The Elements of Style:
A Saigon Architecture Primer
(originally published in Word Vietnam, August 2014)
“Saigon is a city of clean lines," reads one critique of Saigon's modernist architecture. But to confused locals it's anything but.
Ed Weinberg traces the evolution of the Saigon style, through colonial rise and fall, building booms and busts.
Early Colonial Era
“The buildings are masterpieces of passive solar design, much more so than buildings built today — they had to be.”
The story of Saigonese architecture starts at one endpoint — the arrival of the French. In their first southern offensive, colonial forces that had been repelled from Hue targeted the Citadel of Gia Dinh. They captured it in a matter of hours on Feb. 17, 1859 — it was a vulnerable square of Bien Hoa granite, brick and earth — and burned it to the ground less than a month later.
This wasn’t the first time the Citadel of Gia Dinh had been burned to the ground. The structure the French overwhelmed in 1859 was dwarfed by its earlier incarnation, a 1790 construction built by a team of 30,000 labourers under the direction of French mercenary engineers, in the Vauban style of military architecture. It proved so stalwart its conquerors razed it completely after its capture, out of frustration. Though nothing remains of its five-metre-high walls above ground, its disappeared skeleton is still felt in the roadmap of Saigon today.
In the French Image
“The earliest French Colonial architecture was built by engineers as well as architects, and in some cases by French military engineers,” says Archie Pizzini, co-director of HTA+pizzini Architects (resorts, residences, both Galerie Quynhs). “Their aim was to build structures representative of France, a technological leader of that era. There are examples of the latest innovation of that time, such as early mass production techniques like the cast iron modular framing systems you can see in the L’Usine space on Dong Khoi.
“The buildings are masterpieces of passive solar design, much more so than buildings built today — they had to be. The spaces were high-ceilinged, leaving a space for hot air to collect at the top so that inhabitants could reside in the lower, cooler area. There were generally attics, providing a buffer zone for heat at the top of the building so that the solar heat would heat the attic area and be largely discharged through attic ventilation without transferring its heat to the living spaces below.” Although these buildings were direct transplants from elsewhere in the French Empire, they prefigured the climatic innovations that would come with the Indochine and modernist eras.
“[When the] French first came here, they actually used exactly the same things, the same elements they used in France,” says Alex Nguyen, associate director of Haysom Architects (villa designers and urban planners).
At first relying on wooden kit houses shipped in from Singapore, the colony’s builders soon set about replicating the same structures they knew from home. The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica owes something to the large brick-built churches in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, and all its original building materials were imported from France. The wrought-iron arch of Rainbow Bridge, built in 1882 by the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel, preceded Eiffel’s most famed metalwork by a scant five years. An 1881 engraving by Auguste Lepère shows a tree-lined city of pitched roof buildings that wouldn’t look out of place on the French Riviera.
In 1887, French Indochina was formed, with Saigon its capital. As the new colony grew prosperous people flocked to Saigon, and the city’s architecture began to adapt accordingly.
“Those are the things that you cannot find in 50 years. It will be a very sweet and bitter memory.”
In 1920s Hanoi, Ernest Hébrard was fusing local and French architectural traditions into a homegrown style. Tasked with building the archaeology and ethnography museum that would eventually become known as the National Museum of Vietnamese History, his seven-year construction ushered in the age of Indochine Style. Festooned with shaded balconies and insulating double walls, Hébrard’s museum continued the trend of climatic innovation the French had spread through their hot-climate colonies the world over. But this iteration was distinctly Vietnamese.
Hébrard’s influence trickled down to Saigon under the aegis of the Indochina Architecture and Urbanism Central Department, of which he would later be appointed director.
Trung Hoang Trung, director of TD Solutions and architect behind ID Café, M2C and Zest Bistro, says, “It looks very romantic, very connected with nature. You see the ceiling very high, the wind comes through the house and you see the water everywhere, the trees everywhere. A lot of big windows.”
The End of an Era
In 2011, The Independent wrote an article bemoaning the loss of Indochine era landmarks like the recently torn down Eden Centre, titled The Fall of Saigon — By Demolition. American War era journo Carl Robinson wrote in a forum, “It’s an easy story to write — and a killer headline, of course — but I do think the reality is actually rather positive.”
Two-and-a-half years on, Robinson seemed less emphatic. “Despite a recent economic downturn,” he wrote in a September 2013 Metropolis Magazine article on Ho Chi Minh City architecture, “the city is still in the midst of a massive facelift. Once it’s completed, no one knows if this one-time Pearl of the Orient will have any personality left.”
Many were shocked by the May demolition of the 1930-built Art Deco-cum-Internationalist landmark at 213 Dong Khoi. Thien Huong of Tran Binh Architects (private residences, Cuc Gach Quan) was one of the building’s champions, and she remembers clearly when she knew it was over. “One morning I drove by, and I see they covered the building and I know — oh it’s time, it happened.”
With a photographer, Huong went through the building in March. “We took pictures of every single house we could get in… the very beautiful stairs, the Art Deco style. You can never forget it.” The pictures are still hanging at Cuc Gach Quan.
Huong and Tran Binh took more than just pictures however — collecting all the doors, windows and metal elevator grills that were salvageable. Together with the bricks from a demolished French Colonial on Ly Chinh Thang, they plan to build a new-old house, filled with the aura these things hold in them. “It [will be] a place for everyone who wants to see and live there,” she says.
What if the bricks of more of these revived sentinels are taken and rearranged elsewhere? What kind of aura would a whole city block of these new-old buildings give off? Would tourists and lonely poets search out this district of memory, and leave the anytown-Asia glass-and-steel downtown barren at night, in search of Saigon’s old Indochine flair?
Huong isn’t optimistic. “Those are the things that you cannot find in 50 years,” she says. “It will be a very sweet and bitter memory.”
Saigonese High Modern
“The palace that Thu built is deliriously glamorous, a lip-smacking mix of Turandot melodrama and James Bond cool.”
For most people, the styles associated with Saigon aren’t the ones tourists are directed to. For true Saigonese architecture, you have to look down the city’s alleys, at the unassuming multi-storey rowhouses that tower over both sides of the hem.
“You see these modernist little rowhouses,” Archie Pizzini (HTA+pizzini Architects) says. “They’re really still beautifully sun-shaded, they still have a terrace up top, the windows are set back from the skin, there’s a balcony where you can get some breeze, and there’s usually a stairwell that goes all the way up — and above the top of the stairwell, the roof is missing. So what it does is it creates a chimney effect.
“As the hot air rises, it goes up through the stairwell — and because it creates a low-pressure system when it rises, it sucks the cooler air in through the other spaces. So you get this thing where you’re getting rid of the hot air. And the whole building works like that, it’s a machine with no moving parts. It’s a machine simply by placement.”
“Clean lines, less clutter and more creativity,” writes Helen Clark in Gulf News Weekend Review. “The same spatial limitations apply as Hanoi: tall, narrow houses on small blocks of land and cheek-by-jowl building. But architects in the south seem to have turned these restrictions to their advantage, using basic modernist-influenced templates to make the most of what they have.”
In the same article, Ho Chi Minh City-based architect Mel Schenck is quoted as saying, “Modernist architecture as evolved in Vietnam is well-suited to the tropical climate and the high density of small lots [and] tied intimately to the everyday lives of the people. I believe modernist architecture serves as a cultural marker for the southern Vietnamese… characterised by the wide range of experimentation with colour, texture, lines, planes, materials and landscaping.”
Pizzini sees it too. He says, “Saigon modernism had a decidedly more exuberant feel to it than the mainstream version did.” Saigon had arrived at its architectural identity, and it was as audacious as it was representative.
The story of Reunification Palace is the story of Saigon’s architectural evolution, and one of its pinnacles. Starting life as a colonial project, the former building on the grounds was a spectacular-if-samey work of French Colonial bric-a-brac by the architect of the former Hong Kong City Hall. Following a bombing by two dissident pilots of the southern air force, the commission for the overhaul was handed to the brilliant Ngo Viet Thu — an École des Beaux-Arts-trained architect and innovative painter who would work into the Reunification era.
Mitchell Owens wrote in The New York Times, “The palace that Thu built is deliriously glamorous, a lip-smacking mix of Turandot melodrama and James Bond cool.” This past December, when its chu nom and bamboo–inspired facade became the canvas for a Vietnamese history laser light show called Allumeurs d’Images, that dynastic drama was on hand for nearly 50,000 to see.
At the end of the article, Owens quotes Nguyen Xuan Oanh, a finance minister during the palace’s construction: “The history of Vietnam is the history of dynasties. When a new dynasty came in, it destroyed all that came before.”
But Owens’s conclusion is slightly different. “At least, that’s what used to happen. The continued survival of Reunification Palace is proof that some conquerors know an architectural triumph when they see one.”
“You had this uncontrolled growth into the swamplands. There was no more city planning, they just conquered the land… They used the cheapest means possible to achieve the results they wanted to have.”
Peace brought new challenges, and construction stopped for much of the next 20 years — until the building boom of the 1990s. And with the shift in political direction came a change in the built trajectory of the 100 years before.
“The architects from Hanoi came here,” explains Alex Nguyen (Haysom Architects), “and they’ve all been trained by Soviets. The first moment they have been shocked — they see the 15-floor buildings, they’re shocked, they see the [Reunification Palace], they’re shocked. They’re shocked by everything from Saigon.
“And later, after the shock, they want to transform it and build it in the same way they knew.”
Axel Korn of Korn Architects (Crescent Mall, Thuong Dinh Plaza in Hanoi) sees this moment as the splintering of the city style. “Before,” he says, “the government buildings and the private buildings were kind of in line. At that very point they fell apart.
“There was a certain style carried by government buildings, which you can reference to the Stalinist style in Russia. That style actually has two parts — it has first a modern [part], then it switched to Baroque. It’s really weird.”
Ho Chi Minh City was growing on a curve at this time — from an estimated 2 million people in 1975 to 4.6 million in 1995. Most of them were from poorer rural areas, and they staked claim on whatever outskirt land they could.
“You had this uncontrolled growth into the swamplands,” Korn says. “There was no more city planning, they just conquered the land… They used the cheapest means possible to achieve the results they wanted to have. So instead of having a clay tile roof, they used sheet metal, instead of doing wood louvres, they used concrete.”
The death of terrazzo in Saigon is the story of how the past gets left behind. First it’s everywhere, so much so that you’d never think you could miss it. And soon enough it’s gone. When people see its traces in 100 years — still in stairs, window ledges and courtyards everywhere — it will seem fantastic to them.
“You look at some of the 1960s [and 1970s] buildings here,” Archie Pizzini (HTA+pizzini Architects) says, “with the pebble-wash and the terrazzo — badass construction quality. Just the top stuff that you can’t get anymore. And if you look at those buildings, there’s no cracks in them, very few cracks… In a lot of cases now, they’re covering it with a layer of plaster, which is totally banal.”
And it’s not just plaster — it’s concrete filling in the gaps, DIY replacing a niche craft.
“In 1975, as I understand it,” Pizzini says, “nothing was built for 20 years. So that whole generation of craftsman, people who knew how to build at a very high level, died — they literally died out… and the whole idea of passing the knowledge of craftsmanship from generation to generation to generation is broken.
“To me, what I see is that there was a lot of expertise here at one time, I mean an incredible amount, and suddenly it disappears in the reconstruction.”
Korn sees this loss as the first step to the kaleidoscope of styles currently on display. “The sad thing,” he says, “is that before, Saigon had one style which you could really identify. So even though you had these [Soviet modernist] adventures building here and there, the dominant style was still French Colonial. And they created such a coherent image of the city. It survived until 1995, close to 2000. And the real damage was done after that.”
“A local friend voiced a great question one day as we were walking past the Bitexco Tower — she asked me, ‘But, what is it doing here?’”
The past is gone — this you know every time you see the Bitexco Financial Tower breaking the skyline in the image of a lotus, with one helipad-shaped petal.
“Many contemporary buildings,” says Archie Pizzini (HTA+pizzini Architects), “completely ignore the context they’re built in, requiring increased energy use to remedy shortcomings built into the design from the start.” — ‘You look at the top of that tower,’ Pizzini says at another point in the conversation, ‘and you think, really? All that glass? Unprotected? Really?’ — “Much of this comes from the globalised nature of design in the present era. Designers and clients conceive a building without ever attempting to understand its location and context. The results are often inappropriate.
“A local friend voiced a great question one day as we were walking past the Bitexco Tower — she asked me, ‘But, what is it doing here?’”
The way those on the vanguard of Vietnamese architecture, such as Nghiem Dinh Toan of a21 studio (houses and resorts of reclaimed wood, stone and geometry), deal with this spatial nihilism is by creating their own rules.
“The client chooses us and we also choose the client,” Toan says. “We have to predict whether they fit to the space.”
In a21’s workspace, a tree grows through two latticed wood levels. Over the years the house has had to adapt, sacrificing floorboards and light to the growth of the tree.
“At first there was a lot of sunlight here,” Toan says, “and when we stay here” — he points to the long wooden worktable near the tree — “it’s still very bright. But for this year, the tree [went] up very high, and we had to change, we had to adapt.
“It depends on the condition of the space… People have to accept that.”
On the other hand, square-metre lust (trademark Archie Pizzini) doesn’t bend to trees. Born out of colonial tax laws based on linear frontage, not overall lot area, and exacerbated by the building boom of the 1990s — which saw property rates jump a thousandfold — this philosophy is driving Saigon’s skyline ever higher.
Nowhere is this as stark as in District 7, overlooking fields of teetering rowhouse skyscrapers, set adjacent to empty lots. This is the type of logic driving Saigon out of balance.
“You see a lot of these old rowhouses from the 1960s,” Pizzini says, “and people are going out onto the balcony and putting a sheet of glass right at the edge of the property line. A totally unprotected sheet of glass. Well what you’ve just done is you’ve created a little microwave out there. Not only that, but the microwave is attached to the rest of your house.”
Like most post-colonial cities, there’s a confusion of styles here, looking like chaos to the untrained eye. There is a rejection of the colonial past and yet a longing for it, a push to stake out a new identity and yet no clear vision for it, and opportunistic middlemen everywhere you look. And in the middle of it all are the people these buildings should be designed for, trying to adapt to their built environment.
Pizzini sees a beauty in this flexibility, and more sustainability than most contemporary constructions have to offer. “In Canada or the US,” he says, “a kitchen is its own room, a bedroom is its own room, a living room is its own room. In Vietnam it’s all the same room — what a fun concept! Especially if you’re talking about green design. Why don’t you just make the space you’ve got work harder?”