I am just finishing a MOOC course (Massive Open Online Course) through the University of Hong Kong, using the edX platform.
Following is the final paper I wrote for the course:
Through this course, “The Search for Vernacular Architecture of Asia”, I now know that the modernist shop houses (tube houses) of southern Viet Nam represent the vernacular architecture and vernacular landscape of southern Viet Nam. I would not have accepted this premise previous to this course.
I lead a seminar for Vietnamese architecture and planning students on behalf of the Huynh Tan Phat Foundation in Ho Chi Minh City. The purpose of the seminar is to increase the ability of the Foundations’s scholarship students to speak English in a professional setting, preparing them to present and advocate their ideas to future international professional firms, clients, or consultants.
Normally, one of the students presents at each seminar session, and then we discuss the student’s ideas. Occasionally, I present, and my presentation is entitled “Southern Vietnam is the Leading Location for Modernist Architecture in the World”. My students don’t believe this at first.
A copy of this slide presentation can be found on Slideshare.net at this link: http://www.slideshare.net/layered/vn-modernist-houses-0515
One of my foremost joys in life is living in Ho Chi Minh City. With a population currently of 10 million people, this city is one of the busiest and fastest-growing cities in Asia. The urban environment is a very intensive mix of commercial and residential uses, involving all of the senses. Coupled with tropical temperatures that encourage outdoor life, this creates an urban environment filled with people contributing their sounds, smells, and tastes to others. The range of street food, karaoke music, and retail sales along most streets is stimulating and invigorating. I love how this facilitates the natural sociability of the Vietnamese.
As an architect, I am particularly enamored by the modernist vernacular architecture of southern Viet Nam. For more than 80 years, architects and home-owners have experimented with materials, lines, volumes, colors, textures, and patterns within the standard four-meter wide five-storey tall urban shop house façade (called tube houses in Viet Nam). The result is a sophisticated evolution of modernist architecture that fits the tropical climate of Vietnam well within a constricted space. This variety of experimentation accentuates the intensity of urban life along the streets, and it represents the large majority of houses in the city.
What I did not know when I was thinking about this, and developing my presentation, is that this is the vernacular architecture of southern Viet Nam. Like most people, I had thought that vernacular architecture is a subset of traditional architecture, being where people live and work, rather than the elite historical monumental buildings often shown as examples of traditional architecture. Through Professor Lung’s course, I have come to understand that vernacular architecture is what the people of an area evolve and pass on to future generations to use and modify as necessary. Often, this vernacular architecture would be characterised as traditional. But the 80-years of evolution of modernist houses in southern Viet Nam fully represents the definition of vernacular architecture presented in this course.
Getting back to the reaction of my students to this idea that the greatest concentration of modernist houses in the world is here in their neighborhoods: they said that this is impossible — the architecture here in Viet Nam is ordinary. It can’t compare to the modernist masterpieces published daily in the architectural media from cities around the world in developed countries, notwithstanding the fact that Vietnamese architects won the top awards at the World Architectural Forum in Singapore this past year.
I tell them that it seems ordinary to them because they grew up with this environment. They have not traveled beyond Viet Nam yet. They have not seen that the vernacular shop houses of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are truly ordinary and plain. Now I realize that this ordinariness is also a hallmark of vernacular architecture. The modernist houses of southern Viet Nam are a richer version of ordinary.