Vo Trong Nghia:
Building a World for Trees

(originally published in Word Vietnam, August 2014)

Vietnam’s most acclaimed young architect talks flooded metros, multinational architecture and the century of bamboo.

Photos by Francis Xavier

After studying for 10 years in Japan, Vo Trong Nghia came back to Vietnam with ideas on blending sustainable design and contemporary aesthetics with inexpensive, local materials and traditional building techniques.

In the eight years since setting up Vo Trong Nghia Architects, he’s picked up awards both nationally and internationally, and designed 26 residences, restaurants, resorts and schools. To those who follow the discipline, he’s the face of Vietnamese contemporary architecture — and his blend of green design and Asian sensibility the great hope for Vietnam’s architectural future.

We caught Nghia at his Ho Chi Minh City office, at a mid-morning hour after some meeting and before another. His 30-architect workforce were dressed in regulation white shirts, models of past constructions surrounding them. The office radiated a sense of peace and productivity. Over black tea, we chatted architectural visions and life.

WORD: What are you trying to express in your architecture?

Vo Trong Nghia: We express our thinking, our lifestyle, our love with the city, with the human being and with nature in our architecture.

We are now almost crazy with seven billion people in the world, climate change and every day — changing, changing, changing. People are getting crazy. So that’s why we try to put as much as we can of nature into the architecture, so people can enjoy.

WORD: How does your work interact with these big skyscrapers?

VTN: Scale is important, but also small projects can have a big impact to the city… We are making houses like [2012 HCMC residential project] Stacking Green, and we want people to make all tube houses with a green facade, and green roof.

WORD: Why all the bamboo in your work?

VTN: Bamboo is just one natural material… Now we are using much more bamboo. We do like 30 percent bamboo projects, and 70 percent of the other.

We have a lot of bamboo in Vietnam. And especially the big ones in northern Vietnam are one piece, one dollar. You can have a huge amount of that with low cost… Bamboo should be a very good material in the 21st century.

WORD: What does the Japanese influence in the firm add?

VTN: Mentality. The way of working, the way of thinking — also, being honest.

WORD: You’re winning a lot of awards — you have through the whole life of the company. You’re internationally recognised. What are you trying to represent of Vietnamese architecture to the world?

VTN: As much as we win awards, Vietnamese architecture is going to the world.

WORD: So you’re trying to spread Vietnamese architecture — but people in the world who follow architecture, they see you’re work, and they’ll come to Ho Chi Minh City and be shocked.

VTN: [Laughter] I don’t think so. They can feel something they don’t have in their home country. That’s also interesting.

WORD: What do you value in the architecture of Ho Chi Minh City?

VTN: No comment.

WORD: No? Come on, that’s a question that most people have a lot to say about.

VTN: No, we just talk about what is the potential. [Laughter] We still have a lot of opportunity for architects to make architecture… Because everything can be rebuilt.

WORD: And what areas do you see the most opportunity in?

VTN: I like District 2. I’m living there… in Diamond Island. [Nghia shows us prototypes of the modular bamboo dome community centre he’s building for the Diamond Island residences, now in prototype]

WORD: You build a few domes… it’s something I’ve noticed about your work in general, you’re not using every available part of the space. You have a parcel of land, and most people build up in a square. But you sometimes you round the corners, sometimes like with the university you have green areas… they’re not usable, except to look at.

VTN: You know, in Ho Chi Minh City we don’t have a lot of greenery. So that’s why our policy is to make all buildings with trees. It’s a very simple thing. We try to plant as much as we can, and every time we think how many trees we can plant on our building, on our site. So that’s why we’ve named [our 2014 HCMC residential project] House for Trees.

Now, when a client is coming here and asking us to design a house, the first question is, “Can we do a house for trees?”

WORD: Does that differ for Hanoi?

VTN: We do the house for trees too [there]. And then people can enjoy the trees and living in that space. But the first question is, “Can we do the house for trees?” If they don’t accept that, so — finished.

WORD: That’s something you have in common with a21 studio. In their headquarters, [lead architect] Nguyen Hoa Hiep’s house, they have a tree growing inside. And they’ve been cutting the floor so the tree can grow.

I was speaking with [a21 studio architect] Nghiem Dinh Toan, who used to work with you — “Both of them were my staff,” Nghia interjects, “Hiep and Toan” — he was saying that humans must adapt to nature, somewhat like you’re saying. If the client doesn’t want to adapt to nature, then of course they can’t work with him.

VTN: No — but recently, every client wants nature inside their home, inside their building. It’s easy to convince them, recently.

WORD: But you feel that buildings have to bend to nature.

VTN: Of course we need to respect nature. Humans are a small part of nature.

“In Ho Chi Minh City we don’t have a lot of greenery. So that’s why our policy is to make all buildings with trees. It’s a very simple thing… When a client is coming here and asking us to design a house, the first question is, ‘Can we do a house for trees?’”

WORD: Let’s get back to Hanoi — what sort of landscape does Hanoi have for your work?

VTN: A lot of work. And a lot of things to do, you know what I mean?

Something that’s very good, very nice, we don’t have anything to do.

WORD: What work informs your work? What architects have influenced you?

VTN: I love the system of Norman Foster. I like the way [he built] up a system that can do very high quality buildings around the world.

WORD: You are working around the world…

VTN: Yea, but not big like him. I’m still trying to understand how he can handle 1,000 architects, and [still] do very high-end architecture.

WORD: Do you see your company growing much bigger?

VTN: Every day. [Laughter]

WORD: Your company has grown a lot since you started.

VTN: Yea, recently it’s going like this [Nghia traces an upward trajectory with his finger].

WORD: How about you? Are you working on anything personally, or do you supervise?

VTN: I am here — I told you at first, I am here without TV, without magazines, without internet. [I have] huge amounts of time to work with every partner here.

WORD: Do you see that continuing, that you’ll be so hands-on on every project?

VTN: No. We’re trying to build up a Norman Foster system… He just does some important projects [but the style of other offices in his network is consistent], people can recognise that easily. It’s Norman Foster, but it’s not all done by him.

That’s the best system, I think. Because we can work with many partners. If partners can work by themselves, that means they can make their office. We’re trying to produce the number of offices, not only the number of architects. Like [partner Masaaki] Iwamoto, he handles a lot of projects, and some of them he has to do by himself. And then he will quit [our] office and make his own office.

WORD: So you’re sort of training up architects.

VTN: We train together. I’m training myself, I’m training him too, and we’ll try together.

WORD: Where is the next office you’ll open?

VTN: No, that’s the partner, he’ll make his own office.

WORD: Okay — where’s the next office he will open?

VTN: Yes, yes. Like a21 — or you should interview Sanuki + Nishizawa [Architects — also on the contemporary vanguard]. They’re from my office too. We target not only architecture, we try to produce architects. That is much more important.

WORD: So you’re trying to grow this contemporary movement…

VTN: No, no, I’m not saying that!

WORD: How do you envision Vietnam looking in 20 years?

VTN: I think Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are changing every day, very fast.

WORD: And what will they look like?

VTN: What will they look like? I hope it’s not like Jakarta. [Laughter] Jakarta is a crazy city.

I love Kuala Lumpur. But you can walk from here to there in five minutes, and if you go by car it will take you a half-hour. The same problem will happen here.

WORD: Do you think that infrastructure — like when they build a metro system in Ho Chi Minh City — do you think that infrastructure will make a big difference?

VTN: Of course. We need something like that system. Otherwise people will be using cars — traffic jams all day.

I prefer [the monorail] to the underground one. Because you know, in Ho Chi Minh City there are a lot of floods… If they cannot control the water, someone some day inside the metro will have a problem.

If we don’t do well with control, and we make a lot of [earthworks] underground… they’ll drill inside the land like this, and they’ll make some exits like this, and the water will come in here. [Laughter] That isn’t very difficult to control, but for the Vietnamese personality… it’s like nuclear power! It doesn’t fit with the Vietnamese personality.

WORD: Is there a city in the world that you want to see Vietnam’s cities emulate?

VTN: I love London.

WORD: I don’t think it will become like London…

VTN: It’s the best city in Europe. The infrastructure and the river, the bus, the metro, it’s incredible. And you just get on the bus, and just go, and there’s a lot of greenery space! Crazy beautiful.

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