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New Book Offers Deep Dive Into Vietnam's Connection With Modernist Architecture

Vietnamese architecture fans, add this to your bookshelf.

Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture, written by American architect Mel Schenck with photographs by Alexandre Garel, is now available in Vietnam and overseas. The version on sale here is in black-and-white, while those abroad have access to a color version.

The 435-page book covers a wide range of topics within modernist architecture, from the style's history in southern Vietnam and why it is so popular here to specific design features across residential, commercial and public buildings.

Schenck, a long-time Saigon resident and architect, told me that the book began nearly 50 years ago when he first came to the city as a construction manager for the US Navy.

"I had just graduated from architecture school the year before and I was shocked to see all of the modernist architecture here," he said. "Those of us from America or Europe realize there are great pieces of modernist architecture around, but not much of it. And then I walked down the streets here and 100% of houses on what is now Le Thi Rieng were modernist. I was in architecture heaven."

Saigon is certainly not alone in this regard, as such structures are also common in other provinces, and the book has specific sections on the Mekong Delta, Da Lat and Quy Nhon, all home to numerous examples of mid-century modernism.

Research for the publication began in earnest roughly five years ago, Schenck added: "It took a long time to get the photographs and the book ready for production, but we finally got there."

He and Garel worked on a list of over 400 buildings throughout southern provinces, with both comparing notes on villas, factories and shophouses that they had discovered in their travels and studies.

"He came to me when I was about halfway through writing and I was worried about how I was going to do photographs; I've done a lot of photography, but I didn't want to do it," Schenck said. "So Alex called me up and I had known him through the heritage circles on Facebook...and we agreed to be partners, and that's what I needed."

When it came time to finalize the book, many structures had to be cut, as the book would've been too long, but the examples highlighted are some of the most illustrative of Vietnam's vernacular modernist architecture.

"There were points that I wanted to make about Vietnamese modernist architecture so I chose buildings that serve the interests of explaining the architecture, and the history," Schenck explained.

These include many here in Saigon, making it easy for local modernism fans to explore — as long as they haven't been demolished, which is a problem that Schenck has encountered.

"It's important for any government to list buildings that need to be protected, and they've done that for colonial villas in District 3, but it hasn't happened yet for modernist buildings," he shared.

Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture is available at major bookstores in Vietnam, or through online retailers such as Barnes & Nobles overseas. More info on the topic can also be found in the Vietnamese Modernist Architecture Facebook group.

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