Nguyen Huu ThaiHo Chi Minh City is racing towards the future at breakneck speed. But there are some who have dedicated themselves to remembering and preserving the city’s past. In this five-part supplement to January’s Urban Archaeology feature, contributing editor Thomas Maresca profiles the self-made historians who helped us piece the puzzle together.

Witness to History

Nguyen Huu Thai is a respected architect, writer and urban planner. He’s an expert on Vietnamese architectural history, but also an eyewitness and participant in some of the most dramatic moments that shaped Ho Chi Minh City.

Born in 1930 to a middle-class family in Danang, Thai studied in French schools and lived a life relatively unscathed by Vietnam’s battles with the French for independence. However, as a student and journalist in Saigon in the early 1960s, he was moved by the events unfolding around him. He became a leader of the student anti-war activist movement, and later, a member of the urban resistance, working with the National Liberation Front (NLF).

When the iconic tank crashed through Reunification Palace, on April 30, 1975, Thai was there and to help raise the flag. He then led a group to secure the Saigon radio station, and his was the first voice to announce the liberation of Saigon and to introduce General Duong Van Minh’s declaration of surrender.

Thai spent the next decade-and-a-half in Vietnam as it rebuilt after its war years. In 1990, he moved overseas for the first time, living and working as  lecturer in Montreal. However, he was drawn back to Vietnam, and in 1995, he returned to his homeland, where he has remained one of the leading voices on Vietnamese architecture, lecturing widely and publishing books such as Contemporary Vietnamese Architectural Problems and New Trends in Vietnamese and World Architecture and Cities.

Thai, like the other historians and preservationists,  is concerned that Ho Chi Minh’s expansion is expanding to the future without keeping an eye to its past. He sees the way forward as combining the city’s architectural provenance with contemporary technique.

In the past, French colonial architecture was altered to respond to the city’s subtropical, monsoon climate. Large windows, high ceilings and ventilated transoms were built to provide for natural circulation, and large overhangs and wooden shutters helped keep the sunlight out and rain out.

From there, Thai points out, colonial architecture progressed with the work of Hebrard, whose “Indochinese” style began to combine Asian and Western architectures. That direction continued into Vietnamese architecture of the 1950’s and 60’s, with buildings such as Reunification Palace, the General Sciences Library on Ly Tu Trong Street and Thong Nhat Hospital in Tan Binh District combining traditional motifs and modern techniques.

The open, airy designs of this past are a contrast to the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned modern skyscrapers springing up in a sort of faceless, placeless international style.

Thai advocates a future-leaning style that takes its cues from the city’s past. It’s not just preserving old buildings, but learning from them and applying their lessons. “I tell young architects you must find your own way to do tropical architecture,” says Thai. “It is a new concept of historical conservation, a question of heritage: How can we combine the old with the new?” Contemporary green architecture, for instance, is already looking to natural, environmentally-conscious design solutions that were more common in the past.

In a sense, Ho Chi Minh City is coming full circle. As it continues to race forward, there are lessons to be learned from its past and a heritage that many hope will be maintained, learned from, and built on. From very different places in this city’s multi-layered history, come a chorus of voices that both remember, and are pointing the way to the future.

Read the first post in the series: The Map Collector