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 Floating garden linking Saigon River and Thu Thiem project by French architect Olivier Souquet

Oliver Souquet has had the rare pleasure of bringing gardens to Vietnam.

The Frenchman won his government's inaugural Young Architect Portrait in 2002 and has been helping several Vietnamese organizations with architectural design and landscaping.

Olivier is a co-director of the architectural firm DeSo, which he founded with Francois Defrain and which designed the Maintenon Urban and Landscaping Design and Park along the Seine River in Boulogne, France.

From France to Vietnam

Souquet chose a shortcut to success. He attended the University of Architecture in Grenoble but quit before completing his formal studies to work for Christian de Portzamparc, winner of the prestigious Pritzker prize for architectural design.

When we spoke to him, the 45- year-old Parisian had nothing but praise for de Portzamparc, whom he called his "first teacher."

"From him, I learned that the important thing was not the building but the atmosphere. It is very easy to design a building but not easy to create atmosphere. A building can be destroyed yet the feeling and atmosphere will remain."


Oliver Souquet has had the rare pleasure of bringing gardens to Vietnam.

Souquet married his Vietnamese French wife in Paris in 2002. Soon after, at his wife's suggestion, he traveled to Vietnam to look for opportunities here.

Before long, Souquet had been awarded several major projects in Vietnam including 1,200 hectares urban planning project in Gia Lam, Hanoi and a 25-hectare design project for Thu Thiem in Ho Chi Minh City's District 2.

A different approach

Unlike other Western architects, who may be strongly influenced by the French colonial buildings in Saigon, Souquet gives priority to what he calls "ecology and identity values" in his Vietnamese projects.

"I am not interested in French colonial buildings, which were merely expressions of French authority in the past. What does interest me is the way that the city's streets were laid out to bring the cool breeze to the center of Saigon," Souquet told Thanh Nien Weekly the day before he officially signed a landscaping and garden-design contract with the Thu Thiem project management board.

"Olivier Souquet has his philosophy," said Fanny Nguyen, co-director of PADDI, HCMC Urban Development Management Support Center.

"He brings an innovative and unique approach and tries to make a place memorable. He tries to understand the Vietnamese context, and is keen to incorporate the latest technology.

"He wants to create a place for the people who will live there as well as weekend visitors. In every project he undertakes in Vietnam, he studies the land, landscape, agriculture and the rice fields before getting to work on the design," Ms. Nguyen said.

Cocoons are not the way to go

Because theirs is traditionally a land of wet rice cultivation, Vietnamese learned long ago to work together in teams. Their sense of community was enhanced by the communal house that dominated social life in every village.

Not so in the hectic, self-absorbed Vietnam of today, where communal life is shunned in favor of "personal space" and few people care about nature and landscape. With more and more parks and open ground being replaced by shopping malls and tall towers, urban development leaves little room for the gentle conviviality of yesteryear.

Souquet is against developments like Ciputra in Hanoi, where the streets are lifeless and there is no sense of community.

"If there is no public place in these new cities, "˜walls' will be erected and the people will become more isolated from each other. People are beginning to live alone in Vietnam, some are getting richer and some poorer. And the increasing isolation can be dangerous. Saigon needs public places and buildings or a "˜city' with different functions," he said.

Bounded mostly by the Saigon River, the still green area of Thu Thiem can be considered one of the city's "lungs". That's why it is important, in Souquet's opinion, to create public gardens and respect the river and other watery areas in Thu Thiem, not only for the people who live and work there but also for Saigon as a whole.

Talking about his floating garden project in Thu Thiem, Souquet said, "The scale of the garden in comparison to the whole of Thu Thiem Town is 2/10. And there will be a water fall covering 15 hectares."

Souquet said his garden was inspired by the ruong bac thang (rice terraces) of Vietnam's northwest and the floating markets in the Mekong Delta, and that his choice of colors came from the variety of local vegetables. He said these colors would help create a relaxing atmosphere for Thu Thiem and Saigon.

"It is easy and cheap to make and change the floating garden with local trees," he said. It will be the Saigon River connection linking Saigon and Thu Thiem. And not only for the benefit of Thu Thiem's residents. It will encourage Saigon's young people to come and chill out with friends."

Souquet's garden will also use wind and water to create a cool place to relax. "The water space will take up 20 percent of the area and will mirror the buildings and sky, and make the place more open," he said. The breeze coming across the water will be much cooler. I hope it will be a new place in town for young people and families to enjoy."

Souquet added that he was much impressed by the Cham architects of long ago and the "legendary material" they used to build brick towers that have lasted for centuries. He credited them with inspiring the terracotta aspect of his Thu Thiem design.

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