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The Beauty of Saigon's Mid-Century Shophouses via Street Sketches

What was Vietnamese architecture after colonialism?

Rather than continuing colonial architecture or redoing traditional architecture, modernist architecture was the next step for Vietnamese culture in the middle of the 20th century. This shift is most evident when looking at mid-century shophouses.

Rather than hiring architects, Vietnamese people designed, experimented and enriched modernist architecture with a distinctive taste that isn’t seen elsewhere.

The surviving rows of modernist shophouses in Saigon reflect their mixed-use features and the vibrancy of urban life here. From the organic hẻm neighborhoods in Binh Thanh District to the neatly planned blocks of District 1, these shophouses share a unique Vietnamese identity.  Vietnamese homeowners have painted over the familiar shopfront facades with their own artistic imprints.

The ground floor is oftentimes used for commercial purposes, which connects intimately to life in the neighborhood. Above are up to three floors of living space, always with a loggia extruding out to the street. Last but not least, the top is usually turned into a stylized pergola made of concrete that is sometimes a purely sculptural piece.  

Those are the basics, but the space to design on top of them is endless. From the intense rows of louvers intersecting with one another in various patterns to the abstracted planters hung over the facades towards the streets, architectural elements went beyond their functional roles to bear upon the shapes of an artistic quality required by the owners. And within this quality is substantial and sensitive use of sun shading elements and rhythmic intensity of how parts are put together.

Over a period of 20 years, modernist shophouses were the most common design choice throughout southern Vietnam. It reflects common people's architectural taste and thus forms part of their identity.

Almost seven decades since the emergence of modernist Vietnamese architecture, mid-century shophouses in Saigon remain a familiar part of the urban landscape. We pass them every day, yet they are paradoxically distanced, to the point of being ignored. Everyone seems to realize their presence, but no one seems to know about them. Despite being among the most obvious clichés of Saigon, modernist shophouses much neglected.

Historically speaking, the city is in fact a living reservoir of modernist heritage. It is evidence of a culture’s transformative energy to have adopted a new architectural style with authenticity and identity.

Observations via these sketches by landscape architect Camille Pinson reminds us to pay attention to these longtime "members" of Saigon.

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