Photographer keeps old buildings alive in books

August 20, 2020 - 08:39

Garel first came as a tourist who loves to hang out, drink with friends and enjoy nightlife. He soon realised HCM City was more suited to his lifestyle and interests than Hà Nội.


A building at Sài Gòn Port, taken by Garel, is chosen as a cover of his new book.

Minh Thu

French photographer Alexandre Garel came to Việt Nam for the first time in 2011, fell in love with the country and soon decided to settle down here. He spends his time photographing HCM City where he lives and hopes the photos will help preserve the city’s beautiful architecture.

Garel first came as a tourist who loves to hang out, drink with friends and enjoy nightlife. He soon realised HCM City was more suited to his lifestyle and interests than Hà Nội.

He started life in Việt Nam as a photographer who took photos of beautiful buildings combining European style and local characteristics.

“Việt Nam has a totally different life from the world in which I have evolved over the past 30 years in Paris, so it is clear that everything here attracts my curiosity, and the people are so nice,” said Garel.


French photographer Alexandre Garel tirelessly captures photos to preserve the beauty of architecture. Photos courtesy of the artist

His photography mainly focuses on architecture and street life, mainly in HCM City because he believes it's not properly appreciated.

“In France we preserve houses that have decades, here we judge that a house that is over 50 years old is old goods at the scrapyard, seeing them being destroyed shocked me, and I decided to preserve the memory.”

Capture the endangered beauty

The development of HCM City in his eyes is a disaster.

“The metro never stops being pushed back, the city is razed, the destruction of prestigious buildings in District 1 such as Saigon Tax Trade Centre, or even the magnificent art decoration at the building 213 Đồng Khởi Street, they were destroyed,” said Garel.

“They had a story that makes the identity of Sài Gòn – HCM City and its people,” he said.

He regretted because the beautiful constructions and their architectural heritage have been destroyed for commercial projects.

His father is an architect, perhaps explaining his passion for the field.

He had a precious opportunity to take pictures of Ba Son Port in HCM City with this heritage built since the 18th century that had never been open to the public. The place was then transformed into an urban area.

“The worst is that the locals did not even realise the loss of this place because it was closed. There was a sublime dry dock and a magnificent shed to preserve, I know it because I managed to get in during destruction of the site.”

“You must nurture a love for the building if you want to capture its beauty because you need to feel it, take risks to approach it like a spy because it’s closed or under construction, and spend time for it,” said Garel.

Garel acknowledged photos can’t save a building but they can preserve the appearance of old architecture, reminding people that such a magnificent building once stood there.

“In the next 20 years, my photos will continue telling stories of the city,” he said.

Garel published the book Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture and is working on its colour edition. This year he will release another book in English to raise people’s awareness of Vietnamese architecture, Saigon – Portrait of a City.

“I love HCM City, its friendly people and warm weather, every day the architecture here still inspires me to create,” he said.

“Obviously I regret the disappearance of this unique architecture, which will never again be in the heart of this city, which day by day loses its unique identity, which made all its charm, the reason Sài Gòn was called ‘pearl of Southeast Asia’,” said Garel.

“Việt Nam doesn’t have conical hats and áo dài (traditional long robes) only. You have a precious heritage of architecture that needs to be protected.” VNS

Garel is seen with his tripod.