Fri, Jan 25, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘Redefine the skyline’: how Ho Chi Minh City is erasing its heritage

More than a third of the Vietnamese city’s historic buildings have been destroyed over the past 20 years, but critics hope it could learn from mistakes made by other fast-growing Asian cities before it is too late

By Nick Van Meade  /  The Guardian, HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam

While Central Park was largely built on reclaimed land and vacant lots, anything built in the center is likely to lead to the demolition of a historic building. No official public records are kept, but it is estimated that more than one-third of the city’s historic buildings have been destroyed over the past 20 years.

In 1993, the Centre for Prospective and Urban Studies, a Franco-Vietnamese urban research agency, classified 377 buildings in the central districts 1 and 3 as heritage sites. By 2014, 207 of those had been demolished or altered beyond recognition.

“For the past four years it has been continuing for sure,” said one urban planner involved in the original inventory, who did not want to be named.

The People’s Committee, which runs the city, has been dividing about 1,000 historic buildings into three classifications: class 1, which is protected; class 2, where the owner can build on the lot, but cannot destroy the old building; and class 3, which can be demolished.

“It is sad, but the owners of class 3 are seen as the winners,” the planner said. “Generally they are after immediate profit and people want modernity, cleanliness, air conditioning … they’re not interested in preserving old tiles. They see that the owner next door demolished to build a 32-story office with restaurant and luxury flats, and they think: ‘Why can’t I?’”

A stroll down the elegant Dong Khoi Street illustrates the scale of change. The art deco and modernist buildings of the early 20th century fell into decline during the Vietnam War, but the area has undergone a revival of late with stores by Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton.

However, destruction is never far away. The once-prestigious art deco apartment building at 213 Dong Khoi (mentioned in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American) was demolished for a new government office. One block west, the 1924 Charner department store — later the Tax Trade Centre — was knocked down to make way for the city’s long-delayed metro.

Assurances were given that its grand Moroccan-style staircase and intricate tiles were to be removed and preserved, but heritage groups believe them to have been destroyed.

Next door to the 19th-century Hotel Continental, where Greene used to drink and write, the six-story Eden Building (used as a media center during the Vietnam war) featured the distinctive curved-corner style particular to modernist buildings along Dong Khoi, and housed a colonial-era cinema and arcade — until it was demolished in 2009 for a Vincom shopping mall.

Only one art deco apartment block survives on Dong Khoi, inhabited by a warren of small retailers and workshops, its shaky old elevator caked in dust. It, too, is slated for demolition.

The city’s modernist heritage could be next, architectural historian Mel Schenck said.

Schenck said he estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the city is built in modernist style, much of it by noted Vietnamese architects, such as Ngo Viet Thu, who designed the Independence Palace.

If you pick a classic “shophouse” street at random and look up, the majority of the top floors are modernist, he said.

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