It may seem strange to call modernist architecture historical and traditional. In southern Vietnam, however, this makes sense because modernist architecture has been practiced as the norm for over fifty years. A walk through any Ho Chi Minh City neighborhood will reveal many examples of Vietnamese modernist houses built in the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond.
I have stated many times (in the "Design Touches" and "Modernist Houses" categories of postings) that the southern Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design, and they have been very willing to experiment and try out new ideas in materials, colors, and shapes. I noted previously that current Vietnamese architects and designers are building upon a long tradition of strong modernist architecture.
When I came to Saigon to live in 1971-1972, I was surprised to find a modernist villa (next door to a French-colonial villa) across from my hotel.
This house appeared to have been constructed in the 1950s. A walk down the street from where I lived was this new modernist townhouse, typical of those being built in the late 60s and early 70s.
The facade finish material for these modernist houses in the mid-20th century was almost always plaster inlayed with varying shades of grey exposed aggregate. The plaster was applied to a reinforced concrete structural frame with extruded clay brick infill. This is the same basic method of construction still in use today. Today, however, the plaster is most often finished very smooth and then painted. The exposed aggregate surfaces are what distinguish the early modernist houses built in Vietnam in the mid-20th century.
Old modernist houses are also found in abundance in the countryside, like this one in the Cu Chi district of HCMC.
Although these houses most often have sloped ceramic tile roofs and tropical shutters on the sides, the front facades are distinctively modernist, with clean simple lines, and utilitarian ventilation openings. Notice the simple decorative lines midway up the columns (click on the photo to open a larger version).
These two houses in Quy Nhon (Binh Dinh Province) show the two trends of early modernist architecture.
These houses have escaped the recent destruction of beach-side fishermen's houses in Quy Nhon to build a new promenade. The left-hand house shows the heavier but simpler modernist tradition, while the right-hand house displays the lighter touch with many simple linear decorative elements applied to the structural frame.
There are probably historians that would say that these houses show Chinese influences, but I do not think that is true at all. Chinese houses usually display much more ostentatious decorations and do not have simple clean lines. Chinese influences on architecture are much more prevalent in northern Vietnam, and are certainly seen in Buddhist pagodas and temples.
Historians might also say that early modernist architecture in Vietnam was influenced by French-colonial architects, but I see no evidence of that in Vietnamese modernist houses. These modernist houses are a big jump from French-colonial villlas. It is likely that the Vietnamese architects of these mid-20th century houses were educated in France and brought back their impressions of the early modernist architecture they may have seen in France, Germany, and Italy. But the house designs are distinctly Vietnamese to me, and I believe that Vietnamese architects developed their own course of modernist architecture considering tropical climate responses and the ability to form up slender shapes and poor concrete in them.
The fins at the rooftop trellises for both these houses are all poured-in-place reinforced concrete. I saw formwork for this kind of detail in 1972 walking around Saigon. Today, however, the costs of labor and material to build this kind of formwork and take care in pouring concrete are too high even in Vietnam, so the current trend is to much less of this kind of detail.
While the previous two photographs illustrated the "lighter touch" school of Vietnamese modernist architecture, the following photograph illustrates the "heavy but simpler" trend of architecture for houses:
This larger house (probably built in the 1960s judging from the exposed aggregate plaster) is much more restrained in the use of decorative elements, but takes the middle road between light and heavy.
I believe that Vietnamese architects have developed a very distinctive modernist architecture for houses over the past sixty years that is tailored to the climate and the needs and good tastes of the Vietnamese people.
And it is likely that it wasn't just architects contributing to this development -- given the innate good design sense of the southern Vietnamese people, contractors and home-owners probably made many of the design decisions seen in these "historical modernist" houses.