by Zohra KhanApr 05, 2022
Just a decade ago architecture seemed to be self-absorbed with constant search for expressing individuality. The idea of common ground or common focus was just beginning to take traction, as self-centeredness and architects’ insistence on positioning themselves as artistic authors that dominated professional discourse since the late 1990s, was clearly losing its momentum. That trend, now long gone, increasingly irritated the public, critics, and younger architects, especially following the 2008 world financial crisis that put on hold numerous ambitious developments, some of which remain unfinished to this day. The common ground, of course, is not entirely common and monolithic; rather it is made up of a list of common interests such as social engagement; environmental concerns and the use of ecologically sensitive building methods and materials; adaptive reuse, particularly in its celebration of nostalgia and passage of time; giving up single authorship for collaborative and research-based design approach; relying on performance-driven design algorithms; and, finally, reconciliation of architecture with nature. It is this last preoccupation, typically referred to as green architecture, that has become the most central focus of architects today. One individual who distinguished himself from others in this development is a Vietnamese practitioner, Vo Trong Nghia. He has built an incredibly innovative and inspirational body of work. The architect’s buildings have become emblematic of our time; they evoke a magical feeling of being in the middle of a forest. To discuss his path and vision I connected with Vo Trong via Viber call between New York and his studio VTN Architects in Ho Chi Minh City. The following is a portion of our conversation.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): You are known for introducing greenery into architecture and connecting people to nature. Could you talk about the key principles of your work?
Vo Trong Nghia (VTN): Here in Vietnam, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, two major cities with population close to 10 million people in each, green spaces have become extremely rare. Vietnamese cities lost their tropical beauty. They have turned into concrete jungles like Bangkok or Jakarta. We have only a fraction of green spaces compared to most other major world cities. There is a lot of congestion and pollution that in turn cause a lot of stress. It is very clear – without nature around us we become crazy, quite literally. What we try to do as architects is to wrap nature around our lives. We want to reintroduce greenery back into our cities, to reconnect people and nature, and use plants as a building material to integrate vernacular wisdom into modern architecture. Afterall, a tree is a great shading device. Apart from our harsh environment, people nowadays are busier than ever. They don’t walk and don’t exercise. Instead, they spend a lot of time on their phones and social media, which leads to developing all kinds of anxieties.
VB: You grew up far from big cities. How was your childhood like?
VTN: I grew up in a very small village in Quang Binh Province, my parents were farmers. My father is now 90 and my mother is 87. Nine of us – my parents, two brothers, one of whom has died, and four sisters – all lived in a tiny house of barely 70 square meters. We were very poor. There was no running water, no electricity, no air-conditioning or even a fan in summer, no heating on chilly nights in winter. All we had was a portable radio, always out of batteries [laughs]. But you know, we were very happy back then. Everything we had was made by our own hands – fruit baskets, tableware, and all kinds of furniture. My parents built our house in 1984. Trees around our house were the only natural source of coolness and comfort. That’s the most natural thing for me. A shadow cast by a tree is a very important feature in our tropical climate. I love trees. I lived in the house until I was accepted to the best high school in my province. Then I went to a town called Dong Hoi where I lived away from my family for three years.
VB: Your love for trees is expressed very vividly in your work.
VTN: Sure, my inspirations are very direct. I love trees and forests. I love the idea of living under a tree. I always dreamed about living in a house that would feel like being in the middle of a forest.
VB: At what point did you discover architecture? Did you come across it while in high school?
VTN: Before that. A friend of a friend came to our village for a visit. He looked rich, or so I thought then. Anyway, he stood out; that person was an architect. I thought, “If I become an architect, I’ll be rich!” [laughs]. Of course, so many architects in Vietnam are not anywhere near being rich. So, once I finished high school, I was accepted to Hanoi University to study architecture. After my first year there I won a Japanese government scholarship to continue my studies in Japan. I stayed in Japan for 10 years – one year studying Japanese in Tokyo, three years at college in Ishikawa and two years in Nagoya, two more years to acquire master’s degree and two more years pursuing my PhD in Tokyo. Then I decided not to continue my doctoral studies and came back to Vietnam to open my practice.
VB: What were your main lessons from the experience of living and studying in Japan for a decade?
VTN: I travelled a lot there and developed an affinity for traditional Japanese structures such as temples and shrines. I learned a lot from Japanese architects’ attention to every detail. I enjoy a sense of space and how architecture can coexist with nature. What I did not enjoy was their lifestyle. They work so hard! [laughs]. That was the reason I could not work there at an office. All the time that they didn’t sleep they worked – some up to 15 hours and more. It was not unheard of for architects to have meetings in the middle of the night. There are many fantastic architects there because they work super hard.
VB: You came back from Japan in 2006 and started your practice right away. What was your first project like?
VTN: I designed and built a house in my home province for my parents back in 1999, when I was still a third-year student in Japan. Then in 2004, I did a small coffee shop near Ho Chi Minh City for a client. But when I came back from Japan to start my practice it was hard to get work. The first project was the Wind & Water Café that I did for myself and I operated it to support my practice. Each bamboo cane was just one US dollar. I built that structure using 7,000 canes for 7,000 dollars on a rented piece of land in a neglected neighbourhood. My next project became the Wind & Water Bar and again, there was no client. I was the client. You see, my architecture was very different for most people’s taste. These structures had very beautiful quality of space and they were inexpensive to build. But first, I had to prove to my potential clients that I could build these structures. That’s how I built my reputation.
VB: As you said, “From the beginning, I always wanted to follow green architecture, but the founding of my company was very difficult because my designs were so different from what people were familiar with.” Could you talk about the main challenges in the early years of your practice?
VTN: It was very challenging. People did not believe that we could do real buildings, meaning – solid concrete structures. So, I had to do some projects without my design fee or nearly for free, just to convince my clients. The first couple of projects were private houses and then I did Binh Duong School near Ho Chi Minh City, which became an alternative model for other schools in the country. It is designed as a fluid continuous volume with an active roof garden rising from the ground to five stories. The House for Trees was also one of our first projects on a very tight budget.
VB: What is a typical design process for your projects? How do you initiate each design?
VTN: There is nothing typical about my projects. Each is unique, as you can see in the case of the House for Trees. We would never design such a house for a typical family. And we don’t plan to do another house like that. So, every time it is about talking to the client and getting very familiar with the site. Still, what is common is that every project is about turning a house into a park. And if a client doesn’t want to integrate trees and plants into architecture, we would not take on such a project. We have a mission – to bring greenery into all our projects.
VB: What was the main intention for your House for Trees? How did you arrive at such original design solution?
VTN: That was a very special project for me. A friend of mine had a mild depression. He wanted to be alone most of the time, just staying in his room. So, my solution was based on how to help his condition. I compartmentalised the house into five scattered parts, five concrete boxes or “tree pots”, as I call them, because that’s how they look like with ficus trees at the top. One pot has a library downstairs and a bedroom upstairs. Another pot has a dining room downstairs and another bedroom upstairs. A third pot has a kitchen and storage. The smallest pot has an altar room. And there is a separate pot with two bathrooms – one above the other. So, the house was designed in such a way that the people living there constantly would need to go out either to the courtyard or bridges connecting the upper levels. The central courtyard and gardens, shaded by trees above, are meant to be a part of the ground floor living space where inside and outside are blurred into a single space.
VB: Did your design help your friend?
VTN: Let me tell you. The house offers a tropical lifestyle that coexists with nature. Sometimes it rains heavily, other times it is very hot. But every time you need to leave your bedroom you must go out. As you can imagine, in the beginning, my friend was very angry with me because he was forced to move throughout the house and be outdoors more than he wanted to. Apart from that he complained to me, “Who do you think owns this house – us or birds?” Because there are so few gardens in the city many birds would come every morning singing, waking him and his wife up at the sunrise [laughs]. But before they knew it my friend became super active and he even found peace with himself. He was kind of cured to the point that his wife took him to another house, which is a more conventional place. And guess what!? He became sick again! Recently they moved back to the House for Trees. It is a true story.