A creative solution to Vietnam’s architectural dilemma, from Niko Savvas. Photos provided by Bao Zoan
Some people are very attached to buildings.
For example, in 2007 a woman named Erika LaBrie married the Eiffel Tower. The wedding was covered with great fanfare by the international media. A documentary was made about the woman who married the Eiffel Tower, creatively titled The Woman Who Married the Eiffel Tower. Many viewers felt that LaBrie had taken things a bit far.
Viewer A: Can you believe she married the Eiffel Tower?
Viewer B: Actually, I feel she took things a bit far.
There are lots of odd fetishes, from climacophilia (arousal from falling down stairs) to oculolinctus (arousal from licking eyeballs). Many are somewhat understandable — after all, blue eyes are like super pretty*. But objectophilia, or the love of inanimate stuff like buildings, poops in the shoes of logic.
Why do people get so worked up about buildings? They’re just piles of brick and glass. They might contain multitudes, but that’s all they are: containers for people and their stuff.
Some containers are more desirable than others — like cinemas. Cinemas are very desirable containers. Not in the Erika LaBrie sense, but in the “I’d like to have one of those in my neighbourhood” sense. Cinemas yield popcorn-buckets full of revenue, provide round-the-clock entertainment and give teenagers a place to make out. A cinema is a useful container.
You know what’s not a useful container? A late-period Indochinese fish warehouse. But for some reason people go bonkers when it’s time to knock one down, even if it’s being replaced by a cinema.
Confronting the Past
Colonial buildings in Vietnam are a thorny issue. On one hand, they’re vestiges of an imperial power that oppressed the country for decades. On the other hand, they’re pretty.
Many clever solutions to this conundrum have already been attempted — for example, repainting the Saigon Post Office a cornea-scorching shade of yellow. By making Vietnam’s colonial buildings as hideous as their surroundings, it’s possible to reduce their appeal so much that no one will miss them when they’re gone.
But once the colonialist eyesores are removed, what comes next?
It’s a question Vietnam’s architects have been struggling to answer. The Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower, Vietnam’s tallest and most prestigious building, is a billion-dollar boondoggle (which its bankrupt owners are trying to pawn off on Qatari investors). In Saigon, things are similarly bleak. Bitexco and other developers have no buyers for the vast amounts of office space they’ve built into buildings like the Manor 2.
Vietnam’s international efforts haven’t fared much better. The country’s cultural house at the 2015 Expo Milano in Italy, which cost US$2.6 million (VND56.7 billion), drew scorn for its “carelessly” selected decorations, despite the presence of several amputee mannequins and two old statues. Its lack of functionality was also criticised. “There are too many requirements for food hygiene and safety,” said Nguyen Thuan, the exhibit’s vice director, explaining why the house had no dining area. Many visitors were quick to leave once they realised the house’s interior was mostly empty.
The failure of the expo’s patrons to appreciate Vietnamese architecture is worrisome. One visitor even called the house a “shame on the country’s reputation”. So what is to be done?
A Modest Proposal
The answer lies with the country’s most precious natural resource: its children.
According to the OECD’s 2015 Universal Basic Skills report, Vietnamese schoolchildren are the 12th cleverest in the world. While sceptics attribute the high test scores to “answer borrowing” and an emphasis on rote memorisation, the report is proof that Vietnamese children are ready to embrace the challenges of tomorrow.
With this in mind, here is a radical strategy for the beautification of Vietnam’s cities.
Make the Kids Do It
By applying their advanced knowledge of fractions and gym to real-world situations, the young people of Vietnam will succeed where their forebears failed. There are many advantages to child-powered construction projects.
First, there are financial benefits. Children are poor unionisers — collective bargaining is difficult for groups who can’t even agree which anthropomorphic robot is the strongest. They can sometimes be convinced to work for literal peanuts (if they’re dipped in chocolate and sprinkled on ice cream). Also, their uniforms are much smaller than adults’, saving millions of dong on excess sleeve-and-pant-leg fabric. The savings can be passed along to future tenants.
Young builders are also more tech-savvy and appreciative of architectural diversity. Many of them have years of experience in virtual real estate development. They are well-trained in identifying local needs, whether this means a new tiberium mine, a larger melon patch or an extra dragon hatchery. Surely they would prove equally adept at relatively mundane tasks like traffic flow and sewer management.
In conclusion, while some may bristle at the ethical ramifications of depending on child labour to develop Vietnam’s infrastructure, all objective analyses lead to a single conclusion: they couldn’t f*** things up any worse.