May Café and Bakery by FeA: A study in harmonising stylistic contradictions

A former neoclassical chapel has been unified with an old street café in Thành Phố Ninh Bình, Vietnam, reflecting the country’s architectural diversity through adaptive reuse.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Nov 01, 2022

Generally, adaptive reuse as a practice involves the rehabilitation of an existing structure with a purpose that diverges from the one it was bestowed with at the time of its completion. However, in certain cases, this method of extending the lifespan of an existing building, brings other ones embedded within its surroundings into the fold, granting a new lease of life to an entire locale. Vietnam-based firm FeA sought this exact outcome when enlisted to combine two existing buildings in the city of Thành Phố Ninh Bình, towards the northern end of the country. Between a street-style café and a neoclassical wedding chapel, there was little common ground for the architects to work with, and this proved to be a major hurdle through the course of the design process.

The project merges a street-style café with a former neoclassical wedding chapel | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
The project merges a street-style café with a former neoclassical wedding chapel Image: Trieu Chien

Since both the designers and clients wished to retain a section of the existing structure, the intervention found its trajectory through a merger of the chapel with the front section of the café, through a new addition that would bridge the two. In this vein, the venture unifies two aesthetics unique to Vietnam — depicting both a colonial influence as well as an indigenous touch, drawing from current explorations into blending vernacular architecture with contemporary design influences. Subsequently, the scheme devised by the architects is quite understated in its articulation, using rhythm and symmetry to unify the contradictory design languages of both blocks.

  • Metal supports with cross bracing hold up the gable roof of the project’s more traditional arm | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Metal supports with cross bracing hold up the gable roof of the project’s more traditional arm Image: Trieu Chien
  • Trees pierce through the roof, emulating the vertical supports themselves | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Trees pierce through the roof, emulating the vertical supports themselves Image: Trieu Chien

The Vietnamese architecture firm mentions in a statement, "This desired merger of antique sensibilities and traditional reflections are not only featured in the curvy roof which resembles that of temples and the use of old-style fish-scale tile, but also the wide open porch, red-brick pebbles, and lastly the garden full of familiar flora and their fragrances. We also aimed for the highest level of simplicity, always avoiding any unnecessary details.”

Bold arches frame views of the interior along the building’s neoclassical wing | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
Bold arches frame views of the interior along the building’s neoclassical wing Image: Trieu Chien

In the more traditional arm of the café design, a large porch runs along the façade design, beneath a traditional “fish scale” tile roof, which assumes a gabled form when viewed from the front. Vertical metal supports, coloured in a rusty hue, run along one side, reminiscent of scaffolding used in construction processes. Cross-bracing has been used on the upper level beneath the members, which impart an exposed feel to the design, where the structural skeleton is laid bare, even in the case of the rafters and trusses that frame interior spaces. Towards the longer street-facing edge, a set of trees pierce through the roof, visually emulating the supports themselves.

Fish scale-style tiles clad the wavy roof structures | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
Fish scale-style tiles clad the wavy roof structures Image: Trieu Chien

Although one side of the roof follows a conventional gabled profile with linear eaves, the other inward-facing section curves away from the chapel to embrace a courtyard in the middle of the layout. In opposition to this, a similar, more curved roof has been incorporated on the ground level to frame the courtyard. Sandblasted concrete surfaces contrast the more natural materiality of the roof and its supports, a juxtaposition of polished and modern versus worn and traditional. On the neoclassical section of the façade, bold arches frame glass openings offering a peek into the seating areas along the plan’s periphery.

  • View of the central courtyard | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    View of the central courtyard Image: Trieu Chien
  • The courtyard lies at the centre of the plan, bridging the two arms of the structure | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    The courtyard lies at the centre of the plan, bridging the two arms of the structure Image: Trieu Chien

Entry to the café’s interior is through two routes — along both street-facing edges of the block occupied by the structure. Inside, as the design team explains, "The garden and the roof become surprise factors that are almost invisible to outsiders, revealing themselves only when one proceeds further inside through the big porch or the remainder of the old structure.” Winding around the edges of the courtyard, the roof injects movement to the frame, which is centred on a corten steel spiral staircase which unfurls towards the end of a stone pathway leading inwards from one of the entrances. The focus of the scene is firmly placed on this dynamic staircase design, with seating and plants placed in the backdrop to complement its raw magnetism.

  • A corten steel spiral staircase unfurls itself down from the first floor | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    A corten steel spiral staircase unfurls itself down from the first floor Image: Trieu Chien
  • The courtyard carries an element of surprise with it, by virtue of its limited visibility from the entrance | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    The courtyard carries an element of surprise with it, by virtue of its limited visibility from the entrance Image: Trieu Chien
  • A sense of lived in earthiness pervades the design | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    A sense of lived in earthiness pervades the design Image: Trieu Chien

"We have always been aspiring to create 'living constructions', which elegantly incorporate pre-existing elements and effortlessly meld into the current natural flow of life. Rising anew and becoming integral parts of a whole without making any sacrifice is our top priority, especially when nature is taken into consideration," notes FeA. “Living” is exactly the term that could be used to describe the interior design of the café, bursting with cascading interlocked archways in sandblasted concrete, cut-outs in the walls and ceilings that link levels, as well as a very earthy palette paired with weathered wooden furniture, imparting the hospitality design with a lived-in feel.

  • Cascading archways and cutouts in sandblasted concrete are present in the café’s interior | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Cascading archways and cutouts in sandblasted concrete are present in the café’s interior Image: Trieu Chien
  • Glass enclosures segregate spaces beneath rafter-lined ceilings | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Glass enclosures segregate spaces beneath rafter-lined ceilings Image: Trieu Chien
  • Glass block partitions have been used on the first floor | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Glass block partitions have been used on the first floor Image: Trieu Chien

Beneath rafter-lined ceilings, glass enclosures segregate seating areas — a theme that is continued on the first floor through the use of glass-block walls which have become an integral feature of the region's contemporary architecture. "In this project, our architectural ideology was flexibly but strongly implemented through the use of durable and climate-responsive materials, as well as the idea of linking the old with the new, thus maintaining and advancing the flow of life without any unnecessary or costly disturbances," add the designers.

  • Seating spaces on the upper level are framed by the building’s structural skeleton | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Seating spaces on the upper level are framed by the building’s structural skeleton Image: Trieu Chien
  • Floor Plans | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Floor Plans Image: Courtesy of FeA

On the first floor, seating has been ordered around the building’s structural skeleton to provide views of the courtyard and surrounding streets, ensuring each guest’s sojourn here is enjoyed with a view. In this regard, what is most admirable about this exercise in hospitality architecture is, its prioritisation of life — both in terms of the integration of nature through landscape design and a firm focus on creating a lively atmosphere, one that is warm, welcoming, and worn by the tides of time and activity, celebrating the complex’s story while charting a course for its future. The design team concludes, "We do not wish to solely build or construct, instead, we focus on enhancing life with our design initiatives.”

  • Exploded Axonometric View | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Exploded Axonometric View Image: Courtesy of FeA
  • Elevation | May Café and Bakery | FeA | STIRworld
    Elevation Image: Courtesy of FeA

Project Details

Name: May Café and Bakery
Location: Thành Phố Ninh Bình, Vietnam
Architect: FeA
Area: 800 sqm
Year of Completion: 2022
Principal Architects: Vu Nam Son, Vu Quynh Giao
Design Team: Nguyen Khuong Dung, Pham Bao Ngoc, Tran To Quyen
Structure Engineers: Tran Dang Huynh

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