How many times haven’t I heard, since I landed in Saigon, complaints about how fast the city is transforming? I wanted to know what the Vietnamese youth, especially those who are meant to make the city, think about it. Tâm, Ha, Lê, Khoa and Viêt agreed to answer my questions. They are all from Vietnamese universities (HCMC school of Architecture and Van Lang University), except Viêt who studied in Japan and England.

Demolitions are happening at a frenetic pace in Saigon. We wreck and rebuild. Quick and modern. It has to shine and attract precious FDIs.

Yet, Saigon has a rich collection of various architectural styles that gives it an unique image: late 19th century shophouses, colonial mansions, art-deco or modernist buildings stand side by side with the ever higher and colourful vernacular tube-house. This diverse landscape is inspiring for the Saigonese youth, especially for a generation of creative entrepreneurs eager to discover new aesthetic models.

Old is trendy

On 14 Tôn Thất Đạm, stands a monolithic concrete building from the 50’s where Thang and his friends manage a café that offers an atypical view on an architectural gem. Facing the Central Bank, his balcony is frequently stormed by professional or amateur photographers.

In this typical example of the modernist era, each floor is occupied by more or less underground yet hip independent shops and cafes. Same stage set on 42 Nguyen Hue, where you can sip your passion fruit mojito while, on the steps of William Whyte, observing from above the social life of the newly refurbished public space.

Viêt, an urban planner, sees these buildings as an opportunity to maintain the diversity of the local economic fabric: ‘These buildings offer affordable spaces for small businesses.

However, to the eyes of many young architects, these buildings have no value. Like sophomore Ha, they are many to dream of Saigon covered with glass facades. According to her, high rises and shopping malls like the Diamond Plaza embellish the city because ‘Saigon looks like a mess, like a trash from above.’ Except a couple of emblematic monuments, such as the Notre-Dame church, the independence palace, the city hall or the post office, Ha does not see what I mean when I mention the diverse urban heritage of the city.

History, education’s ‘poor relation’

This lack of interest on the inherited and traditional architecture in Vietnam takes its source from a deeper issue: Education. According to most of my Vietnamese friends, the way History is taught at school is out of touch with reality: ‘we only learn numbers. The number of deaths in that battle, the number of shot-down American helicopters…’ It seems easy to understand that no one is tempted to dig deeper into the subject…. not even in architecture schools where you would think that learning about old building techniques, cultural contexts that led to their development and urban history is key to understand how to insert a new building in the urban fabric.

In his course on history of architecture, Tâm estimates that merely 20% of his fellow students listen to their lecturer; the remainder, he explains, retort: ‘I don’t care about it, it won’t change anything to my design. So why listen?’

This position is de facto substantiated across students’ projects: ‘Professors do not encourage those of us who conduct a thorough urban analysis to enhance their design. They just ask us to think spectacular, to do something that looks like Zaha Hadid’.

The work of gathering and compiling information about traditional building techniques is depreciated at the expense of international ‘modern’ models that are however not adapted to the local context, such as the tropical climate, and often lead to energetic absurdities. Tâm rises up against that trend: ‘We have forgotten the links between history, culture and architecture! Why do our old buildings have the shape they have? Why did our ancestors use bamboo? The general perception is that these old techniques are backward. In reality, they are extremely clever as they prove how humans can adapt to their environment by minimizing its constraints. At a time where environmental issues are a global concern, I see this ancient knowledge as an endless source of inspiration. Sadly, we persist to deny it!’

When he has the opportunity, Tâm tries to open his comrades’ eyes on ‘how architects are destroying Saigon’ and that is mainly a question of attitude – attitude that is difficult to change. Weary, Ha fends him off: ‘we all know that there is a problem, but we are helpless. The city is developing with those who make money.’

Viêt, Le and Khoa temper: there is indeed at the base, a problem of education that affects the appreciation of the value of old buildings. ‘Architects are not taught to acknowledge the quality of the traditional vietnamese know-how compared to the imported techniques from China, Japan or the Western world,’ insists Khoa, whose wake-up call happened during a study trip in the former imperial capital of Huê. According to him, it is possible to progressively change the situation: ‘People love old buildings, and the early XXth century colonial heritage more than the modernist. You just have to see where the wedding shootings are done!’

Yet, they confess, some architects obviously do not care at all. They are more focused on their 3D renderings for international architecture firms. They never have the opportunity to ask themselves what makes a building beautiful and what are the techniques to be used – in other words, they are never exposed to the reality of the field to make their own opinion.

Raising the public’s awareness progressively

To raise awareness among his friends and the greater public, Khoa shares articles and thoughts on Facebook. ‘Many friends read the articles I post. They read it but don’t want to comment. When I ask them, I can feel that it is the first time they actually think about the question. In general, they find these old buildings beautiful, but they can not explain why because they don’t know how to appreciate their true architectural value.

– But, adds Viêt, it is a first step! You can not expect the people to change too quickly. They read these articles and open their eyes on an issue that was completely unknown to them a second earlier. Sharing information is a already a lot.’

Viêt contributes to an urban planning blog and translates articles from his English speaking fellow planners into Vietnamese. He shares case studies that the Vietnamese public would benefit from reading. Trained in England, he dreams that one day the public would find as much information online as it is the case in Europe: ‘The public needs to be aware of their urban identity, and heritage preservation helps in giving a sense of evolution, of how they have come to the present situation.’ In other words, it allows the citizens to understand the current forms of our cities (and if you want to know more about this, click here).

As for Tâm, he takes the chance of his student projects to explore the abilities of ancient techniques to answer our modern comfort needs: ‘Traditional architecture can not survive if it is solely preserved. It has to live! It should be mobilized and re-interpreted to the light of our contemporary lives.’


Teaching opportunities that should not be missed

Today, Khoa, Lê and Viêt confess that their actions are isolated: ‘we haven’t got in touch with other groups. They exist, but we don’t know what we can do.’ Nevertheless, they remain optimistic on seeing slowly but surely a general behavior change, and the interest of the public to shift towards theirs. The mobilisation around the Tax Trade Center case is a positive example. Vietnamese and expats have spread the information on local and international newspapers.

‘At first, people may have divergent opinions on the issue, explains Lê. The older generations have specific memories attached to this building as they once shopped in it, and therefore want to keep it as it currently is. On the other hand, the young might not strictly want them the way they are, due to their demand of infrastructure.’ They often believe that old buildings slow the development of the city. ‘However, [these] young people have started to participate in preservation because, deep in thought, they have gradually recognized how life would be without them.’

This raising curiosity for the past – bolstered by today’s trends and fashion – is an opportunity to teach young Vietnamese on their cultural heritage that these enthusiast architects are not willing to miss.

• November, 8th 2015 •