This year’s AR House Winner, tucked into a typical Vietnam side-street, blends simplistic ideological ambitions with compelling, well crafted formal expression
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For a certain generation, the mere word Vietnam conjures up a country doomed by circumstances; its place in history marked by brutality and rebellion, the tragedy and the horror. For years such memories have been stoked by the media, creating an important mythology to help the West come to terms with barbarism, defeat and destruction. Meanwhile, Vietnam itself has simply, quietly and stoically got on with it.
The country reunified in 1976. Very soon, its foreign-aided economy reported an annual GDP growth rate of 7-8 per cent (remaining fairly consistent ever since). By 1990 Vietnam had opened up to tourism, and in 2013 invested US$94 billion in hotel construction and other tourism infrastructures. As a result, you can now visit the scene of the My Lai massacre and buy a souvenir lighter engraved with the American slogan ‘death is my business and business has been good’; the Mekong Delta is now a location of choice to buy a pizza in Cappuccino’s, and Hanoi boasts a nightclub called Apocalypse Now. Plus ça change, as the French used to say in these parts.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is now the largest urban area in Vietnam and the economic centre of the country, with an annual GDP growth rate of 11 per cent (50 per cent higher than the national average). The city’s population has been growing at 3 per cent per annum since 2002 and it is now home to 7 million people (although the United Nations suggests that the actual figure may be as high as 8.7 million when migrant workers are taken into account).
For tourists with no particular historical memory, the teeming alleys and congested highways of HCMC are simply part of the authentic experience. But the reality of many parts of the city comprises high population densities exacerbated by poor infrastructure, inadequate transport and large pockets of poverty and inequality. Just like the low-lying wetlands of the Mekong Delta, parts of the city are also prone to flooding and consequently expansive development in new urban areas is a limited option. Even so, much of the natural land that had traditionally been used to dissipate flooding has already been built upon as the city continues to sprawl outwards.
Like the urban centres of many developing countries, HCMC’s population growth has primarily been at the city’s periphery, comprising incoming labour and also outwardly mobile sections of society. One of the heaviest settlement strains has been felt to the north-west of the city centre around Tan Son Nhat Airport, 8 kilometres from the heart of the city. This is where urban growth has almost tripled in the last 20 years (despite the ho khau system which effectively limits people’s right to settle in a particular area). Here, at the capital’s international airport − where some 20 million passengers are processed every year − you get a sense of the old and new: of a Vietnam in transition. The airport itself is so hemmed in that expansion is impossible, and so it is scheduled to be downgraded to a local airport in a few years’ time. But land is not in such short supply, it seems. The 150 hectares of prime development land within the boundary of the downgraded airport is now being converted into a golf course, replete with hotels, restaurants and villas.
Just to the south of the airport is our award-winning building. Tucked into one of the residential side streets of the Tân Bình district of typical Vietnamese row houses sits the House for Trees by Vo Trong Nghia Architects. Five gigantic plant pots sit in a left-over garden space. These interconnected boxes are angled to form a notional courtyard. With a small footprint at ground level, these simple concrete structures rise two storeys each and are topped off with a tree-lined garden on the roofs. The professed aim of the project is to bring green space back into the city, accommodating high-density dwelling with large local trees. Not only are these trees intended to be a pleasing eco-aesthetic compared with the bog-standard steel-roofed private houses all around, but itʼs also hoped that they can flag up of the possibility of making environmental design part of the urban condition. The architects say: ‘We believe that greenery in projects in Vietnam and other Asian tropical countries is essential. Because of rapid urbanisation and deforestation, nature is being destroyed, so people are losing contact with the natural world. This leads to social and mental stress, so planting as many trees as possible, at least in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City [is important].’
In fact, between 2013 and 2015, the city’s green space initiative will have created 250ha of parks in inner districts planted on available undeveloped land to add to the current green space of 6 square metres per person (comparing reasonably with 12 square metres per person in Tianjin Eco-city in China, for example). With temperatures in south-east Asian cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh regularly reaching 41 degrees, trees are also seen as a natural way of reducing local temperatures through transpiration. As opposed to air conditioning, the architects say that this is ‘the simplest thing we can do to change the situation’.
Similarly rejecting the notion that better drainage infrastructure might be the answer to the city’s flood problem, Vo Trong Nghia notes that not only in cities of Vietnam, but also in Malaysia and Singapore, flooding is a big problem which, in these searing temperatures, can be alleviated by the rainwater attenuation capacity of a thick layer of soil and planting. This project uses over 1.5-metres-deep soil which is a significant retention reservoir although requiring major structural support below. The luxuriant green roof is envisaged as a prototype that could be rolled out across the city, helping to reduce the risk of urban flooding.
Local and natural materials are used to reduce both the cost and the carbon footprint, although the carbon footprint of this uninsulated concrete box has not yet been calculated. External walls are made of in-situ concrete using bamboo as formwork, which gives them a distinctive, finely ribbed texture. This is reputedly the first bamboo formwork building in Vietnam and also a first for the architects. As a result, three main contractors withdrew during construction because they weren’t used to working with the material, and specialised labourers had to be brought in from the surrounding area. The internal finish is locally sourced exposed brick. A ventilated cavity layer separates the concrete and brick walls to protect the interior spaces from heat radiation.
Rooms are arranged in a seemingly random manner, each denoted as an individual enclave on plan, connected by external paths only. Common spaces such as the dining room and library are located on the ground floor. Upper floors accommodate private bedrooms and bathrooms, which are connected by bridges between blocks. The architects say: ‘We made this building as a series of physically discrete rooms because there are many stresses and pressures in the modern urban milieu and its polluted living environment. People need to go out more to cultivate a rapport with nature and the elements’, while also retaining a ‘sense of the private’.
The upper level gardens act as calming oases within the urban cacophony. These are raised above the sprawl and blare, but the ground floor seems curiously bare. This is where the architects aim to address the ‘problems associated with food and vegetables and chemicals’. So this area is demarcated for the owners to cultivate vegetables for their own consumption.
There is obviously a naivety to this project − as an environmental project in Vietnam, a country that produces about 40 per cent of its GDP through industries like mining, quarrying, gas and crude oil extraction, can only be. But it is well-crafted. And its simple ideological ambitions have found a compelling formal expression.
Architect Vo Trong Nghia has the last word: ‘In Vietnam, architecture is just starting up and some unique projects are starting to be built. It’s hard to develop new things and the construction industry is not well-organised. So the biggest problem is convincing clients and investors because they only know what exists in surrounding projects … which are not architectural.’
AR House 2014 Winner: House for Trees in Vietnam by Vo Trong Nghia Architects