To many, a city is defined as a permanent human settlement. Yet most of the people, businesses, buildings and even roads are always changing. It’s a contradiction.
As city dwellers we develop connections to the places we live in, affinities for the established. But the debate between moving forward and cherishing the past is a subject of constant tension. With the demolition of the Art Deco-cum-Internationalist building at 213 Dong Khoi in Saigon’s District 1 and last year’s rise, fall and demolition of Zone 9 in Hanoi, it has become even more apparent that Vietnam’s cities are flexing to make way for this new prosperity.
Urban renewal is a practice that brings both praise and trepidation. Rejuvenation of a city, expansion of commercial endeavours and improvement of critical infrastructure like water supply, sanitation and drainage are obvious pluses. Yet gentrification and forced relocation cast ugly shadows over the benefits.
“As architects we’re required to design against all manner of catastrophes,” Archie Pizzini, co-director of HTA+pizzini Architects, said in an interview for our cover story. “We design against earthquakes, we design against typhoons, we design against fires, we design against floods — all these things we design against. But the thing that destroys more buildings than anything else is prosperity. When prosperity hits a country, that’s when you lose the architecture.”
14 Ton That Dam, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City
An impressive Art Deco apartment block lays caked with soot, filth and pollution. Sitting on red plastic chairs, a tapping foot rests impatiently on the side of a steel nuoc mia cart, a flower-patterned attired woman waits for a customer. A stripped down Honda Cub drives out of the alley next to her exhaling grey and black smoke. Passing inside is a hipster covered in tattoos, locking his neon yellow fixed gear bicycle as three photographers and a lighting technician descend the stairs, snapping photos of a famous Vietnamese actress.
This is the quintessence of Saigon — beautiful rawness that never stops moving. Contained within are stores and shops executed in complete contrast to the space in which it resides, the quirky Other Person Café and tranquil Mockingbird Café keeping idlers caffeinated, a tattoo place and several vintage stores providing the cool kid bona fides. 14 Ton That Dam oozes character, as a mixed-use space of families and commerce keeps an aging building relevant.
26 Ly Tu Trong, Q1, Ho Chi Minh City
With copied canvases stacked awkwardly in the entrance, this 1920s building is itself made up of layers, progress stacked over previous space. As you wind up the staircase, an occasionally working lift climbs with you. The wrought-iron filigree of the lift’s protective walls let the light from the angular windows fall in erratic patterns.
According to Saigon historian Tim Doling, this building was intended for upmarket occupants and contained several important offices. Now, the upmarket intention has faded with age and the structure has adapted to house Vietnam’s first cooking class workshop — the Vietnam Cookery Center — as well a host of other fashion, art and café businesses.
This building is a work of art, yet will soon be a pile of rubble. The Catinat building, as it is known, will soon suffer the same fate that its predecessors experienced. A repurposed brand new structure containing — oh the irony — upmarket business, offices and apartments, among other facilities will be taking over where the history left off.
Embrace, and then Erase
Zone 9, 9 Tran Thanh Tong, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi
The ultimate example of embracing the past happened with Zone 9 last year.
Born out of a need to find good quality space in central Hanoi, a converted former pharmaceuticals factory that had been repossessed by the bank seemed like the perfect answer. Suddenly there was an unimaginable volume of space available, crying out for takers. Even the rent was cheap. With five buildings, some built in colonial times, and others added later when Soviet cubism was de rigeur, a few pioneers such as the crew behind Barbetta, the Nha San Collective and the indomitable Nguyen Qui Duc of Tadioto fame rented warehouse-like parts of the former factory and began to build.
What they created was special. At once Bohemian, avant-garde and rebellious, it unleashed a frontier-like spirit that brought in other business owners, some with grand ideas and some without. But it worked. Driven by civil society, this was the new cultural centre of Hanoi, the venue where all things creative could happen and the city’s new breed of worldly under-40s could unleash their desires.
But it was too good and too controversial, and injuries due to unsafe construction and a fire that killed six put paid to the grand scheme. In December, Zone 9 was officially closed down.
In the end, the issues that doomed this reappropriation weren’t entirely due to its structural shortcomings. For people like Nguyen Qui Duc, there was also the issue of working with other people in a space that was defined by their ambitions — a constant source of stress and concern. As he said when the space was closed down, “I wish I had the courage to let go, to be simple and not jump at all the opportunities. I wish I had thought more about the risks I recently took at Zone 9.”
Like many of the other businesses there, Tadioto has since reopened on another site — a restored colonial villa on Tong Dan, close to the Hanoi Opera House. And as for now, Zone 9 lies vacant, waiting for its next run-in with history.