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The Story of Vietnam's Urban Energy and Aspirations Told via Southern Modernist Architecture

The following article is an edited excerpt from the recently published book Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture, presenting the history of the style, and how it contrasts with modernism in northern Việt Nam.

Modernist architecture flourished in southern Việt Nam from 1945 through 1975, becoming a Golden Age of mid-century modernist architecture.

After World War II and the stagnation of the French colonial government during the First Indochina War, southern Vietnamese could see that the end of colonialism was almost at hand, and they turned to build a Vietnamese consumer economy to supplement the resource-extraction economy of the colonies. With new industries and a booming informal economy based on the influx of migrants into the city, Sài Gòn took on an identity of tremendous energy. This energy led to a society that immediately left colonialism behind in 1954 and built a culture of independence and optimism towards the future. Vietnamese architects jumped past the neoclassical and art deco architecture of the French architects directly into modernism, since it expressed their autonomy and their aspirations to be a modern country in the industrial age. The new modernist Independence Palace, occupied in 1966, explicitly confirmed this energy and the aspirations of an independent nation. The people embraced modernism but made it Vietnamese.

Meanwhile, the growth of the young middle class that resulted from the new economy led to filling new modernist apartment blocks in the inner city. This energy was not diminished during the Second Indochina War as the country continued building additional industries required to sustain the war.

The "cafe apartment" building at 42 Nguyễn Huệ, one of District 1's most prominent modernist buildings. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

The Indochina Wars transplanted many rural people to squatter neighborhoods on the edges of the inner city. In the war years from 1950 to 1975, the city population swelled from less than one million people to over four million people. Since the wars, rural people have continued to move into the city in search of jobs and opportunities. Phú Nhuận District, between downtown and the airport, for example, was full of squatter shacks before 1975 that appropriated small pieces of land along access lanes that were unplanned and were established as new families moved in. That is why the pathways between the major streets have no rational pattern. Over time, the flimsy shacks were replaced with one-story masonry houses of the same land size and shape. Then a few years later, these small houses were replaced with two-story modernist structures as families grew. More recently, five-story modernist structures are replacing the smaller structures. There is constant renewal like this in all of the neighborhoods, and this is a significant engine of economic growth of the city and a fertile field for modernist architectural experimentation.

The change over time has seen an increase in height and density through the constant renewal in the neighborhoods. Since the reunification of the country in 1975, the average height of residential structures has increased from two or three stories to four to five stories in inner-city districts. Commercial and residential high-rise buildings are not being constructed as single towers around the inner and outer city districts along major commercial streets, and large multi-building residential developments are clustered along the Sài Gòn River. The city’s mayor announced that the population of Hồ Chí Minh City was 13 million people in 2017.

The energy and forward-looking identity of the Vietnamese people continues unabated today. One of the most appealing aspects of this has been the growth of the Vietnamese middle class, with all of the modern aspirations that come with it. Vietnamese aren’t immune, however, to globalism and its homogenization of culture. But they take it in stride and bend it to fit their will. From the ancient times of contact with world traders, the southern Vietnamese have been very open to new ideas, but they adapt them to fit their needs and the Vietnamese culture. This characteristic continues to serve the Vietnamese well today. So they have become citizens of the world even as they maintain a distinctly Vietnamese identity.

The General Science Library at 69 Lý Tự Trọng, District 1. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

The primary result of this high energy of people is an intensity of life and experiences. Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Vietnamese urban life involves a certain amount of messiness and chaos, but that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, the energy level will likely have decreased with that supposed progress.

For more than 70 years, architects, builders, and home-owners have experimented with color and patterns within the standard four-meter-wide five-story-tall urban house façade. The result is a sophisticated evolution of a modernist architecture that fits the tropical climate of Việt Nam well within a constricted space. This variety of experimentation accentuates the intensity of urban life along the streets.

A primary driver of this intensive life is the high density of population. Along with residential high-rise developments, the average height of the shophouses and the high occupancy levels lead to one of the highest population densities of any city in the world. Coupled with tropical temperatures that encourage outdoor life, this creates an urban environment filled with people contributing their images, sounds, smells, and tastes to others. The range of street food, karaoke music, and commercial sales along most streets is stimulating and invigorating. These conditions facilitate the natural sociability of the Vietnamese.

A modernist auditorium at the Huể University of Education. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Vietnamese modernist architecture is therefore not the soulless, bland modernism of International Style buildings seen around the world, including downtown Hồ Chí Minh City. The middle-class energy of Việt Nam, particularly in the south, created this very intensive life and identity, and that Vietnamese intensiveness is a core characteristic of Vietnamese modernist architecture. As demonstrated in the book, mid-century Vietnamese modernist architecture is human-scaled and lively with a high degree of articulation of elements in the building forms and compositions. But there are many paradoxes in Vietnamese culture. Traditional Vietnamese architecture is understated, but elegant. Earth tones are generally used for color. Nevertheless, the restrained nature of Vietnamese architecture coexists with the intensity of life. Vietnamese architects succeeded in capturing this complexity in Vietnamese modernist architecture that reflects the intensive identity of the Vietnamese people.

The book focuses on southern Việt Nam as a center of modernism. There is modernist architecture in northern Việt Nam, but it is not predominant in the provinces of the north. The vernacular architecture of houses in the north is not modernist. A typical northern village will have a mixture of traditional Vietnamese wood and masonry houses and modern but neoclassical masonry houses, usually multi-story. New shophouses in Hà Nội are predominantly neoclassical or what citizens in the north often call “New French Style,” an eclectic mix of ostentatious classical or period-revival styles.

The first Vietnamese architects graduated from the French art and architecture school École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hà Nội in 1931. Some of these graduates lived in the north, and others returned to the south. As a result, they had a shared exposure to modernist architecture at the school, most often interpreted and executed in an art deco style. In 1943 during the Japanese occupation, the architecture school relocated to the southern mountain town of Đà Lạt and then transferred again to Sài Gòn in 1950.

Modernism on display at the Huế University of Education. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

The northern architects thrived designing art deco villas between 1933 to 1944. The first independent architectural firm founded by Vietnamese architects was the firm of Nguyễn Cao Luyện and Hoàng Như Tiếp in Hà Nội in 1933, who were later joined by Nguyễn Gia Đức. Their work was art deco or modernist from their beginning.

After Hồ Chí Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence in 1945 and the resulting breakout of the First Indochina War with France, the resistance adopted a wartime footing, and northern Vietnamese architects turned to serve the country with designs for army and community facilities in the resistance areas. These conditions persisted through the Second Indochina War with the United States and the southern government, and then on through a reconstruction period. Therefore the northern provinces lost an extended period of opportunities to develop a modernist architecture that fit the northern climate, the available materials, and the sensibilities of the people of the north.

A couple of generations of northern architects were trained in the states of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1990. Combined with economic and technical assistance from Communist-bloc countries, notably Russia, in the 1960s and 1970s, a few significant buildings were constructed that exhibit modernist Russian Constructivist styling modified with Vietnamese characteristics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Vietnamese architects designed several large modernist buildings similar to the Vietnamese modernist architecture of the south, but somewhat heavier in appearance. This reflects perhaps the influences of the northern climate of four seasons. However, northern Vietnamese architecture, on the whole, has tended to remain more utilitarian, eclectic, or traditional.

A small modernist house outside of Quy Nhơn. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Find out more about Mel Schenck's book on modernism in Vietnamese architecture here.

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