Ever since Henri Cérutti-Maori’s failed plan of the 1930s — demolishing the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, extending present-day Nguyen Hue through the block and surrounding it all with Corbusian visions — the future of the downtown political centre has been an open question. Only recently, with the demolition of 213 Dong Khoi, the International Style landmark on its corner, has this question been openly addressed.
12 proposed solutions to this design impasse were presented at the Ho Chi Minh Exhibition Center (92 Le Thanh Ton, Q1), one block away from design ground zero, at the end of last month. It was open to the public, and viewers were encouraged to leave feedback in a not-very-full-looking clear plastic box. The proposals were based around imposing new buildings, one of which will become the new government offices, as the 1909 City Hall building they currently occupy is being turned into a museum.
As it was a blind test, designs weren’t marked by architecture firm, although some had helpful explainers around and a couple even had flower bouquets. Despite the naming intrigue, this reporter managed to ascertain the identities of two of the represented firms — metro system collaborators and city planning advisors Nikken Sikkei, with perhaps the most lauded design (#106); and Urban Planning Institute’s Nguyen Binh Duong, with a design that seeks to unite the green pathways of the city, which one cheeky commenter called “Vincom 3“ (#110, not pictured). There was also a lightbox branded with the name of Hong Kong architects DCM Studios, underneath the most Bitexco-like model (#109).
Throughout most of the 12 designs, there are strands in common: preservation of the previously marked-for-demolition 1888 building at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong, new low-rise constructions (the design brief purportedly specifies a height limit), greenery and public space. Some designs evoke the modern shapes of Jetsons-type buildings (“it rises in the back of City Hall like a spaceship,” one observer said about #113), some sheath the colonial surrounds in glass and steel like some European capitals have done, some have the kind of uneasy coexistence with heritage buildings seen on university campuses the world over.
On the preservation-minded Facebook group Saigon Heritage Observatory, the designs were critiqued.
One oblong green-glass design was labeled “a green whale” by architect Mel Schenck. The design with the twin descriptions ‘Symbolic Twin Towers representing the future of HCMC’ and ‘Under the Big Roof representing the Spring of HCMC’ was met with a “no no no =.=”. Historian Tim Doling called the Nikken Sikkei design the most intriguing — it shifts 59-61 Ly Tu Trong off its foundations, positioning it symmetrically behind City Hall.
Thomas Hoang, a former employee in the Vietnamese Embassy in London and future Ho Chi Minh City Council aide in the city planning department, came down to see what his future workplace would look like. I asked him what he liked best.
“The Japanese [Nikken Sikkei] design is okay,” he said. We walked around a corner to a raised glass model, columns supporting the building to create an open plaza underside. “I’ve seen a couple of these in Germany already. They build things like this in Germany. Funny, to be honest.”
Thomas said his time in Europe gave him perspective, on how cities are actually affected by the designs they commission. It made him wary of all the glass surrounding these old colonial buildings.
The Epcot Center-looking London City Hall, he feels, was a mistake — and its wacky distorted egg shape looks curiously dated just 13 years after construction, like one of those early iMacs. Instead, he’d like Saigon to look like something along the lines of Rome’s city hall, Palazzo del Senatore, sitting atop the Capitoline Hill. With its double ramp of stairs designed by Michelangelo it gives off an imperial aura, befitting of the city it commands.
In June of last year, I had the opportunity to speak with Nguyen Thang Viet, who was charged with refining the design brief that gave this design competition shape. He didn’t have much to work with.
“I think the people who wrote that didn’t know what was there on the site,” he said. “The history of each building, the conditions, and what they could do with them. They just, from their imagination and memory, they just thought, ‘I can keep this building, then I can get rid of the rest.’”
He ended up having to learn the history of the site on his own. And he came to some of the same conclusions as the design competitors.
“My idea was that the new structure can go over the existing structure... The building can cover and then contain the old building inside it. The exterior of the old French colonial building can be the interior.”
His pick is #106, “of all that we got“.
But as for the master plan, the style this new construction should reflect?
“I wish I knew. I don’t know their agenda.”