The Magners International Comedy Festival

The Chapel

It’s not often that the ‘World Building of the Year’ goes so unheralded in its own city. Yet that’s the situation of The Chapel — local firm a21 studio’s thusly-recognised café, facing the river in the eastern reaches of Binh Chanh.


Digging deep on Google, we got past re-blogs of the World Architecture Festival awards — a ceremony that’s been nicknamed the ‘Architectural Oscars’ — and finally found a Facebook page. The photo posts from the months since opening lacked the clean lighting of the ones on design blogs, with the blown-out contrast of smartphone photos.


On behalf of the festival’s judging panel, WAF Programme Director Paul Finch said, “The judges felt this was a project that embraced history and modernity, and created a dialogue in the process. It has created maximum effect with minimum materials and has produced an unexpected change of pace in its urban context.”


We headed out of downtown on the Nguyen Van Cu Bridge to see how the café had evolved from such promising beginnings. What we found seemed to fall short.


The Café


It was hard to tell if it was the pedigree of the beans or the over-steamed milk that left my taste buds with a flat finish every time I took a sip of my latté, beneath the flavour-obscuring chocolate rosette. It’s not often that I find myself drinking further down a cup to find the source of the bad. (Counterpoint: photographer Francis’s mango smoothie was pretty good.)


The menu has the retro, French industrial feel of L’usine’s. Split between pizza and pasta, Italian and Vietnamese coffee drinks, smoothies and Disaronno sours, they cater towards a specific type of taste bud. One which I definitely lack.


The music (on the poppy side of easy listening) and neighbours (on one side, a leaf burner, on the other, a house that’s been under construction for a few months) also failed to complement the unique feel of the space.


The Space


The building itself was less shimmering than I’d been led to believe — cream-coloured paint already peeling off the reclaimed corrugated metal that made up the café’s two walls and A-frame roof (“they’re waiting till Tet to repaint it,” Francis told me). The failing, indirect sunlight didn’t light up the colour panels as I’d seen in the photos. Steaks of dirt and odd angles created uneven shadows.


But as the light fell, the charm of the place began to emerge. The dangling circles of incandescent bulbs exerted stronger halo effects than they had previously, giving the wooden tables and floors a generous shine. Trees on either side of the space were backlit, and splashed light onto the colour panes. I Want to Know What Love Is followed by You Raise Me Up didn’t seem entirely unpleasant.


The Chapel was awarded on the basis of its potential as a communal space, in an area were rapid development has left this need out of the equation. And it’s still too early to judge it on this count. Lead architect Toan Nghiem told Word, “I believe that The Chapel is still on its way to being a community space. For example, there are many different activities such as weddings, exhibitions or year-end company meetings that are organised in this place. We are working closely with the owner to make sure that the space is adapted to a variety events.”


As a curiosity, an experiment, The Chapel works — and you’ll never find this reviewer panning the drive to innovate. But cafés have found social footholds as comfortable, lived-in spaces, and it’s here, for me, that The Chapel fails.


The good news is that it’s only by a matter of degrees. For the sake of interesting cafés citywide, let’s hope they make the adjustments necessary to get it right.


The Chapel is at 136 So 1, KDC Trung Son, Binh Chanh, Ho Chi Minh City, and on

1 comment

  • giuliambra
    giuliambra Thursday, 25 February 2016 07:46 Comment Link

    Hi! My friend and me as architects travelling in Vietnam want to see this A21 studio work. It was disappointing... Now the tree shape pilar is wrapped in brown tape and fake yellow flowers to remind the trees outside the café and light bulbs are covered by colored paper star. We told the owner to keep the tape off the tree ! I suppose the social aim failed too...

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