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From Nature, Vietnam Slowly Forges Its Own Brand of Contemporary Architecture

When it comes to architecture in Saigon, a tiny fraction of buildings receive the vast majority of attention.

Tourism marketing, for example, loves to advertise the city's remaining French colonial buildings: City Hall, the Central Post Office, District 3's grand fading mansions, and so on.

In-the-know locals, meanwhile, have great appreciation for Saigon's unique Vietnamese modernist structures, most notably the General Sciences Library, Reunification Palace and 42 Nguyen Hue.

Everything else, more or less, is lumped together: the countless tube houses, the anodyne glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the last decade, the apartment complexes with similar looks.

Look in the right places, however, and you'll notice a fascinating movement peeking through the urban cracks: contemporary Vietnamese architecture, with a focus on natural materials, greenery and ample light.

A New Movement

Vo Trong Nghia Architects is by far the most well-known studio working in this space, and all of their international accolades are completely deserved.

The Gem Center, designed by a21. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

a21, founded by Nguyen Hoa Hiep, is another leader of this architectural movement, and you've likely seen two of their designs: the Myst Hotel on Ho Huan Nghiep Street, and Gem Center on Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, both in District 1.

Interior details and the roof of Gem Center. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

I met Hiep at a21's remarkable office down a hẻm in Binh Thanh District. Made largely of reclaimed materials, it is one of the most unique spaces I've seen in Vietnam, and illustrates their design philosophy.

"We think sustainability is not just a design aspect, it's an everyday life situation, in everything we use and how we take care of the building, the material used to build it," he said. "I think we design spaces that we would live in."

a21's The Myst. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The Myst was a21's first hotel, and their largest project to date. "We knew nothing about hotel design, and we thought about where we would want to live, how we would want it to be," Hiep said. "We were not thinking about making a statement or branding or recognition, we just wanted to make a place that we would live in, make something as pure to our style as possible."

To the right of the frame is the under-construction Hilton Hotel. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The hotel, with its foliage-screened balconies and lobby full of items reclaimed from the Ba Son Shipyard after it was demolished, certainly stands out. (Though it is now sadly overshadowed by a massive Hilton being built next door.)

Tran Thi Ngu Ngon, co-founder of Tropical Space, also believes in the importance of focusing on natural materials in designs: "We wanted to create our own path, where we could execute our own thoughts and ideas about the environment that we live in, the society we live in, how it is and how it should be. That's where the name came from.

Ngon and her co-founder, Long, work out of an office in the far reaches of Tan Phu District. They have created a number of award-winning designs in Vietnam, including the incredible Termitary House in Da Nang, which takes inspiration from termite mounts to keep the space cool amid the area's summer heat.

"We want to create architecture in spaces for the tropical person, people that live here and around the culture of the people that live here and the lifestyle that they have," Ngon said. "And then in that climate, using materials, like bricks and bamboo, that are simple."

Seeing the Light

Of course, all it takes is a quick scan of Saigon's cityscape to recognize that such design philosophies are not exactly widespread. Most a21 and Tropical Space projects have been residential, while even Vo Trong Nghia's most famous designs are largely in more rural areas of Vietnam.

However, these ideas are slowly catching on.

"Just five years ago, the demand for new buildings wasn't as high as it is now," Ngon said. "So from a period between 1975 and maybe five years ago, people here in the city didn't really know what they wanted for themselves, and you can see a lot of buildings with a mix of everything from all over the world. A few years ago, there were a couple of architects who just on their own went out and made their own houses, and they caught people's attention and they said, 'yea, we want something like that.'"

Left: The Triple E Hotel at 81 Nguyen Thai Binh Street, District 1. Designed by TAA Design, another prominent contemporary architecture firm based in Saigon. Right: The Tropical Space-designed Organicare Showroom at 116 Le Van Sy in Phu Nhuan. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

New architects have access to more resources, knowledge and inspiration than ever before, and will be able to take contemporary Vietnamese architecture to the next level.

Nguyen Thanh Tan, CEO of D1 Architects, looks forward to this happening. His studio's design philosophy takes a deeply local focus, going so far as to hire traditional artisans in areas they are working in.

An office building on Ta Hien Street in District 2 designed by Vo Trong Nghia Architects. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

"Before we do our design concepts, we research what kind of context we have, as well as the local weather and climate, then we research local materials and what kind of artisans are around the site," he said in a phone call. "We think a lot before, during and after construction about the material lasting and how eco-friendly it is. We try to use mostly local materials to make it sustainable."

While all of these architects hope to see such lines of thought spread more widely, they are aware of the fact that money ultimately talks when it comes to construction, so those with the funds will have to decide what they want Saigon to look like in the future.

The Triple E Hotel. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

"It will spread, but it depends on investors," Ngon shared. "Right now investors think that clients and people want what they're building, and they look to other developing countries for inspiration, but now more things made with more local values are coming up, and they will see more of that and realize that's what people here want. So they will have to change their mindset once they realize that the way they're doing it now isn't right for society or the environment."

Hiep, from a21, is unsparing in his critique of the most common current designs: "From what we're seeing, it feels like what most people are doing is based on trends, and really just to create a building that you can take great photos from, not really a great place to stay. I don't think there's a style established that can be considered Vietnamese or Saigonese yet." 

Past Inspiration

Perhaps the most Saigonese architectural style one can find right now is the modernism mentioned above, examples of which can be found throughout southern Vietnam and all the way up to Hue.

Melissa Merryweather, director of Green Consult-Asia and board member of the Vietnam Green Building Council, wishes more current architects would take inspiration from this indigenous style.

"Mid-century Vietnamese modernism was not only particularly attractive to our 21st-century eye, it was also ideal climactically — often with expressive rainscreens or brise-soleil that protected occupants from the harsh sunlight and allowed natural ventilation," she said in an email.

The green facade of the Vo Trong Nghia Architect's building. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Many new buildings, on the other hand, have entirely glass facades, offering little protection from Saigon's blinding sunlight.

She is heartened, however, by the residential designs of studios like those discussed above.

"This is where Vietnamese architects have been quite inventive, often keeping in mind the traditional ways that Vietnamese architecture protected from heat and encouraged natural ventilation," Merryweather said. "Vo Trong Nghia was the first architect in Vietnam to really push bamboo into the modern lexicon, and he developed ways to increase its longevity and has produced some rather spectacular examples...bamboo is a great material and we should be seeing more of it."

Of course, with so much existing building stock in Saigon, it remains to be seen how big of an impact architects like Hiep, Ngon and Tan will ultimately have, but that won't stop them from trying.

"Our mission is to make sure that each of our projects paints a bigger picture of the city," Tan said. "We want to create a soulful city, and that is what's missing right now in Vietnam."