April, 02 2014 09:31:00

Culture Vulture ( 02-04-2014)

Martin Rama, Delhi-based chief economist for South Asia at the World Bank, recently published a photo book titled Ha Noi - Promenade that includes images of the city during the period he worked here between 2002 and 2010.

He talks with Culture Vulture about the book.

What was the inspiration for the book?

I fell for the city the first time I visited, in 1998. I was privileged enough to live in a beautiful French villa on Tran Hung Dao Street, in the middle of what used to be the French Quarter.

This is also how I gradually focused my attention on different aspects of the city. I would go home after my walks and try to read about what I had seen or ask Vietnamese friends about it.

At some point, it became clear to me that I had enough visuals and information to put together compelling stories about Ha Noi: stories combining texts and images, but also academic rigour and personal experience. That is how the idea of writing the book emerged, sometime in 2007.

It also became apparent to me that the topics did not have an obvious connection with each other. Some were about architecture, others about society, and others just about emotions prompted by Ha Noi.

Suddenly I thought that these apparently disconnected chapters were like ingredients in a bowl of pho: all different from each other, but yielding a unique taste when combined. And what could be more Hanoian than a bowl of pho?

Why did you organise them as you did?

I wanted to recreate the vibrant, at times chaotic atmosphere of Ha Noi. In fact, one of the chapters of the book is entitled Chaos! When going for walks I would jump from one thing to another, from French architecture to Soviet style buildings, from vibrant business to quiet prayer...

I decided to reproduce this randomness of impressions by having chapters that are not organised by topic or period. I found that just ordering the chapters alphabetically (in English) could create that element of surprise, of bumping from one thing to another.

The book title itself tries to convey this randomness of the walking experience. "Promenade" is a French word that describes a walk without a destination.

When I found your book at Manzi Art Space, I was particularly impressed with the KTT (Khu Tap The or Collective Living Quarters) chapter. Could you tell me about your visits to KTT in the city?

KTTs are an integral part of Ha Noi. With very limited space, even shared kitchens and bathrooms, they force their residents to be creative and build all sorts of improvised additions to their apartments.

The result is a sort of participatory architecture that looks really messy, even a bit sad, but is very distinctive of Ha Noi. At the same time, those who live in KTTs are very well integrated in the fabric of Ha Noi's society. They are civil servants, or journalists, or military personnel. And many KTTs are extraordinarily well located, in some of the most desirable central spots of the city.

I wanted to tell the story of the KTTs, and the contribution they make to the character of Ha Noi, as people are talking about replacing the crumbling buildings with modern high rises.

Which chapter took the longest to complete?

I would typically spend a couple of months thinking about each one. I would start with an idea, then pictures, then text. Most often, I would end up having too much text and would have to discipline myself to make it shorter and crisper. But that was a good thing, as it prevented me from being too talkative.

Are you working on any similar projects now?

I keep coming back to Ha Noi regularly and I do have a personal project in Viet Nam, one that follows up on the book. Its goal is to think more rigorously about urban development policies that can reconcile modernisation with preserving the city's character. But I will tell you more about this project once I get it off the ground! — VNS

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