Hà Nội, mirror of Indochinese architecture

26/01/2010 | 17:00:00

The architect Christian Pedalahore spent many of his childhood years in Việt Nam, to which he was remained very attached. He published an excellent article about Indochinese architecture in Hà Nội in Architecture Française Mardaga (Collection Villes, 1992). We provide below a condensed version, limiting the content to what could help the reader better understanding Hà Nội’s former French Quarter in the context of Indochinese architecture.

The beginnings: 1873-1900 from military to civil

In 1803, King Gia Long commissioned four French officers of the engineer corps at his service to reconstruct the citadel in Vauban-style, which had lost its status as royal capital to Huế.

In 1873, Francis Garnier dismantled the citadel which was only to be restored the following year in exchange for an allotment endorsed by the city of a land concession on the Red River banks at Đồn Thủy. The French officers of the engineer corps constructed plain, unadorned buildings with verandas around all four sides.

Beginning of the 20th century: Paul Bert Street (now Tràng Tiền)

Central Railway Station

In 1882, Henri Rivière took over the citadel again. In 1883, the armed resistance ordered the construction of a road joining the citadel and the concession. Work was laid out for the cathedral, the first houses south of the city and the clearing of Hoàn Kiếm Lake’s surroundings. The year 1885 marked the start of the construction of military quarters inside the citadel itself where the royal and mandarin buildings once stood.

With the arrival of First Governor Paul Bert, responsibility for the first large-scale construction projects that would change the face of the city was taken on by the civil service, namely Public Works. The development of an important thorough face going East-West (Paul Bert, formerly Phố Hàng Khay) would give direction to the colonial quarter’s growth with an extension towards the east on land gained from filled-in ponds between the lake and Red River. Construction would continue with the creation of Rollandes Boulevards (now Phố Hai Bà Trưng), Careau (now Lý Thường Kiệt) and Gambetta (now Trần Hưng Đạo).

The years 1880-1890 witnessed the birth of a movement tending towards a hybrid culture, crossing western rationalism and eastern philosophy; a culture which is an architectural and urban domain foreshadows the Indochinese school of the 1930s.

Throughout the course of the second stage of urban development, stress was put on the construction of State buildings. They were no longer to be randomly grouped in different neighborhoods, but built in specific areas in order to give shape and harmony to the city.


 The Hà Nội Cathedral

Working for a colonial regime attempting to assert its power, Architect Auguste-Henri Vildieu renounced utilitarian rationalism of the 1880s calling on the massiveness and decorative vocabulary of neoclassical architecture to capture the attention of the masses. Thus from 1892 to 1906, he built the Officers’ Club, la Résidence Supérieure, the Post Office, the City Hall (in the quarter  designed by Paul Bert) and most notably from 1900 onward, his most grandiose works: the Palace of Justice (1900-1906) and the Governor-General’s Palace (1901-1906). Colonial construction reached its peak in 1907 with an outstanding project, Hà Nội’s Grand Exhibition Hall, a neoclassical palace which will encumber the budget for more than ten years.

Erness Hébrard and local architecture: the 1920s

A corner of the roof of the Theater in Hà Nội

 Ernest Heesbrard, who took up his duties in Hà Nội in 1923 (Central Services of Urban Planning and Architecture) imagined a renewal of colonial architecture’s professional profile. Not only was he the conceptualist of representative buildings housing State institutions, but had to act as a city planner, as well. As for Hà Nội, Hébrard envisaged a new administrative area beyond the Governor General’s Palace south of West Lake. He also planned to take measures to reunite the already existing administrative services or simply build new ones in order to extend the city westward (to the Tô Lịch River) and eastward (to the Red River’s left banks). However, his professional scope of vision could do nothing against the capital and Indochina’s economic weakness. Nevertheless, his plans would serve as official reference for others in his field until the 1940s when they were replaced by Pineau’s and Cerruti’s projects, which in turn would draw strong inspiration from Hébrard’s guidelines.

As an architect, Hébrard dedicated himself to three main projects: le Musée de l’Ecole francaise d’Extrême-Orient in 1925, the University in 1926 and the Bureau of Finances in 1931. Relying on his profound knowledge of Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer masterly architectures, he attempted to prove the accuracy of his theories concerning the possibility of conveying through his architecture the essence of local cultures without plagiarizing, and of demonstrating a technical mastery of a specific environment. He sketched the framework of a contextual architecture called the Indochinese style.

Indochina at the 1931 exhibition

It is interesting to note in passing the ambivalent attitude which prevailed on the eve of the colonial exhibition in Paris: there was still an unwavering awareness of the cultural and moral superiority of the “privileged population” together with a certain respect, admittedly rigid, for traditional cultures and the wish for colonized countries’ economic and intellectual development (providing that it staged within the limits of its tightly controlled dependence on the capital). This trend marked the challenge for the colonized country of how much it could evolve and innovate within what was determined or allowed by the colonizing country – despite the omnipresent appeal from the colonizing country to traditional local architectural styles in order to symbolize each colony’s cultural specificity.

L.G. Pineau and functional, contextual urban planning: 1930-1940

Arriving in Hà Nội in 1930, Pineau found himself face-to-face with an urban planning that was more concerned with administration than development. It was no longer a time of large-scale construction projects. His efforts were concerned on the renovation of historical neighborhoods. He worked with already existing structures and analysed every city block. He defined a philosophy of contextual intervention which recognized a pertinence if not functional, at least cultural, concerning the mercantile city and accepted its fundamental heterogeneity.

Urban Planning in Indochina (1943) by Pineau tried to bring together and define the urban planner’s thought

of this period in the colony. Over the period of twenty years, we moved from a prioritized programmatic rationalization of commerce and climatic conditions thus forming the symbolism of Hébrard’s masterly architecture to the question of civilization and the preservation of traditional lifestyles that concerned Pineau thereafter.

This political preoccupation, which gave architecture the role of “socialist corrector”, dominated both Indochina’s and Hà Nội’s upper echelons of political power. The Petainist Governor General Decoux (1940-1945) relied heavily on architects to attempt to reinforce the power of a defeated France and an Indochina under Japanese control by building huge blocks of State buildings and by initiating a public housing policy. Works carried out in this period tried to bring back this hybrid theme so important to Hébrand. However, the demands of the time gave way to a consensual development of an official style favoring massiveness and symmetry within the limits of a strongly regulated functionalism. Curved roofs, in themselves, were supposed to represent or express the “Vietnameseness” of their geographical anchorage. The main accomplishments of Pineau’s urban scheme were concentrated in the years 1936 to 1945. He was much more at ease with urban planning than with architecture. His leading plan of Hà Nội established in 1943 envisages western and southern growth of the city.

Modern architecture in Hà Nội: 1930-1945

Palace of Governor General  (now the Government Guest House)

Despite the relatively limited number of works carried out in the Indochinese style begin by Hébrard at the end of the 1920s, it experienced a resurgence among architects of Hà Nội. The most noteworthy, Arthur Kruze was a professor than Director of Indochina’s College of Fine Arts during the 1940s. He recaptured the fundamental elements of this style in the building of certain villas for his French and Vietnamese clientele. From the end of the 1930s on, State commissions tapered off and the conception of private villa construction became a field of business activity for a privileged few. Villa construction in the residential area of Avenue Carnot (now Phan Đình Phùng) near the Governor General’s Palace (a Crédit Foncier real estate transaction) was taken on by architects appointed by Kruze. He also appointed architects for the construction of the Bank of Indochina (Boulevard Henri Rivière, now Ngô Quyền) and for the Head Office of Crédit Foncier (rue Paul Bert, now Tràng Tiền). With a temperate Art-Deco modernism, these two buildings resumed only a few of the principles of composition of the Indochinese style, notably the tripartion of bays – but they did not seem to able to get away from a certain heaviness and oversimplification foreign to Hébrard’s architectural achievements. It must be added that this trend was replaced by a clearly more avant-garde and international vision promoted by a group of young Vietnamese architects. Just out of university, they became famous mainly for private villa construction, thus making the important role Indochina’s Fine Arts College played in creating a new style of architecture. Divided between the study of ancient buildings and the exposure to avant-garde European doctrines using an individualized teaching method (every class had no more than approximately ten students), the first Vietnamese architects received a top-level education. Most often excluded from work on buildings commissioned by the State-reserved for French architects working for the government – they worked almost exclusively on private villa construction. In a period of ten years, they built more than one hundred residences combining isolated rationalism and freer compositions, integrating overhanging for thermal purposes, covered staircases, curves in the façade, terraced-roofing, port-holds, at the same time as Asian-inspired ornamental plastering and painting on the exterior. These white villas concentrated along the main arteries south of the Old Citadel – Boulevards Giovanelli (now Lê Hồng Phong), Feslix Faure (now Trần Phú), Carreau (now Lý Thường Kiệt), Gambetta (now Trần Hưng Đạo) –add to changing the city’s look and to turning this area into a modern quarter of monsoons.

By Hữu Ngọc

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