BK: How did your interest in design and architecture grow?
I studied arts but I always loved architecture. I did my masters in interior design but realized that the inside and the outside of the structure can’t be separated. Then I finally studied architecture in the US before moving back to Thailand eight years later.

BK: What about disasters?
I lost my only sister when I was 11 years old. She drowned while trying to save her boyfriend while on a volunteer project. I am now an only child. And I’m still scared of water. The tsunami in 2004 terrified me. I dreamed about huge waves moving inland while I was trying to run away. I would always end up dead. I had to keep asking myself if it was real. Also, I got all those emails that Bangkok is going to sink. It made me paranoid. When I came back from the US, there was a huge construction project near my house It made the whole house shake. Once, there was a heavy rain storm outside, too. It made me imagine awful scenarios for Bangkok.

BK: How did Design for Disaster come about?
I changed from being afraid to wanting to confront the problem. I decided to study disaster management at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). The program was about how to handle situations like earthquakes, floods and wars. I created Design for Disaster (D4D) as my thesis project two years ago. Making people realize that disasters are close to us is the most important thing. The problem is they either don’t believe that it’s going to happen, or they just accept it as unavoidable. We need plans to protect ourselves or at least mitigate the impact of disasters.

BK: What will the apocalypse look like?
The great threat in Bangkok is floods and political conflicts like we saw last year. Another one is the threat of earthquakes in the West. But even though our designs come from the fears that Bangkok might be at risk, we can apply our research as a model for other cities. No matter what the disaster is, there are always some similar problems, like food and water shortages.

BK: What are you currently working on?
I plan to make a guide book that comes from our design competition “Tong Rod” (Need to Survive) which contains ideas on adapting things in your house when you’re trapped in a disaster. You can find more information at

BK: Do we stand a chance?
This flood incident has made people more aware and we can now build an “immune system” to prevent things like this in the future. It has also convinced me that everyone has different skills, so you should use your particular skill to help people. Running this project has been exhausting but the generosity of those willing to help others is really inspiring. It’s good to keep things going, because when people see others doing good, they will join this force and know there are other people who are doing good things with them.

BK: Isn’t it too late? We are sinking, right?
Yes, but Bangkok for me isn’t just a place. It’s an abstract idea. It’s an infrastructure where creatures and things live and share cultures and histories together. So Bangkok doesn’t have to be here. If it wants to be safe, it should go somewhere else. Don’t stick to the land you’re on, it’s sinking. Remember, you are just a speck of dust in the universe. You don’t have to adhere to anything.


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