Ed Haysom, an Australian architect and part-time resident of Vietnam for many years, has written many articles in the past about Vietnamese architecture and urban planning. Now he has written a good review of "Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture" for publication in Australia. With his permission, we present it below:
This is an important book.
It draws attention to a little discussed part of Saigon’’s history - its modernist buildings
The book is a comprehensive documentation of these buildings and demonstrates clearly why these buildings are important texturally and culturally to Ho Chi Minh City and to the country. Many of them are now at risk because they are perceived as “old” but not “that old” - that in between period when people cannot see their value.
The evolution of this modernism in Vietnam is fascinatingly explained by Mel Schenck. Modernist architecture took root in France through the work of Le Corbusier. Its growth, like many other art forms in the 20th century was catalysed by technology, the development of the elevator and electric lighting.
Modernism reached Vietnam at a time of great economic growth and its elements were easily understood and constructed. Modernism relied less on craftsmanship and more on the assembly of components. The climatic lessons learned by the previous generation of architects in Vietnam were passed on to the 20th century practitioners who were able to design buildings with double skins and sunshading. The Vietnamese architects were quick to adapt modernism to their own ends and express Vietnamese aspirations and culture while still working within budget constraints and deadlines
These modernist buildings illustrated in the book with their bris soleil have made an enormous contribution to the city.
In the 19th Century an architect would not be able to design a building without adding texture to the exterior because both the market and the clients expected it. Building texture comes from the building’s form and the expression of that form using shadows and patterns that not only give relief to the building but also allowing the building form to subtly change during the day.
As Mel Schenck describes and Alexandre Garel illustrates, Ho Chi Minh City is full of buildings that are fine examples of this. The texture of these older buildings took the form of balconies and self- shading devices designed to keep the sun off the facade of the building. This provided a rich texture and delivered an attractive cityscape. Their successors with their imported curtain walls and heavy reliance on air conditioning are inferior to these buildings. The net result is building blandness as the texture is removed and only the rectangular building form remains
There could almost be a companion volume to this - much slimmer - made available to HCMC’s political leaders. Slimmer because they will not read - although they should - this comprehensive volume
It also should be on the bookshelf of any architect practicing in Vietnam
Ed Haysom June 2020