The story of Saigonese architecture starts with the arrival of the French. In their first southern offensive, colonial forces that had been repelled from Hue targeted the Citadel of Gia Dinh. They captured it in a matter of hours on Feb. 17, 1859 — it was a vulnerable square of Bien Hoa granite, brick and earth — and burned it to the ground less than a month later.

This wasn’t the first time the Citadel of Gia Dinh had been burned to the ground. The structure the French overwhelmed in 1859 was dwarfed by its earlier incarnation, a 1790 construction built by a team of 30,000 labourers under the direction of French mercenary engineers, in the Vauban style of military architecture. The latter version proved so stalwart its conquerors razed it completely after its capture, out of frustration. Though nothing remains of its five-metre-high walls above ground, its disappeared skeleton is still felt in the roadmap of Saigon today.


In the French Image



“The earliest French Colonial architecture was built by engineers as well as architects, and in some cases by French military engineers,” says Archie Pizzini, co-director of HTA+pizzini Architects (resorts, residences, both Galerie Quynhs). “Their aim was to build structures representative of France, a technological leader of that era. There are examples of the latest innovation of that time, such as early mass production techniques like the cast iron modular framing systems you can see in the L’Usine space on Dong Khoi.


“The buildings are masterpieces of passive solar design, much more so than buildings built today — they had to be. The spaces were high-ceilinged, leaving a space for hot air to collect at the top so that inhabitants could reside in the lower, cooler area. There were generally attics, providing a buffer zone for heat at the top of the building so that the solar heat would heat the attic area and be largely discharged through attic ventilation without transferring its heat to the living spaces below.” Although these buildings were direct transplants from elsewhere in the French Empire, they prefigured the climatic innovations that would come with the Indochine and modernist eras.


“[When the] French first came here, they actually used exactly the same things, the same elements they used in France,” says Alex Nguyen, associate director of Haysom Architects (villa designers and urban planners).



At first relying on wooden kit houses shipped in from Singapore, the colony’s builders soon set about replicating the same structures they knew from home. The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica owes something to the large brick-built churches in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, and all its original building materials were imported from France. The wrought-iron arch of Rainbow Bridge, built in 1882 by the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel, preceded Eiffel’s most famed metalwork by a scant five years. An 1881 engraving by Auguste Lepère shows a tree-lined city of pitched roof buildings that wouldn’t look out of place on the French Riviera.



In 1887, French Indochina was formed, with Saigon as its first capital — it would be replaced by Hanoi in 1902. As the new colony grew prosperous people flocked to Saigon, and the city’s architecture began to adapt accordingly.



Noteworthy Buildings


Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

(Cong Xa Paris, Q1) — 1880


Saigon Central Post Office

(Cong Xa Paris, Q1) — 1891


Municipal Theatre

(7 Lam Son Square, Q1) — 1900



To see the other eras of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City's architecture, click on the following links:



1) Early Colonial

2) Indochine

3) Saigonese High Modern

4) Soviet Modernism

5) Contemporary Era

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