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Saigon House, Vietnam by a21 Studio: An Ode to a Lost World

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on December 30, 2015 at 12:56 PM

It’s an all too familiar phenomenon for any one of us who has grown up in an Indian city which has two facets to it: an old city area and a new one. The ‘old’ city area is the preserved historic point of the city’s origin, where one finds small, old structures which seem to have grown around each other to form an organic layout of congested lanes and bylanes, punctuated by a few large structures and roads. The ‘new’ city area takes off around this, usually walled, old one and spreads out as far as its economic development takes it, in a more planned, orderly fashion. The old city of pols, wadas, muhallas or agraharas displays an architectural grammar which identifies itself culturally with its geographical location, the new city of apartments, bungalows and skyscrapers could belong anywhere in the world and still look the same! While we cosy up to all the sophistication and modernity that the present state of development hands out to us, there’s a part of us that fondly romanticizes and reminisces the old world and the culture linked with it. Vietnam’s a21studio similarly romanticizes about a lost culture linked to the old city of Saigon, now transformed to the global Ho-Chi-Minh city, through its design of Saigon House for a family living in the old city area.

© Courtesy of internet resources

Saigon House is sandwiched between two neighbouring houses, supported by their parallel walls, something akin to the modern row house typology, spreading across 3 m narrow in width and 15 m deep inside, and rising up approximately three and a half floors. On this long, narrow plot in the old city area, the client wanted a home for herself and her children and old parents where each family unit could have their private rooms while simultaneously living together. 

More importantly, she wanted the home to be reminiscent of old Saigon rather than the later western styled houses that make up present day Ho-Chi-Minh city; a place where her grandchildren could grow up identifying with Saigon’s culture and relating to the stories associated with each piece of furniture collected by her over the years. 

The designers a21studio responded by trying to capture the romance of old Saigon’s lanes with their ‘rain and sunshine’ by recreating one within this plot. Like a veritable vertical village, the house-like rooms are suspended independently above each other, spanning across the width of the plot at the back and front ends. These individual units, connected by stairs and foyers, are covered with a variety of roofs and wall-colours to further invoke an old Saigon lane of varied houses.

The rooms overlook a central courtyard where the family gathers for meals, which are cooked in a kitchen nestling within the stairway recess. The single tree growing in this long, narrow courtyard helps articulate the sense of a Saigon lane. A metallic mesh spreads out over this court at a higher level, making an interesting play area for the children, that is visible from every part of the house.

The façade on the upper floors is also covered by a metallic grill, adorned with plants peeping out through it. This screen, as well as the gaps between the suspended rooms and the mesh covering the courtyard allows sunshine to filter through and light up the interiors in the most amazing ways. Though, the rooms are small, cosy and private, there are double height spaces created in the intervals. Each piece of furniture has a history or a story attached to it, collected partly by the client and partly by the architects. The materials used in the building are mostly reclaimed, brick and timber being the major components. 

All these features make Saigon House an engaging home full of a variety of experiences for its occupants. It provides a strong cultural, familial and spatial identity to each family member to anchor onto. More than anything else, it looks like a house made up of what its occupants make it, and not a fancy shell ‘designed’ by an unconnected agent, essaying the essence of identity. Saigon House was named ‘Best House of 2015’ at the World Architecture Festival held in Singapore this year.

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