To a preservation supporter, new development eradicates not only historic buildings, but also the larger history, culture and identity of Ho Chi Minh City. To them, a historic building or neighbourhood is more than a physical trace of history; it is an embodiment of all the cultural layers accumulated over generations. In places with a weak connection to history, culture and identity, such as the American suburbs, one feels out of place and separated from culture and other people. Phu My Hung can inspire the same feelings, and the new Thu Thiem shows signs that it could also trend in this direction.
From the perspective of a new development supporter, Ho Chi Minh City needs to evolve, and evolution requires the destruction of the current city. From this point of view, building for the future is more important than saving history and this city also needs a new identity, that of a prosperous city. Ho Chi Minh City needs to look like and be like Singapore.
Strike a Balance
From my perspective, a mixture of both preservation and new development is needed. Embracing both is not a compromise but a challenge because it is much more difficult for policy makers, developers and designers. In other cities this dual policy has worked. In Paris or Rome, new developments are heavily restricted within the city limits. In New York, new developments are allowed but regulated. These cities can evolve without completely eradicating the existing urban fabric.
In cities like those mentioned above, inventories of historic buildings and neighbourhoods are developed by experts who know the city. There could be a similar strategy implemented here, with specific regulations for items in these inventories, based on the status given to each item. Landmarked buildings such as the Cathedral and the Post Office could be strictly regulated. Others might be less so. To be effective, however, there should be only one office within the city that regulates and enforces these policies.
Developers should be encouraged through economic incentives to preserve buildings and neighbourhoods. In New York City, developers are given tax incentives if they preserve historic buildings. Sometimes developers are given a different site outside of the historic districts if they agree to preserve a building within the historic districts. Ho Chi Minh City already gives tax incentives to education and health-related projects, so an incentive policy to guide development is not something out of reach.
Renovation Rather than Preservation
Designing new architecture that takes into account Ho Chi Minh City’s powerful historic context is a challenge. It would be much easier to simply ignore the context. It would also be more straightforward to simply preserve buildings to their original design. However, the complex task of embracing both the old and new brings us the opportunity to renovate the city instead of merely preserving it.
Renovation is a less restrictive practice than preservation. When renovating a building or a neighbourhood, new design is carefully woven into the existing urban fabric. Such careful intervention requires understanding of the local context that is unavailable to someone not experienced with Ho Chi Minh City. Renovation also sometimes requires changing and replacing existing structures, an approach not practiced by orthodox preservationists.
But renovation aligns with the notion that Ho Chi Minh City can evolve, but in such a way that it does not lose its history, culture and identity.
Image provided by Hoanh Tran. Photo of Ly Club in District 3, an example of a building that's been renovated rather than preserved