Ho Thieu Tri, the man behind the Hanoi Opera House as we know it today, speaks about his love affair with the capital and how it shaped his life and work
The Hanoi Opera House. Out of all the projects he has undertaken, architect Ho Thieu Tri says the Hanoi Opera House is "[his] life's greatest achievement."
The Hanoi Opera House is my life's greatest "achievement," says architect Ho Thieu Tri as he begins to explain the love story between him, a southerner, and the thousand-year-old capital in the north.
Ho Thieu Tri was born in 1945 in Kien Giang Province and grew up in Saigon. He graduated from Saigon's University of Architecture in 1974 before moving to France in 1979. After ten years living and working abroad, the architect returned to Vietnam and visited the capital for the first time.
"When I was young, the north and the south were still divided, and all my thoughts and impressions of Hanoi were formed through literary works. I had images of the capital being peaceful and romantic with thirty six streets and districts, and it truly is," says Tri.
Upon his first visit to Hanoi in 1989, Tri was overwhelmed by the beauty of the old corners of the city. "At that time, the city was not as crowded as it is today. I felt at home in a way I never did in France," he remembers.
In 1994, after completing an assignment in Shanghai, Tri went back to Hanoi instead of France and met fellow architect Nguyen Thanh Lan. Lan took him on a sightseeing tour of the city which led to a turning point in Tri's life.
"The first stop was the Hanoi Opera House. I was amazed by this unique and classic work of art. It looked a little like Paris's Garnier Opera House but was in a bad state with walls covered in moss and a tin roof in parts. After a little research, I found out it was built in 1901 and finished in 1911. The Hanoi Opera House had stood there for 80 years in the sands of time," recalls Tri.
After this visit, Tri was introduced to architect Hoang Dao Kinh, the son of noted Hanoi scholar, Hoang Dao Thuy. At that time, Kinh was in charge of a project to restore and improve the Hanoi Opera House.
"I admired Kinh for his erudition and immense savvy about the history and architecture of many Hanoi's relics. Kinh was the first person to give me a thoroughly precious understanding of Hanoi."
Meanwhile, Kinh saw Tri as "a valuable talent, a man who is sophisticated, reliable and has an impressive understanding of French architecture." It was this impression that led to him inviting Tri to become part of the restoration team.
At first, the invitation went unanswered: Tri returned to his daily routine and half-done projects in France. It wasn't until a timely fax from Kinh that Tri remembered the proposal to save the Hanoi Opera House.
Work of a lifetime
"I thought the invitation to restore the Hanoi Opera House was a joke and I totally forgot about it. Kinh helped me realize that I had nearly missed a massive opportunity, one that would show my devotion to my country."
Tri agreed without hesitation. He cancelled all his projects and travelled to Aix-en-Provence to visit the Indochina Archives, 800 kilometers away from Paris. It was there that Tri found documents about the Opera House in Hanoi, originally built by the French, which would serve in the restoration. He also discovered several articles about how the French spent a large sum of money on building the Opera House
"All the documents, including those detailing the French press's positive and negative thoughts about the construction, were valuable to the restoration."
Apart from the Hanoi Opera House, Tri has also left his mark on both age-old and modern works of architecture from the north to the south including the National Cinema Center (87 Lang Ha St., Hanoi), L'Espace (24 Trang Tien St., Hanoi), the Convention Center in Quang Ninh (Ha Long Town), HCMC's International Exhibition and Convention Center (Tan Binh District, HCMC). Tri has also won both local and international awards for his work.
After two months of research, Tri returned to Vietnam with luggage weighing 50-kilograms which contained material samples of stone, colored curtain, mosaic brick, gold laminae and tens of drawing panels to show to those in charge of deciding the fate of the Hanoi Opera House.
"I remember how I presented my design in front of the Hanoi Opera House with forty to fifty members of various ministries and departments in attendance. It was a success and my design was approved one month later. My re-design is a mixture of French and Oriental architecture, a so-called colonial design. However, the Hanoi Opera House still mainly has a French look embellished with some Eastern details on the walls and the door as well as ornamental pottery and a system of pillars."
It wasn't until 1997 that the re-construction of the Hanoi Opera House was completed, after two years of Tri working with 100 workers. It has since been lauded by many people from all walks of life. Former French president, Jacques Chirac, visited the site in 2004 and was impressed by the "successful overhaul" while local media praised Tri and his team for installing 400 tons worth of sound, air-conditioning, light and sanitary equipment while still preserving the original feel of the building.
Tri not only sees the Hanoi Opera House as his greatest work ever but as a promise to his friend, Kinh, and his responsibility and duty as a Vietnamese son. He sums it up best when he says, "Above all, I love Hanoi from the bottom of my heart."
It took architect Ho Thieu Tri two years (from 1995 to 1997) to successfully overhaul the Hanoi Opera House which was built over ten years (from 1901 to 1911)