The physical building layers of a city always have a fascination for me. A good word that describes these layers is palimpsest, which means “scraped clean and used again”. It is often used in architectural circles to denote an object made or worked on for one purpose and later reused for another.
A continuing interest to me is understanding how cities work or don’t work. What shapes cities and how is it that they attain their special character? And what elements of cities most influence their character?
Almost every major city has its Chinatown. Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City — spanning Districts 5, 6 and 11 — is the largest in the world.
Tramcar or streetcar systems were developed early in the 19th century to address exactly the same issues as we have today. The problem then was just as acute as it is now, just on a smaller scale. Their introduction forever changed those cities that adopted them, especially Saigon at the end of the 19th century, a metropolis which is still struggling with its public transport. We can see today the disruption in the city caused by the construction of the first — of a hoped-for eight — metro lines. We can look forward to years of similar pain.
A feature of colonial cities is the presence of recreational activities from the colonising country. Throughout the former British empire there are cricket ovals and rugby fields, polo fields and racecourses. Growing up in one of the former British colonies these were part of our culture, bequeathed to us by our colonial masters.
Many of us view rivers as background elements in our landscape, as open space, as a pleasant vista. In Brisbane the Brisbane River was historically seen — as is the Saigon River — as a place for the mining of sand and gravel, and of industrial transport.
There is intense competition among cities throughout the world for investment, which in turn means wealth for those cities.
The word alley is more than 600 years old, owing its origin to the Old French word alee, meaning ‘walking or passage,’ and its medieval equivalent aler, or ‘go’ (today aler is spelt aller). The alleyway network in Ho Chi Minh City was introduced as a practical way of delivering goods and people to buildings away from the main streets.
Cities, like organisms, are constantly in the process of change; growing, dying, regenerating and degenerating.
When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I didn’t fully appreciate the layers and complexity of the city.