Ho Chi Minh City, Viêt Nam, is under spectacular urban renewal; in each and every district, (re)development projects are mushrooming. Yet as it seems to grow uncontrolled, the city’s identity is at stake. Here are a few thoughts about what makes the soul of our cities.

Kuala Lumpur: impressions of placelessness

I recently got the chance to visit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I didn’t see much, although I left with the impression of having seen everything that was worth. The city centre is an area where there is no place for buildings lower than 10 floors and in the middle of which the Petronas towers – and the oil empire – stand, reigning over the city.

With a room at the 29th floor, right in the centre, I thought the view would be amazing. But as I stuck my nose to the bay window, I found the monotony of skyscrapers a bit disappointing. I got the impression of watching a tennis-table game between anonymous façades upon which reflections bounce and protect its mysterious residents from curious observers. At their feet, no more streets but access roads for motorised vehicles. Pedestrians find their way through underground and overground corridors, ensuring they never get to bear the tropical climate.

view from the room © anordinarycity, 2015

Outside, a constant roar was filling the air – that was the blow of the air-conditioning vent fans. The outside world seemed only conceived as a residual space made to accommodate all what (indoor!) modern-life luxury and comfort would not impose to its wealthy citizens-clients.

I haven’t been to Singapore or Guangzhou but I already dread the vertigo feeling. I came back to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Viêt Nam) anxious. Isn’t the Bitexco tower announcing the metamorphosis of the city?

I was distressed of seeing this endearing city, full of life becoming another Kuala Lumpur, another Singapore, standardised.

I don’t really know what makes Saigon special. A quick description could look like a big bucket of clichés, but the organic juxtaposition of different elements creates a unique sense of place. It can start with its streets packed with motorbikes, its people always sitting in the streets and observing life like quiet cats… There’s also the awkward architectural mix between garish French colonial, traditional tube-houses, soviet-era inspired monuments and modern Korean condominiums. And above all, in each of these streets, crossings and parks, it’s about feeling a profoundly human presence. It’s about hearing the words, the feelings, the hopes once whispered at the trees’ feet, on doorsteps at dawn, tossed at red lights, like if they were suspended in the air, had grabbed onto the walls or were hanged to the electric cables.

This atmosphere is made possible thanks to a specificity of the Vietnamese street: the great permeability between the public and private spaces. The tube-house (named after its peculiar proportions) is open on its ground floor to the street. While the space in the back is reserved to private activities, such as living room, the entrance will host commercial activities (restaurant, shop) hence creating a steady link to the street.

When everything becomes heritage, nothing is heritage

If the very rich built environment is a vital support to the general atmosphere everyone likes to grasp in Saigon, whenever a building is demolished, a part of this soul fades away. And little by little, it’s the memory of the city that disappears. It reminds me Italian architect and urban planner Ludovico Quaroni once said: “what distinguishes man from all other creatures, is that he’s not capable of living without memory”. Without memory, what are we but robots, whose only goal is consuming – consuming products, services, entertainments, places, “experiences”?

The memory appears as a shield against alienation. The memory of who we are, how we got where we are. French urban planner Françoise Choay deeply explored the question of heritage preservation. In her book L’Allégorie du Patrimoine (the allegory of heritage) she reminds us that when erecting monuments, mankind ought to call on to memory, to “remind themselves or other generations or people of events, sacrifices, rites or beliefs”.

In some countries, the memorial question has overwhelmed the urban planning priorities. Critics are fervent against the exponential development of heritage measures – it clears the approach out of its meaning. When heritage covers each and every building, nothing is heritage.

Yet in other places across the world, this question just doesn’t exist. One or two temples are preserved for their touristic value and buildings are replaced with towers with planned obsolescence. International capitals will flow in and less well-off citizens will be pushed away.

The built environment: a support for our urban memories

My point is not to say that a policy of heritage preservation for urban centres would resolve spatial justice issues. I also doubt that it would – at least alone – be the most appropriate answer to the spectacular development of cities. Like all things the “preservation” measures should be moderate and long-thought: where should it apply, to which buildings, how flexible? It can however be a tool to better frame the balanced development of the city. Beyond the mummifying of a couple of buildings to satisfy international experts and ratings, it would mean to think about the adaptation of the vernacular built environment to the constraints of urban demographics, land-value pressures, climate change… In a word, preservation should be a mean – not finality – to let people live in places they like and have lived in, to quote Professor Yung from University of Hong Kong.

This concept of vernacular urbanism (the environment built by communities, where they live, and which is seen as the expression of a specific local culture and a relation to a territory) is very interesting as it gives a central place to the link established between a local community and its built environment.

On the contrary, the word “heritage” tends to become a commercial ragbag, victim of its own success. As every monument tends to be seen as a testimony from history, the whole city is under preservation measures, but with no further reflexion on how this can be used for the people in the future.

The idea behind the concept of “vernacular urbanism” would rather be to remind that cities are not constituted of two elements disconnected the one from the other – people / buildings – but that people do interact with their environment. They shape it (build it or claim over it – some develop their activities on sidewalks) as much as it does influence them (the shape, the size of a place or a building reveals its symbolic meaning: the imposing library will print in our minds the importance of knowledge). Cities are built by and for people; they are shaped depending on individual and community needs.

Besides, this concept also takes into consideration the evolution of the built environment through the years, the evolution of the local populations’ needs and its adaptation to new materials techniques and technologies. A city’s development is a continuing process: some buildings can be knocked down and replaced by others as long as the new ones respect the knowledge handing-down and a sense of place. In its shapes and developments and in its sense of place, the built environment reveals the local cultural heritage; it carries the “memory” of the city.

Putting the preservation of the vernacular environment at the core of development policies would be a great effort to show that the sustainable development of our cities cannot be conceived without embracing the local cultures – and the buildings supporting it.

If citizens, inhabitants are not allowed to sustain this relationship with their built environment, use it as a support for their dreams and daily needs, they get exposed to the risk of a slow but certain alienation of their identity.

Future cities… Without memory?

In Kuala Lumpur, I couldn’t feel the soul of the city. I could only grasp a vague impression of void. I was in a very specific place, located on a map, but I could have been anywhere else in the world. This was to me a definition of “placelessness”.

In Saigon I fear the consequences of the application of international models to urban projects. In 2012, HCMC People’s Committee organised a seminar about “HCMC Urban Architectural heritage”. The Architects’ Association pointed out that on the 108 buildings listed as heritage monuments, more than a fourth had already disappeared. In fact, every week old buildings on the verge of crumbling are demolished to make space for lavish projects.

The new urban forms actually represent an enormous change in the volumes of the city: their verticality contradicts the traditional heights of Saigon, a relatively low city. They not only constitute a threat for the historic centre – that is quickly being transformed into an anaemic CBD – but also for vernacular developments in more popular area such as District 4, 8 or 10.

Has optimism still a place? People are gathering into groups for saving the city’s architectural heritage (Facebook Group « Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now »). The recurring news of the destruction of old buildings seems to be more and more welcomed with people’s contestation – as the example of the former Cercle des Officiers has shown. However, this movement has now to grow bigger, to get organised and to claim its attachment to the heritage and built environment as a founding characteristic of Saigon’s identity.

As a comparison, a few thousand kilometres away from Saigon, the city of Casablanca, Morocco, is confronted to a similar movement of mobilisation for saving the built heritage. On March 25th, its inhabitants discovered the demolishing of the site of the company Legal Freres & Cie. Built in 1932 by architects Ziegler, Soulier and Jabin, the buildings had been recognized in 2013 national historic monument, as a testimony of fine industrial architecture of that time. The site was knowing a second artistic life full of promises.

Rachid Andaloussi, president of the very active organisation Casamemoire, was fierce to critisize the decision. To him, it was an affront to the work of his association to save Casablanca’s heritage. In an op-ed, he took the opportunity to remind the citizens’ central role in this process: “preserving and enhancing the heritage of the white city is everyone’s concern! Let’s joint our efforts, discuss together for a stronger mobilisation and let’s spread to the wider audience our common passion for Casablanca’s architectural and cultural heritage. It is every citizen’s duty to do as much as he can to ensure that coming generations can live in a city where the past, without hindering the future, keeps its place as the witness of a remarkable history.”

Of the necessity to include citizens in the debate

In fact, in Saigon as much as in Casablanca, the impulse need to come from the citizens. But for that, they have to be themselves convinced of the legitimacy of this fight for their heritage and built environment. And sometimes, this is far from being the case.

We can find a clear illustration of the issues associated with heritage preservation in the case of the Ba Son Shipyard in Ho Chi Minh City. A couple of weeks ago, the People’s Committee announced that the shipyard, dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, is to be demolished and redeveloped by a South-Korean investor.

Although the site was recognized in 1993 by the Ministry of Culture and Information as a national historic monument, it looks like it never received the preservation measures it needed. Today the extremely poor conditions of the building only call for demolition.

Meanwhile, the site does not give the impression to engage the population. Its access is restricted and only those working in the administrative facilities are allowed in. The shipyard appears to be forgotten behind a long surrounding wall, and in the same time strips away a vital access to the riverbanks. So, if we think about it, why should we be disappointed about the loss of this building, as it has already been forgotten by passers-by?

Well, it is you, reader, you citizen who should ask yourself this question: which city do you want or wish to hand out to your children?

Local authorities and the “makers of the city” – architects, town planners, real estate groups – should explore and promote alternatives to the demolishing of old structures, but most importantly to their replacement with urban dreadnoughts quite unsuitable to both local identities and needs. If we take the case of the Ba Son Shipyard, Tim Russell, a tourism specialist in Asia, proposed to renovate the site in a cultural, commercial and entertainment area like what was done in South Street SeaPort, New York. It is just an example, but it shows how this kind of metamorphosis can be financially viable and raise awareness about the diverse ways to reuse this kind of buildings.

Eventually, “experts” – urban, architecture, heritage specialists – should share more regularly their knowledge with the citizens, make their research accessible to a wider audience, and highlight how central they are in people’s daily well-being and the city’s long-term development. Debates about heritage preservation are quite fierce and point out very relevant points. But they are taking place behind closed doors. If we want to prevent both the over-modernisation and the mummifying of the our cities, it is necessary to move this debate to the public space. It can be done by proposing new forms of mobilisation (workshops, guided tours, documentaries, exhibitions) so that everyone is sensitive to the possibility of a paradigm shift: people over profit. I believe this is precisely where the “knowledge-holders” must question the handing down of their wisdom to the citizens – or their relevance.

You want to go further? Here are a few leads

• In Saigon, local historian Tim Doling, passionate about the city and its history wrote a guidebook offering very nice walks in most parts of the city. He also organises his own tours of both Saigon and Cholon and is an active member of the community Facebook group “Saïgon Chợ Lớn Then & Now”. More information can be found on his website: Historic Vietnam.

• In Casablanca, I can only encourage you to follow Casamemoire’s activities. For about 20 years, the organisation has been involved in a restless work for the recognition of the local heritage by the authorities and the population. It now organises thematic tours of Casablanca, but is mostly known for creating the Journées du Patrimoine, a fabulous cultural event that enables you, every year, to visit the city and its historical buildings that are usually closed to the public. Many side events are also proposed.

• To end this up, Hong Kong University proposes a very interesting MOOC on Vernacular Asia. It is a very good introduction to the concept of vernacular urbanism I mentioned earlier. I warmly recommend you to enroll.

• May, 19th 2015 •