Conference on the ever-changing face of the city (and how to keep its most handsome features)

Once, high up in the majestic craggy Peruvian mountains, on a visit to Machu Picchu (the lost and rediscovered) ancient city of the Incas, I was witness to an interesting exchange between our tour guide and a fellow culture vulture. Upon being informed that one of the edifices was still under construction when the Incas left and not a ruin, my fellow excursionist exclaimed, ‘Ah, so they never finished building Machu Picchu’! Our Cicerone put the record straight, ‘No city is ever finished; there is always new building happening’

This insight sprang back to my mind this week when, while wearing my hat as a heritage writer, I was invited to that monumental hotel ‘The Saigon Reverie’ to attend a conference on ‘Heritage Preservation and Economic Development in Vietnam’ in Ho Chi Minh City. The event was to provide much food for thought on how the two can go together and the Reverie, as always, provided the food for the body with their renowned epicurean canapes. Not only that, my soul came away with renewed faith that there are many luminaries out there who know that urban renewal does not have to mean wrecking balls and putting up another skyscraper, but at least some of French villas and other historic buildings can be preserved.

The event, held on September 29 and hosted by S and A architecture, a bespoke Italian architecture, landscape, and design company, may be said to have had a star-studded cast of presenters and participating factions including the crucial city department of planning and architecture. Top draw, for me at least, being a news and current affairs addict, was the virtual address by twice Italian prime minister and head of the European Commission Professor Romano Prodi who now heads the Italian-ASEAN Association. Among the twenty four keynote speakers were the Italian Ambassador to Vietnam, the Italian Consul General in Vietnam, academics from RMIT Vietnam and Melbourne universities, and representatives of architectural and industrial consultancy companies all offering accounts of their experiences and viewpoints. Speeches were seamlessly connected by our general oompere Signor Romano Orlandi, an architect from the Italy Asean Association who also orchestrated the Question and Answer sessions.

The subtitle of this event was ‘Sustainable Urban Regeneration and Adaptive Reuse’ and the idea of a circular economy in which land is reused and adapted to fit a new purpose came up time and time again. Italy with its historical legacy of the Renaissance and Antiquity was of course to provide many examples of this ongoing process. We were reminded that this is not just a modern phenomenon but even some of the ancient buildings of today’s Rome reused the rubble from a previous civilisation in their construction.

The one area of HCMC that I learned that is coming up for a major face lift is the old Saigon port area of District Four. When I first came to this city twenty five years ago, this was a rundown district with the notoriety of being ridden with gangsters. Now it has been quite gentrified and there is a further opportunity for improvement. What struck me when I arrived here was that tree-lined streets only exist in the original French-designed city. The new areas are just urban sprawl with some districts not possessing a single green area. No decisions or choices have been made yet, but the wharfage of the old port might have its warehouses and offices transformed into a commercial, residential, or recreational area that is attractive, environmentally friendly and a place for the family to go for a post prandial stroll or for friends to hang out with a beer or a game of mah jong.

Signor Luigi Campanale CEO and design director of S and A Architecture of Italy gave a slide-illustrated talk of a proposal of just how such a project for a ‘green mile’ can be achieved. Making use of and adapting existing buildings can actually be more cost effective and profitable than erasure and reconstruction, it was asserted. Moreover, by thus means some of the original flavour of a territory can be maintained not just as a museum, but for everyday practical use. Where would you rather dine–in a boring shopping mall basement or in a restaurant in a building redolent of the history and heritage of its former incarnation?

Mrs Julia Gaimster the Dean of the School of Communication and Design at RMIT University Vietnam further gave an interesting talk entitled “Smart Cities, Urban Regeneration”. She gave us an account of a project executed by students in which they gave their own ideas and plans for how to adapt an area they knew for renewal and sustainable urban development. None of the students were architects, but they all came up with smart and creative solutions. It was good to hear the upcoming generation is being encouraged to take good care and ownership of their city’s future.

Throughout the afternoon, case studies of transformations were given from cities all over the world. It was made clear that it is not only history and tourism that are the main reasons for maintaining heritage but preserving the very soul of a place. When I lived in Spain in the eighties, the Spanish were constantly complaining that all cities looked the same; these days this need not and should not be the case. We saw how in Italian cities care is constantly being given to maintain the spirit of their many historical urban areas. In the UK, many projects are underway to revitalise and repurpose key city areas, notably London’s docklands. Closer to home was the redevelopment in Penang in Malaysia.The waterfront here has been made into a bustling area of commercial and social activity. They have made good reuse of all those Chinese godowns.

As a counter to the Italians, toward the end the Dutch company Except came on to recount its worldwide experiences and I found the Dutch accent easier to follow. They talked about the need to think about future heritage or what our children’s children’s children might want preserved from our time. Also they reminded us that even ugly buildings sometimes need preserving. I thought of Hoi An. Aside from the wonderful Japanese bridge, the old town is drab and the houses there were never meant to be beautiful but nevertheless their preservation is essential.

One of the final acts was video streamed in from Melbourne Australia; a young city, perhaps, but one that provides a good example of a circular economy. We were taken through the history of the suburb of Collingwood, from a working class area to a slum and now a diverse and gentrified territory.

It had been a long afternoon seminar lasting well into the evening, but the high quality of the presentations made the time fly past. I was left not just with enhanced knowledge but also feeling privileged for having had a glimpse at the shape of things to come in this what has been my adopted city for the past quarter of a century. When I first came to Saigon, I was shocked by the wrecking fest that was taking place around me. French era villas with their unique blend of Western and Oriental architecture were being knocked down on a wholesale basis. I spoke to a lady who was supervising the demolition of an American War navy barracks very near my house. She seemed to be proud of what she was doing. For me as a European with our strict preservation laws, doing such things to your heritage is practically tantamount to killing your own grandmother.

Fast forward to the present and there has been a quantum change and this event brought it out in the open. I left feeling optimistic that this city holds an attractive future for the visitor and a cleaner, more amenable one for the resident. i was most impressed by the contribution of local people to this conference. It is now apparent that we have enlightened people who are and are likely to be in the future key decision makers. From all the speakers that day and the discussions that took place between them, we now know that with vision and creativity what previously was held mutually exclusive, sustainable economic development and adaptive reusage favouring our heritage can go hand in hand. In conclusion, you can have your architectural cake and eat it.

Pip de Rouvray October 4 2022