Standing on the corner of Nguyen Gia Thieu and Lien Tri streets, I look up in awe at the boxy, asymmetrical villa. Until now, my concept of Hanoi architecture consists of three mainstays: classic French villas, tube houses and recent cement constructions. But the house before me doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The curved glass brick wall and porthole windows make it more akin to 1930s Miami than anything I’ve seen in Vietnam. Lying in a small pocket of the city north of Thien Quang Lake, many of these once stately villas still exist behind the maze of telecom wires and drying laundry. I later realise that what I am looking at comes from a golden age in Vietnamese architecture.
According to William Logan, author of Hanoi: Biography of a City, these buildings embraced the ‘international style’ popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and were closely linked to art deco design. However, it is not the houses themselves, but what they represent that makes them so interesting.
“These houses were designed by Vietnamese architects for wealthy Vietnamese families,” explains Linda Mazur, who is currently writing a book on the topic. “They were designed and built during a period when the colonial authorities made it hard for Vietnamese to achieve anything of distinction.”
A New Glamour
1930s Hanoi was a dynamic and exciting period of urban change and creativity. In order to stimulate the depressed economy, the government encouraged construction in the hope that expanding roads, power lines and sewage systems would spark a building boom that would return the colony to its pre-depression glory. The areas of Ba Dinh to the west of the city and Rue Gambetta (Tran Hung Dao) to the south were opened up for the construction of new villas. In a desire to show that Indochina was progressing, the government encouraged modern and fashionable designs. The ornate ‘wedding cake’ decoration typical of traditional French colonial architecture was cast aside in favour of streamlined shapes. They came to signify sophistication, luxury and glamour, the same glamour that was at the time spreading around the globe.
The world became faster in the inter-war period and Hanoi was not to be left behind. As transportation evolved and communication expanded, the cultural exchange between Indochina and the rest of the world intensified. As this sense of speed progressively intertwined within design, Vietnamese art and architecture students were increasingly influenced by global trends — sleek lines and geometric shapes. The intersection of infrastructural investment coincided with the graduation of the first generation of Vietnamese architects from L’Ecole Superieure des Beux Arts de l’Indochine. Emerging architects such as Nguyen Cao Luyen, who designed the classic Clinique building on Ly Thuong Kiet, built minimalistic villas that adapted to the hot Hanoi summers. Thick concrete walls kept the rooms cool, while features such as high ventilation windows and circular staircases were adopted to encourage cool air flow.
The evolution of this new art deco influence on Hanoi not only represented a clean break from the previous neo-classical French design, but signified a turning point for the Vietnamese under French colonial rule. For the first time, Vietnamese architects were designing expensive, modern houses at the request of the Vietnamese elite. In a time when Vietnamese people were afforded little control over their city, these houses represented the desire and ability of the upper-middle class to impact and shape Hanoi.
Walking the streets of Ba Dinh and the Thien Quang Lake area, I am fascinated by the stories and history still present in these villas. Both the architects and inhabitants, revolutionaries of their time, symbolise a turning point in the modern history of this city. As Linda says so eloquently, “these houses and their residents still have a tale to tell”.