ISSUE #4 FOREST, AUTUMN 2014
CORRESPONDENCE
Saigon Architecture Taking Root

For Vo Trong Nghia, it is on the fringes of Ho Chi?Minh City and in the industrial parks populated by urban migrants that architecture, informed by rural motifs and Japanese aesthetics, can salvage a societys connection to the land.

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Shortly after turning twenty-nine, architect Vo Trong Nghia returned to his native Vietnam from Japan and was underwhelmed by the built environment he encountered in his homeland.

He had spent his twenties honing an aesthetic heavily influenced by Tadao Ando, Hiroshi Naito, and other Japanese modernist architects – one that emphasized clean lines, minimal ornamentation, and close attention to natural circulation and vegetation. He wasn’t against Vietnamese architecture, yet he felt the concrete buildings springing up across Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s commercial capital, were painfully unimaginative.

Nghia also thought the traditional Vietnamese “tube house,” once perfectly adapted to the country’s tropical climate, had taken a turn for the worse. A generation ago, many tube houses had central courtyards and overhanging roof eaves – features designed to keep interiors naturally cool, shady, and breezy. But in Ho Chi Minh City, Nghia noticed that the narrow, four- or five-story tube houses were stuffy concrete boxes fitted with air-conditioning units and that many of his friends and neighbors could not live without climate control.

“Human beings are part of nature, so we should try to live within nature,” says Nghia, now thirty-eight. But how, he wondered after returning from Japan, could he green Vietnam’s cities and architectural discourse? He didn’t want to simply transpose Japanese design principles, and anyway, he wouldn’t have the budget to import Japanese rocks, timber, or houseplants.
His aesthetic would need to be unique yet also accessible – and affordable to Vietnamese.

Nghia has since designed dozens of structures in cities and small towns across Vietnam. They typically incorporate rocks, bamboo, tropical foliage, flowing water, and other features that recall rural motifs. Like Ando,who was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1995, Nghia is attracted to understated visual elements that are powerful but not especially imposing. Set against the colorful backdrop of Vietnamese streetscapes, his buildings often feel starkly minimalist, even a bit austere.

But paradoxically, they are often healing tonics for urban environments dominated by honking motorbikes, worsening air and water pollution, and a glaring lack of parks and green space. Nghia says he has developed a keen interest in Buddhism, and some of the spaces he creates are suitable for meditation.

One of his best-known projects, Stacking Green, features a series of horizontal white concrete slabs that support mini garden beds. Although the house has the same dimensions as a typical tube house, its interior is far less restrictive. Rather than divide it into isolated rooms, Nghia created an open floor plan with gaps in the ceilings and floors that allow ventilation and conversation to flow between levels and into nature. The back of the house is open to the elements, and there is a fragrant garden on the roof.

Stacking Green is a striking contrast to other tube houses on the block. But it still feels comfortable, even luxurious. “It’s a house that expresses an idea,” explains Melissa Merryweather, an architect in Ho Chi Minh City who specializes in environmentally sensitive design. “But the people in that house are going to live in it like a house – not like something they have to worship.”

***

 

Vo Trong Nghia’s office lies on a quiet street near downtown Saigon, a city that was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after North Vietnamese troops toppled the American-backed South Vietnam in a bloody war that killed an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese. Nearly four decades after the war ended, the central district still has architectural vestiges of its history as a former French colony, along with unmemorable skyscrapers that sprang up amid the building boom that accompanied Vietnam’s 2007 entry to the World Trade Organization. But on the fringes of downtown, sidewalks end, and the view is of cramped alleys, whizzing motorbikes, exposed cables, and tube houses jammed together into what often looks like a continuous wall of pastel-colored concrete.

Nghia works in the transition zone. He has never built in the city center, he says, and has no interest in scoring a government commission for a high-profile downtown project. (He is repelled by the city’s creaky bureaucracy). Instead, he and his staff at Vo Trong Nghia Architects design homes, schools, and office buildings for the districts that tourists and well-heeled businessmen tend to avoid. They also work farther out, on the city’s fringe, where a landscape of sleepy villages has been replaced, over the last generation, by enormous factories where workers make exportable commodities like shoes, clothing, and toothpaste.

On a winter afternoon, I meet Nghia at his office and climb into his black sedan. We drive to see his latest project: House for Trees, a complex of five small buildings at the back of a gated courtyard. Linked by a curved gravel walkway, the buildings, which have a gross floor area of just 230 square meters, are made of unpainted concrete. But their exteriors are grooved and dented, thanks to the bamboo trunks that Nghia pressed into them as they were drying. The interior decor is minimalist but soothing, and each building has a crop of trees growing from its grassy roof.

We walk to the nearest apartment building and climb the stairs until we’re looking down at the project from a window. The overall view now is mainly of the painted concrete, corrugated metal, and electric poles that stretch for miles toward the Saigon River. But House for Trees looks like a miniature village that fell into the urban landscape by accident.

“Look around,” says Nghia, with boyish enthusiasm. “No trees!”

Then he gestures down to his own creation and cracks a smile.

“But here? You have a forest.”

***

 

Vo Trong Nghia was born in a central Vietnamese province and raised in the countryside during a period of gnawing scarcity. At the time, Vietnam was emerging from the devastation wrought by its twentieth-century wars against France and the United States, and poverty was widespread. The silver lining, Nghia says, was that he learned how to garden and came to value the natural world as central to his survival and humanity.

By contrast, he adds, many young Vietnamese growing up in Ho Chi Minh City today are so urbanized that they have lost their connection to nature.

Ho Chi Minh City, with a population approaching 9 million, is the economic engine for a country of 90 million people. Vietnam’s growth has soared for the last two decades thanks in large part to its growing industrial and agricultural export sectors. Large swaths of forest were logged to provide timber for new urban construction, and rivers were dammed to create electricity for a growing middle class. Farms on the edges of cities  also were converted to industrial parks or housing developments, and thousands of rural workers have flocked over the years to Ho Chi Minh City’s peri-urban industrial parks.

International development agencies are now working with the government to help planners here reduce pollution and create better public transportation. But so far there is no coherent national policy to support green design and environmental efficiency in the building sector. Even if there were more interest in green building, from either the public or private sectors, experts say Vietnam’s unsustainably cheap municipal electricity rates would remain a significant disincentive to designs that help homeowners reduce energy consumption. It doesn’t help that urban planning here is inefficient and influenced by property developers with links to corrupt officials in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.

“In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s no green space,” Nghia tells me as his car whips past noodle shops and new automobile dealerships. “It’s just motorbikes, cars, traffic jams.”

Nghia is one of a handful of architects in Vietnam challenging its status quo. His kindred sprits at a21 Studio, an architectural firm, mainly build homes, offices, and hotel projects around southern Vietnam, with an aesthetic dominated by greenery, natural ventilation, and locally sourced materials like wood, rocks, and bamboo. The firm’s office lies near Nghia’s in one of a21’s signature creations: a three-story building with wooden floors, a rooftop garden, and an indoor tree whose trunk extends through the ceilings.

But unlike a21, whose founders maintain a relatively low profile, Vo Trong Nghia Architects has lately become one of the most prominent Vietnamese architectural firms in the world. In 2010, Nghia built a simple concave structure made from bamboo as the Vietnam pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo, and in 2012 he won a design award from the World Architecture Festival for Stacking Green. He also lectures regularly about his work across the Asia Pacific region, and he is working on commissions in China, Thailand, and Panama.

Despite that success, Nghia’s work remains hard to find in Vietnam unless you know where to look. One of his most audacious projects, for example, is a $2 million kindergarten in a low-income neighborhood of Dong Nai province, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The school, which lies among industrial parks and nondescript housing developments, has an undulating roof that looks as if it’s been folded on top of itself like a layered pastry. And the roof is covered in plants, flowers, and vegetable gardens. Nghia says his idea was to give the students – mainly children of factory workers – the kind of connection to the land that he once experienced as a boy growing up in a hardscrabble village.

Not everyone in Vietnam has received Nghia with open arms. Upon returning home from Japan, he felt like an “outsider” who needed to prove himself by winning international awards, he once told a local newspaper. And Phan Hung Hung, a Ho Chi Minh City architect, suggests in an e-mail interview that some of Nghia’s work is a bit outlandish and a far cry from the naturally green design features that have characterized Vietnamese building techniques for generations. “Some of his work is beautiful, but I wonder about its practicality,” Hung writes, without offering specifics.

But Nghia says he is optimistic that, once more Vietnamese see the logic and beauty in his design principles, affordable green building will be scaled up and mainstreamed across the nation. His vision is of urban boulevards lined with homes adorned with so many plants that their facades are barely visible: a city for trees. As a first step, he has been lobbying city planners and legislators to draft laws that would require homes to devote a minimum amount of space to living plants.

They haven’t yet responded to his letters, but he isn’t discouraged.

“I’ll just write to them again and again and again and again,” he explains.

 “And then they’ll say, ‘OK.’ I believe that.”

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ABOUT AUTHOR
 Mike Ives is a Vietnam-based freelance journalist reporting for The New York Times, The Economist, and other publications.

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Born in a central Vietnamese province, Nghia came to value the natural world as central to his survival and humanity as evinced in features of his architecture, like the exteriors of House for Trees, grooved and dented thanks to bamboo trunks Nghia pressed into them as they were drying. Photograph by Justin Mott
House for Trees, designed by architect Vo Trong Nghia is a complex of five small buildings in a gated courtyard in the capital. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Photograph by Justin?Mott
While planning efforts are underway to reduce pollution and improve public transportation, there is no policy to support environmental efficiency and green design in the building sectorthroughout Vietnam. (Above and Right) Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Photograph by Justin?Mott
while critics of Vo Trong Nghia's architecture may contend that his work lacks practicality, his vision for Vietnam's largest city as exemplified in his House for Trees aspires both to idealism and to ecological pragmatism. Photograph by Justin Mott
Vestiges of colonial architecture distinguish the central district of the nation's economic engine, a city of 9 million. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photograph by Justin Mott
It is on the fringes of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, in the transition zone, where architect Vo Trong Nghia pursues design projects. Photograph by Justin Mott
  
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