Saigon's architectural icons disappear

| 28 Apr 2010
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28 Apr 2010

As Saigon prepares to commemorate 35 years since the end of the Vietnam War this week, the city’s leaders have ramped up the demolition of French colonial era buildings that have added some character and atmosphere to a mostly ordinary physical cityscape.

The last two years have been especially grim. The demolition of villas on Le Thanh Ton St to make way for the Vincom Tower was one of the most regrettable moves. It took only a few days to destroy hundreds of years of accumulated heritage. The city centre’s last line of grand colonial villas and a small park were wiped out.

The same block could have been thoughtfully put to use as a desperately needed public space with the villas retained as restaurants, galleries or small scale boutiques. All of which would have added long term economic value to Saigon as an attractive city with some heritage charm.

Photo: Mark BowyerAlong the Bund, Shanghai
Shanghai has managed to create the world’s most modern city and while it’s paid a big price in heritage terms, there is still plenty of space for memory along the Bund and into the old concessions. Saigon seems hellbent on erasure of all memory and elimination of any kind of architectural consistency.

Some of the city’s most loved tourist spaces - the colonial villas that were Vasco’s bar, Camargue restaurant and Ngon Restaurant have recently been demolished to be replaced by charmless high rise buildings that will at once damage the city’s attractiveness to travellers and residents while struggling for tenants in an oversupplied commercial real estate market.

Saigon is facing the same dilemma that all cities face - striking a balance between necessary commercial development while recognising the less measurable but fundamental economic value obtained in a city of character and charm. Saigon’s leaders seem stubbornly determined to repeat or exceed the errors of Asia’s least appealing cities rather than factoring the long term economic advantages in tourism and resident satisfaction that modest well thought out decisions on heritage issues can produce.

Saigon has so little of real heritage value and so many buildings begging for demolition, it is surprising that the city’s most pleasing spaces have been targeted with such surgical precision.

architecture,Eden Centre,Givral Cafe,Saigon,Vietnam
Photo: Mark BowyerHistoric Dong Khoi St, formally the Rue Catinat has retained two icons - The Continental and the Eden Centre. Eden is soon to disappear.
The issue is back in the local press again this month as preparations get under way for the demolition of the Eden Centre and its adjacent old buildings in the city’s heart - right by the historic Continental Hotel, the Opera House - the former South Vietnamese National Assembly building and the People’s Committee Building.

Both Vietnamese and foreigners are watching the dismemberment of the Eden Centre with unease. Together with its star tenant, the Givral cafe, Eden has witnessed much of the country’s twentieth century history. Its stories resonate with Vietnamese from both sides of the pre-1975 political divide. Saigon’s newspapers have carried stories describing the tragedy of the proposed demolition. Saigonese frequently express despair at the city’s architectural direction.

In the 1950s, Givral was frequented by Graham Greene and his cohorts. By the 1960s, it was a centre of intrigue for spooks of all complexions. For celebrated communist spy Pham Xuan An, who worked in the Saigon bureau for Time magazine throughout the war, Givral was a frequent stop. Pham’s story, told in his biography Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent by Larry Berman is one of the most fascinating of the war.

Givral recently closed its doors for the last time. The interior has already been gutted and the walls replaced by large banners featuring beautiful westerners in consumer heaven with their shopping bags loaded and their white teeth glistening. No place for nostalgia, history or heritage architecture there.

architecture,Eden Centre,Givral Cafe,Saigon,Vietnam
Photo: Mark BowyerVietnamese flags are draped from the Eden centre for the last time - marking the 35th anniversary of the communist victory.
Eden and Givral could easily retain a rightful place in the modern city. Eden certainly needs some work but a tasteful renovation could make it one of the city’s most desirable residential addresses and a handsome commercial project for developers. There’s no doubt that such a plan would reduce returns to a developer. But the medium and long term economic benefits of Saigon retaining its distinctive character will more than offset any short term trimming of developer profits.

Saigon seems destined to destroy most of its iconic architecture leaving the Post Office, the Cathedral, the People’s Committee and the Continental Hotel standing as lonely Disneyesque pieces without context, without stories. The very real economic consequences of this phase of developer vandalism will be felt by the next generation.

A simple decision to put in place some tight controls around the blocks between Hai Ba Trung, Le Duan, Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ham Nghi and Ton Duc Thang streets would in no way stifle the city’s essential modernisation but would ensure it retains character and uniqueness. A modern Saigon fifteen years later with these blocks developed to tight preservation standards might be a city worthy of Saigon’s long lost “Pearl of the Orient” title.  

architecture,Eden Centre,Givral Cafe,Saigon,Vietnam
Photo: Mark BowyerA bizarre glimpse of the site's bland future. Where are the Vietnamese?
One can’t help but feel reflective as the Eden Centre is draped in Vietnamese flags for the last time to mark this week’s important anniversary. It was witness to the French departure, the American departure and the arrival of the communists.

It survived all that. But it seems it won’t survive the hyper capitalism and individualism that are the abiding values of the 35th year of the city’s liberation.

Take a look at our short slideshow and our video tribute.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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