RETHINKING NEW DESIGN FOR URBAN SAIGON
This is an exciting time to walk through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). The feeling on the street is upbeat, fast and fun. The city’s economic transition is apparent both physically and in essence. However, much of Saigon’s once-engaging urban character is being overshadowed by cold, out-of-scale development which fails to build on the established urbanity of the city. Such transformation calls for a cautious reconsideration of how new projects are designed and approved.
Hurried growth amidst economic transition has left an unpleasant footprint on many Asian cities. An example of fast, irresponsible development can be seen in Shanghai. There, the development of the Pudong District began during the economic boom of the 1990s and continues today, with the design having little regard for Shanghai’s physical urban history. When viewed from across the Huangpu River, the Pudong district rises like a futuristic, accelerated global capital. Though impressive on postcards and architectural renderings, Pudong is alienating to walk though. There is no particular sound, color, smell, charisma, character or interest there. Both expats and locals avoid it. Often only a few bewildered package tourists and business travelers can be found roaming in the streets or peering from the windows of taxis. Some have argued that Pudong will eventually mature into a handsome district with time, but this will be difficult unless the people become fifty feet tall. It was built at such a large, inhuman scale that it will always be isolating to a pedestrian, regardless of how it ages. Exciting architectural renderings and iconic architecture don’t always result in livable cities.
Saigon may be a young city, but it is not a city without proven, mature examples of charming neighborhoods in which to live, work or just walk through. Upon examining a simple city map, Saigon’s form, organization, definition and beauty are immediately apparent. It is fortunate to be laid out with distinct nodes, paths, districts and squares- the common elements of great cities everywhere. This non-accidental organization of the city provides discernible paths to monuments and signature buildings while providing unpredictable urban nooks in which to simply get lost and wander. With its tree-lined boulevards and traffic circles buttoning it all together, Saigon offers an urban structure not found in the rather shapeless and meandering forms of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Preserving this scale and fabric by building new projects to work cohesively with the more historic forms should be heavily considered in every step upward and outward.
My first time in Saigon, I was startled by how entertaining the typical street here could be. In addition to the city’s fine organization, much of the excitement on the street comes from the city’s narrow lots; providing a colorful, crowded character from the sidewalk. Four to five meter-wide lots ensure that with every five or six steps, the pedestrian is greeted with not only a new address, but a new smell, new faces, new signage- all the fun, unexpected joys of moving down a street and staying entertained. This same sensory experience can be found in Lower Manhattan, Paris, and the livelier districts of Tokyo. These narrow lots are a result of property being taxed based on the width of the lot against the street. This same tax principle gave Amsterdam its human-scaled cohesion and personality. It’s what makes a stroll through Amsterdam more engaging than a walk through modern, larger-scaled Rotterdam. This narrow-lot arrangement has given Saigon its visual and sensual vibrancy at the street-level. The corresponding tall, skinny buildings have also given architects and builders a tight, efficient canvas on which they can experiment with new designs at a less-committed scale than a large-lot office building or condo would ever allow.
Unfortunately, many new developments in Saigon have lost much of the handsome urban precedent found in the historic districts. In the Dong Khoi district, large slabs of sullen concrete are now looming over elegant, ornate buildings. Geographically arbitrary towers are under construction or in planning near the riverfront. Blocks of once-thriving and diverse ground-floor retail are being replaced by expressionless walls that do not engage the pedestrian. In the outer districts, exclusive new developments, many attractive in their own right, are disregarding the small-scale organizational elements that have made Saigon so unique in the realm of Asian cities. As Saigon continues to grow into a globally attractive and relevant city, it must build with the confidence to not only look outward, but inward.
Published in Tuoi Tre Newspaper, November 2009.