From the poetics of design to the dangers of current architectural trends in Vietnam, tale of a meeting with Japanese architect Shunri Nishizawa from NISHIZAWAARCHITECTS.
There is a house in Binh Thanh. A house covered with trees that grow on its stacked balconies evoking a shy child hiding its treasure away. A house that a simple grey blend mingles with the surroundings. But a house whose ornamented facade attracts the curious eye.
At least, that’s how I got to notice it. As my own eyes were on the house, I felt a strange sensation. I felt like it talked to me. Yes, the house. Not in a language like the ones we, humans, use – there were no words as such – but in a somehow more powerful language, more universal, a language made of emotions, feelings, energy; a cosmic language if you wish. In that language that uses harmony and poetics as medium, yes the house talked to me. And in the span of a few milliseconds, it told me what hundreds of years of writing would not suffice to express. It went over the history of humankind and how over millennia, buildings became more elaborated, to not only serve as shelters but also places of display; and it invited me to cross the seas, the deserted lands and the densely inhabited others to explore how Mayas managed water so efficiently that they never bothered to invent the wheel, when we repeatedly struggle to contain rivers every rainy season. We drifted and drifted away, but rushed by time, we came back to Vietnam, tropical climate, climate change, changing habits and we talked about it, the house, how different from its neighbours it was and why and how relations could sometimes be conflictual. And there was no more time, as my eyes had to come back to traffic monitoring, but the house, in a reassuring tone, murmured “we will meet again” and then disappeared.
Time went by, and I often drove by the house, wondering if that sudden connection wasn’t just a new hallucination. But a few months later – actually the time needed to acknowledge and process the above summarized conversation – our paths did meet again: on November 28th, with much excitation, I would step inside the Binh Thanh house.
Because inside the house, perpetuating some kind of popular architectural myths, lives and works its creator. Unlike Anthony Royal, he doesn’t reign over his empire from a top-floor whitened penthouse. It’s rather the opposite: from the ground floor where he set up his office, he spends most of his days in the company of his three employees and a chameleon. Nothing eccentric, really.
Volumes are structured by a sober concrete, the gracious tone of which is subtly revealed by the presence of wood and the fresh variations of greens; it opens out to winds, sounds and lights, although it is rather shady as the man, on several occasions that day, insists on the importance of shaded spaces in tropical areas – reminding me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s love for shadows.
The space is plain: desks are positioned in the middle of the room, while the left wall is adorned with a bookshelf packed with collections of magazines, archived documents and reference books. Running from the front side of the building, it stops a few meters before the back where a water basin is home to goldfishes and softshell turtles. And over the basin is an original ceiling: movable glass panels have the tricky mission to ensure an efficient natural ventilation – in fact, the building runs without A/C.
Back to our man. Close-up. A sober appearance, a clear-cut voice and a humble mind that chooses with diligence the precise words to express his thoughts and disclose me the essence and poetics of his language.
He brings me back to the 1980’s Tokyo, where it all started. Like all kids, young Shunri had many dreams that seemed unrelated and rather contradictory; someday, he would see himself as a gardener, other times as a music composer… when it was not that adventurous marine-life scientist. He grew up feeding those dreams with wildlife documentaries and Chopin suites and being uncertain about his future; and he grew a little bit older and reached a point where, well, he had to make a choice.
Is the universe, in its constant search for harmony, bound to help those who have that sense? On one of these (usually unhelping) career-orientation days when universities open their gates to future students, he met Ando-san, the great. He confesses: at this point in is life, he didn’t know a single thing about architecture. But the encounter served as a revelation: there and then and with this man, yes, suddenly he knew: architecture it would be.
Architecture as a balanced and metaphorical combination of what he cherished the most: composing melodies for the people, melodies that would fit the natural environment and be nurtured by its richness. His melodies would be buildings.
struggling to be free
This is how, in 2000, Shunri Nishizawa enrolled at the Tokyo University of Architecture. Four years later, he was amongst Ando-san’s troops.
There, he learnt to suffer, he says. The man who masters the paradoxical alliance between richness and simplicity didn’t come to near perfection with his sole talent. Only the infinite repetition of moves, of lines and circles can guide you to give depth, a meaning, a soul – richness in short – to your shapes.
Mr Nishizawa obeyed and struggled with his lines, again and again. An uncountable number of nights were spent at the office and projects were successively delivered. And one day, probably judging he was mature enough to understand, Ando-san walked to him and confided: “I do this job for the freedom”. It struck Mr Nishizawa: “How can you achieve freedom when you suffer?” His look suddenly seems distant as if he was reviving the episode with the same intensity. But he comes back to me and carries on in a shy laugh: “I still don’t get it”.
Over the years though, he made his own interpretation of his masters’ saying. For him, struggle is not only a lesson of perseverance: it’s a rigor you forge, it’s understanding the forces at play in a project, the budget, the environment, the needs of the people, the materials. It’s exploring the hundreds of combinations of shapes and heights and materials to see what fits the best. “This is like language” he adds, “it takes at least three years to manage to express yourself a bit. But it takes another ten years to be fluent. And only after thirty years can you be a poet or a novelist. It is hard to reach, but at that point, you have such a mastering of the language that you can express yourself more freely. This is the same with architecture, the more you know materials, shapes and train yourself on them, the better you can express your emotions with them.”
Following his master’s path, headaches and nights at the office are his routine – and earn him a solid reputation of being “that crazy architect” – “sometimes,” he concedes later, “I wish I had time for a spiritual retreat”.
“handmades give energy to the materials”
In 2008, after four years at Ando’s studio, he recalls feeling the need to struggle with himself and to farm his own ideas. At the same time, a special opportunity came up: Vo Trong Nghia, a former classmate from Tokyo University, asked him to join his company in Vietnam. Convinced he could learn more, he relocated his family in Ho Chi Minh, where he met another Japanese, Sanuki Daisuke. Amongst others, the trio gave life to the world-acclaimed “Stacking Green” building. However, three years later, he moved on again, first with his Japanese colleague, then on his own.
With the first project undertaken on his own, he had the freedom to explore the power of ornaments in revealing the richness of materials. This interest wasn’t born out of nowhere though, it derived from his Ando years: the need to not be controlled or censored that his master transmitted him. He likes to try new know-hows he says, “and this is one thing I appreciate here in Vietnam. Even if we don’t have the techniques, there are many things to try. Craftsmanship is still alive and cheap, it affords us many attempts at things, and to be very creative”.
He reckons things won’t be as perfect as the Japanese way, but it doesn’t bother him nor his Vietnamese clients. So far, he explains while showing me the house, they expressed more concerns over the general harmony than the finishing touches. He points at what some, back home, would see as criminal flaws – here, they are mere details. In a way, it’s better like this: “handmades (and their imperfections) are part of the richness of life, they give energy to the materials.”
an Enku carving wood
He tells me another motivation to explore craftsmanship and ornaments is his skepticism towards a trend he’s been observing in Japan (and which is spreading internationally); a trend towards simplicity and standardised products. He says designers spend more time, money and energy on the materials to make them all white, refined, fluffed out – ethereal. “But there is no more emotion, no thickness, no spiritual. (…) Why simpler is nicer? Nobody knows. Why functionalism is better? Nobody knows…” – but everybody follows. And Nishizawa-san thinks this is too superficial; these designs are based on concepts that seriously lack of intellectual anchoring and long-term vision.
So last year, when he was approached by local fame Pizza 4Ps to design the new Ben Thanh market branch, instead of falling into the whitening trend, he saw this as the opportunity to explore how an old building could be rehabilitated and given a timeless feeling to live throughout the decades to come.
Facing the Northern entrance of Ben Thanh market, the building is a tired block of shop-houses that has, along the years, been divided into smaller units. The facade perfectly reflects the multiplicity of its tenancies: completely covered, in no coherent way whatsoever, by advertisements of resident businesses.
He tells me here in Vietnam, people don’t value old buildings. It’s only when they see foreigners relate to them that they start being curious. This project is his small contribution he says – “another reason to stay in Vietnam”. He believes it’s important to show to both citizens and craftsmen he works with that old buildings can have a second (or third or fourth) life, that they can accommodate modern lifestyles and even enrich them with their own souls.
He then tells me the story of Enku, a monk who, 400 years ago, carved some 120.000 Buddha wooden statues. They were not sophisticated, he nods, but truly beautiful. How did he carve the wood? Enku would claim that the statue already existed inside the wood, that you just had to take the time to feel the piece and think of what was there.
Despite a tight schedule, Mr Nishizawa walked on the footsteps of Enku and wondered about the building’s soul and how he could revive it: “what do we want to keep and take out? What is the best or natural shape or expression for this building?”
Echoing the timelessness appearance of Enku’s buddhas, he evokes what he calls “timeless design” and opposes to conceptual or contemporary designs: “These days, more buildings aim at shocking society or being outstanding, to show off”. But this fame is based on the instant, on the speculation of the spectacular, it belongs to the ephemeral because tomorrow it will be replaced – it has no past nor future, because there are no solid foundations to them, because there is no intent to last. And that’s exactly what he intends not to follow.
Ando-san used to tell him it’s easy to become famous in 5 years, “but to keep your time and motivation and your name for thirty years is very difficult. So we have to find timeless elements.”
“I don’t like the idea of a jungle city”
“It is like green architecture,” another massive trend that worries him, he goes on. Nishizawa-san was one of the first in Ho Chi Minh city to propose “green” buildings with natural ventilation and planted facades. To him, it was more of a one-time exploration of how humans and plants could live together. However today, everyone embraces the concept without questioning its pertinence, application and details. It became a dogma: “green, everybody says it’s nice. Nobody can say that green is not nice. If I say so, people will say that I’m a very bad person”.
This general climate, the absence of debate over such important questions, is very violent to him: “this is my freedom. If I try things to practice materials, vegetal, this is also my expression – I can do it for one project, but I don’t want to be forced into greenery.” Architectural design, he says, is fascinating because of the freedom you have in composition. This kind of dogma is a threat to the very nature of it.
He says he’s afraid the application of a law – as wanted by many – would force him into green architecture. If it becomes a rule, he warns, it can be very boring and he asks: “would this rule be for the humans? For the people living inside those buildings? For the city? I’m not sure… If people tell me we should live in the jungle… Well, I’m not sure it’s the answer. And I don’t like to live in the jungle, this is why I live in Ho Chi Minh city.”
If we want more greens, he suggests the government should take care of providing more parks or planting trees in the streets. But if the architects just want to develop houses with trees, it is more iconic than beneficial to the city.
Because, as he points out, there’s a big and widespread confusion: green is not always ecology. “Sometimes, putting A/C is more ecological. I love plants myself, I wanted to become a gardener. But it’s not easy to live with nature! What are the plants [here] for? Telling yourself you’re a good person? Do you live with the plant and try to adapt to it or is it just another object of decoration?”
There are societal changes, he says, that we must take into consideration: now everybody in the family works and there is no one to take care of the house – but plants do require a lot of time, energy and dedication – who will take care of that?
a local practice undermined by the lack of critique
The absence of a culture of debate in Vietnam makes it very difficult for the architect. In Japan, he explains, critique is part of the architectural culture: “Actually, I was never very strong in critics” he smiles, “but in Vietnam nobody really cares. They don’t say anything about each other, they are aware but they don’t mind.” This to him leads to two things: first the freewheel of commercialism and internationalism to keep poisoning this city with glass towers. Second, the general spread of false-truths such as that about green architecture that diverts attention from the real problems.
There’s another unhelping point he says: Archdaily or influential architecture magazines are mostly of European origin. They see what they want to see and in tropical countries, they want something daring, exotic, wild and colourful – some local architects bring them green and they take it because it perfectly fits their agenda. But, he says “a very simple example. We see images of people chatting outside around the table. Everybody here knows this is not possible – it’s too hot! No one goes purposefully out during the day and everybody covers oneself when they have to. But Westerners want to see this, because it is tropical, the rich sunlight…” – and they serve us the usual spiel… But again, nobody cares or criticizes it because the only thing that matters here is being visible on the web, he says with bitterness: “The Internet shows 20 to 25 photographs with a thousand words and that’s it, they content themselves with that… But architecture is so much more than a section with its caption!”
stimulating society through architecture
Yet, I object, architects who bring back the focus on green architecture, if not try, claim to propose an answer to climate change. Environmental threats are a fact and Vietnam is one of the most at-risk countries. In this ever-growing 10-million people metropolis, subject to more frequent pollution and flooding episodes, I wonder what his proposition and his view on how to tackle environmental threats are.
He says he sees his job as a way to make humans notice, to stimulate them, propose them other space arrangements that induce alternative lifestyles that are respectful towards the climate, the local environment, the animals, and less energy-consuming.
The current trends close people from each other, lock them in boxes: what’s the message conveyed by this architecture? It brings people to only care about their small space – and to neglect the outside. It gets dirtier, more dangerous, but people don’t feel concerned – it’s not their responsibility. The ideas behind are those of selfishness and individual deresponsibilisation. Contemporary representations of “modern life” evoke an atomised society of isolated individuals, but this is a false myth: humans are not independent from each other nor from nature.
A change in mentality is needed he argues and he believes his role, as an architect, as a space-shaper, is to create spaces as buffer zones that invite people to care about each other and share moments together.
That’s his mission for the years to come, from the ground floor of the Binh Thanh house, he will work relentlessly to make spaces for minds to be more curious and tolerating.