When I first lived in Saigon for a year in 1971-72, I was struck by the numerous excellent modernist houses I saw while walking the streets of Saigon. I wondered at the time why there would be so much of this kind of architecture in Vietnam, but I did not have the time or capability to find out.
The above photo was taken in 1972.
I had graduated in 1970 with a professional degree in Architecture from a rural American university, but I had not yet traveled through much of the USA and never until 1971 to Asia or Europe. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy, I came to Vietnam to manage construction contracts with Vietnamese construction contractors.
There weren’t many modernist houses to see in America at that time (and still aren’t). What I had seen in architecture magazines were isolated examples by architects experimenting with rich clients on country estates. I make a distinction here between modernist architecture and the more ubiquitous bland international style common to cities all over the world.
Later in life, I traveled to cities where modernist architecture was more numerous, particularly Miami, Florida, and Mexico City. These particular cities had attracted architects who had been able to produce modernist houses and buildings on a large scale. By comparison, San Francisco, where I lived and practiced architecture for 32 years, is a very conservative city where traditional or bland international style forms of architecture vastly outnumber modernist experiments. But that is changing now over the past five years with young architects following the lead of the very creative internet community in providing intellectual content and leadership.
So it is very interesting to me that modernist architecture was already flourishing in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 70s. Upon my return in 2005 to Ho Chi Minh City to live, I have been thrilled to see how much modernist architecture has evolved over the years in Vietnam, and the hundreds of excellent examples there are to see and study.
However, almost all of these examples have been houses rather than larger buildings. Until recently, it seems to me that most larger buildings have been the bland international style imported from Singapore and Australia. But I am now seeing Vietnamese architects break away from these models to translate Vietnamese modernist architecture to larger buildings.
What distinguishes Vietnamese modernist architecture from the examples I now see in western cities are a much greater use of colors, textures, and forms. Modernist architecture over the years in western countries has been primarily minimalist. Vietnamese modernist architects seem free to experiment with lines, planes, and volumes, along with colors and textures in a variety of materials.
I am also gratified to find that excellent modernist architecture is not confined to Ho Chi Minh City. I have not traveled extensively north of Danang, but I could not find many examples of modernist architecture in Hue or Hanoi. Some of the best examples I have found are in rural villages of southern Vietnam – from Quang Nam Province on down through Binh Dinh Province to Binh Thuan Province and the provinces circling Ho Chi Minh City. While these examples are essentially modernist, they have regional variations that I find fascinating. In Quang Nam and Binh Dinh, the basic house forms, especially the roof forms, are traditional Vietnamese in origin with tile gabled roofs. But the facades are very modernist in their use of bright colors and patterns of lines in the plaster surfaces.
In the provinces around Ho Chi Minh City, architectonic elements such as finials are added to the eave or cornice lines, and the roofs are often flat.
Some might say that Vietnamese architects have only copied what they see in global architecture magazines, but I read those magazines too, and fail to find the sources for what I feel is a much more inventive architecture in southern Vietnam.
I think that modernist architecture fits the culture and tropical climate of Vietnam very well; so Vietnamese architects have evolved a uniquely Vietnamese style of modernism. The old thatched roof houses were very simple in form and therefore easily allowed experimentation with modernist principles. The same is true of the rural wood houses in the central highlands.
Unlike Cambodia and Thailand where temple architecture has provided highly-stylistic and iconic elements to be tacked onto houses, the Vietnamese culture has managed to keep temple or pagoda forms (which are usually Chinese in origin) on the temple grounds. I also think it is likely that the Vietnamese adaption of modernism was a reaction to the French colonial styles of architecture, which are not complimentary to the Vietnamese culture. I am not a scholar of architectural history, and certainly not of Vietnamese culture, so I would encourage feedback from readers regarding the unproven and unresearched assertions I have been throwing out here.
Design is a series of intelligent choices, ranging from the overall form down to decisions about the trim around windows, or how a wall plane meets the ground. I am guessing that trained architects did not design most of the modernist houses in the rural areas. It is likely that home-owners and construction contractors worked together to make intelligent decisions based upon pioneering modernist houses in their area, and added some experimentation on their own.
It seems to me that a population must have an innate sense of good design in order to produce the consistently good examples that have been produced throughout southern Vietnam over the years. I am constantly enriched as I travel around Vietnam and walk through the cities. I believe that Vietnamese should be very proud of the Vietnamese brand of modernist architecture that they have evolved on their own terms.