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Decoding the Language of Vietnamese Modernist Architecture

There is a common confusion between Vietnamese modernism and international modernism that doesn't include vernacular modernist structures in the historical discourse.

We often compare architects' works when addressing the history of architectural currents, and vernacular architecture is flanked out in its own clans. But this situation is ever-changing with vernacular modernism.

Most of the time, when Vietnamese modernist architecture is mentioned, people think of popular works like Reunification Palace, Hoà Bình Theater, or apartment blocks and other public buildings designed by modernist architects. Yet when we take Saigon as a typical site of Vietnamese modernism, the surprising fact is that the urban context of Saigon is, for the most part, made up of modernist shophouses and villas. And, these dwelling structures are - most of the time - designed by the people as a kind of living craftsmanship.

As with any language (a set of symbols and principles channeling thoughts and communications), the 'vernacularized' language of Vietnamese modernist architecture is also made up of certain fundamental blocks and principles, with its own 'alphabet' and 'grammar.'

Therefore, modernist elements, rather than being technical devices, became visual units, artistic strokes and aesthetic assets of a composition. This is proved by the intuitive placement of elements such as planters, beams and louvers over the facades. This phenomenon happens when modernist vocabulary is adopted by a culture as their new way of construction. This vocabulary then becomes a cultural asset and affects the way a culture decides its constructions.

This process created a new breed of modernism. While modernist architects would solve pragmatic problems of the design process in a chain of reasons so that "forms would follow functions," modernist masons would solve aesthetic problems in the design process. But does this mean vernacular modernism isn't functional? The answer is quite the opposite. It's functional over a large scale wherever the culture exists because pragmatic solutions have already been filtered into the architectural language when being adopted.

This explains the typical organization across houses, with balconies, louvers, brise-soleils, planters, vents and other elements forming a typology, or rather a protocol ready to be deployed. This design process leaves house-makers with a chain of instinctive reactions so that forms would follow satisfactions. Somehow, this also filtered back to the work architects, like the the triple-dash anomaly in the building at 2 Trần Ngọc Diện, District 2.

 

The interesting thing about vernacular modernism is that there seems to be a subconscious forum where ideas are exchanged; they travel and evolve. The idea of the "double brackets," for instance, can travel across the city, even across the country. These fundamental blocks have grown into the complex and endless variations that we see in Vietnamese modernist architecture.

To better contextualize an architectural language, it's worth considering the idea of language itself. One theory developed by linguist Noam Chomsky in the latter half of the 20th century explained language as an innate, embedded property of our biological structure that allows us to generate endless phrases reflecting thoughts. If this is true, would it apply to other intellectual objects? Would this apply to other forms of thought besides language, such as architecture?

In the case of the language of Vietnamese vernacular modernism, there is a set of elementary blocks, representing notions, that are acquired and then generated into endless compositions reflecting high levels of artistic and intellectual intelligence. Significantly, this language shares a taste, an intensity, an equilibrium found also in Vietnamese food, music and art.

This similarity plays a pivotal role in helping us understand a culture as a whole. It can help us understand the transversal connection between disciplines, as well as trace back the cultural lifeblood to understand better the nature of thoughts and behaviors. If there is a transversal relationship between the arts, perhaps we can make our built environment both culturally and environmentally responsive by using just our own identity.

Animations by Phạm Phú Vinh.