Rack and ruin

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French villas have stood the test of time, but many of them now stand at an existential crossroads


A dilapidated French colonial villa at 31 Mai Thi Luu Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1, HCMC.

His first walk through the streets of Hanoi left the French architect stunned.

"I was just amazed to see so many French style houses. Perhaps Hanoi is the only city in the world that has such a great collection of French regional architecture," said Michel Casagnes, who works for the Archetyle company in the capital city.

It is a colonial heritage that major Vietnamese cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are in danger of losing because of increasing commercialization, rising land values and low appreciation of the aesthetic, historic and cultural values and charm that these buildings lend to the cities.

For Julien Smith, French architect from Lyon, director of Less-is-more, an architecture, design and photography company, what is interesting is that these villas have French architecture, "but they are also suitable and adapted to tropical countries with balconies, big gardens and high ceilings" that are spacious and natural.

Both Hanoi and HCMC are home to thousands of old French villas. In Hanoi, they are mostly located in Tran Hung Dao, Ly Thuong Kiet, Trang Thi and Phan Dinh Phung streets. In HCMC, most of the colonial French villas are located in D1 and D3 on Ngo Thoi Nhiem, Tu Xuong, Tran Quoc Toan, Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Vo Van Tan, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Mac Dinh Chi streets.

"These villas were built by very rich French people when they came to Vietnam at that time. And even in France, there are not villas like that," said Jean-Francois Chevance, director of design from the Archetype Group, HCMC.

How did this happen? In 1883, after occupying the Hanoi citadel, officials of the colonial administration started building an increasing numbers of French villas in the major cities. The rich French officials wanted to live in houses they were familiar with in France, and furthermore, that were like the stately homes in the regions that they came from. As a result, these houses were built in different styles that pertained to different regions in France. But no matter which region the villa designs were based on, they are all strong and graceful, with thick walls, high doors, huge windows and lots of ventilation.

Villas from the north of France, where it snows heavily, have steeply sloping, large, prominent roofs that spill a long way over the walls, preventing snow from collecting on them. Those from central France typically have four roof sections that are less steep but carry very sophisticated decorations over the windows and balconies. Southern France, meanwhile, is home to villas with big open spaces, large windows and doors and flat roofs.

Besides the regional influences, French architecture in Vietnam can also be differentiated on a chronological basis. According to Brice Belian, an architect from the UBIK Company in Hanoi, French colonial architecture in Hanoi can roughly be split into four major periods. The first one is from 1890 to 1910 when the buildings are copies of French neo-classical buildings that do not pay attention to adapting to the local environment or carry any influence of local architecture.

The second period, from 1910 to 1925, features buildings with more decorative elements. It can also be seen that the decorative elements carry local designs as they adorn bay windows. These homes have larger openings and terraces more suited to the local environment.

The Art Deco (1925-1935) period is the most interesting with terraced roofs, hexagonal windows, and extensive use of Granito mix and mosaics. The last period for French villas in Vietnam is from 1935-1953 when the buildings are more functional and less elaborate, reflecting the unstable environment of that time. (Just a year later, the French were roundly defeated in the famous Dien Bien Phu battle.)

Imperiled

Once the colonial regime was overthrown, many of the spacious villas became cramped quarters for several families among whom these buildings were distributed.

Over the years, the shortage of space in the villas that had to accommodate many families at the same time saw ad-hoc constructions added, both to the main structure and the gardens that used to surround them, altering their look and feel.

Those that have remained in reasonably good conditions typically belong to government offices, and those that are occupied by foreign embassies. Generally, however, the villas are not in tip top shape.

Dr. Paul Weinig, director of Goethe Institut Vietnam, had a rhetorical poser: "A French villa has the space and the garden but now there are more and more high buildings around, which decreases its value and then who wants to live inside these villas?"

The ad-hoc additions and other changes have distorted the original grace and beauty of the villas, and there are no remedies in sight.

"Now we have a playground (in the former garden) and it is very hard for me to take my motorbike to the garage as other people occupy the area for private benefit," said Hong Van who lives on Ly Thuong Kiet Street.

"I live on the first floor and the sun can hardly reach my room as the households on the second and third floors have built another extra room leaning on the wall. I think these walls have become weaker and can become a serious danger for both of us in the future," said Le Ly, another old French villa resident.

Ironically, the current situation is that while many rich Vietnamese want to build a house with French architecture, the old charming villas are in danger of disappearing forever.

Priced out

The astronomical rise in land prices in HCMC and Hanoi have proved a boon for owners of many old French villas, who are offering their properties up for investors who would tear the old structure down and build commercially profitable high rise buildings.

"After selling the land, the owner does not have to work for the rest of his (or her) life. Given the situation of land price along with the lack of regulatory protection, I do not believe that in 10, 15 years they will keep any old French villas in Vietnam (especially in D3, HCMC). It also depends on the Vietnamese.

"If Vietnamese want to keep these villas they need to have regulations regarding real estate. I have stayed five years in Hanoi, five years in Phnom Penh and five years in HCMC and I always see beautiful French colonial villas destroyed all the time," said Jean-Francois Chevance, director of design firm, Archetype Group in HCMC.

Weinig, who failed to find a French villa for the new Goethe Institut in HCMC, said: "There is a lot of construction going on here. The landlords of old French villas don't like long term leases because most of them are waiting for investors to come and tear them down. HCMC is changing fast and they want to build wherever they can."

Worth saving?

Weinig said HCMC already lacks parks, trees and space, not to mention cultural values. "First we can think of offering what HCMC needs and then the city will be richer and that would be most valuable for the city."

"It is difficult to find an old quarter in HCMC. Even in New York people go there, to the old quarter to see, to visit history."

Hanoi and Saigon were designed for a much smaller number of people than their current populations of about seven million each, and change is inevitable as the cities develop and march into a modern future.

But "I think the government should make a list of outstanding buildings to be protected. We can create new functions for the old French villas, turn them into galleries, small concert halls, or other sites to promote cultural programs. We can even create tours of villas with different kinds of exhibitions and cultural events," said Smith.

Weinig was doubtful: "But it is not easy for everybody. Investors like Kumho do not come to invest in French villas but they do come for huge buildings and skyscrapers."

It is not possible to make everyone happy, but Smith suggested making programs and clubs to rescue the old villas because "if we continue like this to destroy all of them, we will be sad about it later."

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