Reading through the comments on my posting a week ago requesting viewer interaction about modernist vs. historicist houses, the results so far have three preferences for the modernist house and one vote for the historicist house. All three votes for the modernist house were hedged with concerns, however.
These results are surprising to me -- I had expected more votes for the historicist design since I am guessing that most people (at least in western countries) grew up in some kind of historicist or historical pastiche house or building. These kinds of houses are like "comfort food" (this is what grandmother or mother used to cook -- this is NOT the kind of food that gourmets or critics think is good [although they like it]) -- historicist designs are what we usually see as homes in the west, and they leave evocative emotional responses.
The most recent comment was the most thoughtful and left many questions to me to answer. Although the most interesting reading in many blogs is the reader comments, I suppose most readers don't click through to the comments, particularly readers using RSS or feed readers. Therefore I will bring up this last comment and post it again for purposes of further discussion here. This meaty comment is from Simon Kutcher of the blog Saigon Today, publishing daily photos of life in Vietnam.
"Regarding the choices, the modern house will have the better light and this (should) lead to better living space inside. My problem with a few of the ones around our area is that they can be a mishmash of styles and colours that do not always look like they go together. This one though I like.
"The historicist style shown is daunting. It looks like it belongs in a much colder climate than HCMC. It must be extremely dark inside. While the French colonial styles probably need more horizontal space, I would be interested in seeing if any new houses are attempting to replicate it. I would also be very interested in seeing a greater exposé of the historicist style done well, or a blend styles dene well for that matter.
"I drive through Nhiêu Lộc everyday and the thing that disappoints me is that with so many styles all next to each other, the streetscape can become extremely muddled and fractured. This does not suit my tastes but I was hoping to get an opinion from someone with some experience. There was a great planning opportunity wasted there I reckon. Cheers"
Simon prefers the modernist house since it appears to let in more light and he is averse to the historicist house because it may be dark inside. Actually the style of most townhouses in Vietnamese cities is only expressed on the front facade and is perhaps carried through in the interior design. Since the longer side walls and back wall are on property lines and have no windows, these houses are all really like caves, which require artificial light at all times and air conditioning. The best of these houses have enough length so that interior courtyards can be added in the middle to provide a light well and ventilation. On the front facade, modernist designs probably do provide more glassy area to let in light, but not always. In new urban areas like Phú Mỹ Hưng in South Saigon, many house lots are large enough to build villas with enough space around the house to have plenty of windows in either style.
Both old modernist townhouses in Ho Chi Minh City as well as French colonial villas have many grilled openings at the tops of each floor story to allow natural ventilation. Contemporary modernist architecture usually makes good stylistic use of these openings. The French colonial style was a very good adaptation to the tropical climate with these ventilation grills and hooded openings, as well as overhanging roof eves and shuttered windows. This style was most commonly applied to villas on larger pieces of land since there was little impulse to go vertical in those days. I would love to see some adaptation of the French colonial style to a four or five-story narrow townhouse, but I don't remember seeing any, and I do not have any photographs of any. It is interesting to me that most historicist styles applied to townhouses or villas in Vietnam are not French colonial, but rather are usually a mishmash of classical and European styles, like this example:
Simon recently published this photo
of what I call a contemporary historicist design on his blog, and many commenters had difficulty characterizing the design, with some consensus coming down to "Holland" architecture. And there certainly is no adaptation to the tropical climate in this design.
Although I have an obvious published bias to modernist architecture, there are times when I do appreciate historicist architecture -- contemporary houses which use historical styles -- and I really love the old historical French colonial villas. This example of historicist architecture appeals to me:
Maybe because it is covered up with plants, this design is restrained and is simply evocative of coziness and warmth. Historicist applied decorations have not been added just for sake of imparting status to the owner.
What I am particularly concerned about, however, is Simon's suggestion that good planning would dictate that all the houses along a street or in a neighborhood be of the same or similar style that all work together. Walking along the villa streets of Phú Mỹ Hưng where all the villas are exactly the same is not one of my favorite activities. After you see the first house, there is no need to continue walking down the street. I am more interested in seeing the choices that people have made in the design of their houses, whether their choice be modernist or historicist. It is important to me that each house be a well-resolved composition and interesting idea, no matter the style. Then each house is seen as an object in a gallery of objects. I don't like going to art galleries which only display one artist doing variations of the same idea, style, and technique in each painting. I like an art museum that exhibits a progression of different ideas over time. I think neighborhoods should be galleries showing the different times in their histories. The old French colonial villa on the corner should not be torn down, but should be restored. It is OK that a contemporary modernist townhouse is built next to it expressing the realities and ideas of our current times. And next to that, someone might have built a faux-alpine chalet villa, showing their choice of values. And next to them probably stands a "classical' modernist design from the mid-20th century. Walking along such a street I am highly stimulated by the story (or mystery) each house has to show.
This is a very free market idea, isn't it, which is surely a mark of the current economic and social times of HCMC. Can you imagine what a plan promulgated by the Ministry of Construction in Hanoi might dictate? Most of the houses in Hanoi are all of the same historicist pastiche painted in the same ochre color. That is why I chose to live in Saigon when I originally planned to live in Hanoi. China has dumbed down most of its cities doing the same thing.
The times today are muddled and fractured, no matter where you live in the world. There are good sides to this as well as bad sides. But I think this is a very interesting time to live, with many new opportunities to use technology and layers of ideas to express and make sense of our muddled times. But bureaucrats and large planning firms aren't going to come up with these ideas. These ideas, like good contemporary or avant-garde art, comes from individuals making good choices for specific situations. Architects and builders in Ho Chi Minh City are not on the cutting edge of contemporary architecture. But they do produce very elegant designs that reflect the good tastes of their clients, and their differing new houses along the streets of HCMC reflect the economic and intellectual vitality of the city.
I realize that many people prefer a more ordered approach to urban planning and architecture, and they want to look at the city as a whole, or suburban developments as a whole, or streets as a whole, rather than as individual statements that don't unify as a whole. I believe there should be choices available so we can all find environments to fit our individual tastes and life-styles. But I think it is clear by now that the inner city districts of HCMC will not accommodate an ordered approach. On the other hand, the new urban areas can and often do.