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Old Quarter preservation plan has its critics

Update: April, 17/2012 - 10:25

by Thu Trang and Thu Huong


Hang Buom Street is one of the oldest streets in Ha Noi's Old Quarter whose buildings are recommended for protection under a draft regulation which is up for public comment. — File Photo
HA NOI — The entrance to the alleyway at 50 Hang Bac Street is so narrow that it can barely fit a motorbike, yet it services about 28 households, all squeezed along a dimly-lit, zigzagging lane typical of many in the Old Quarter.

The original residence at number 50 was a communal house, built in 1811 to honour the God of gold and silver craftsmen.

Pham Dinh Chanh, 82, has lived in one of the rooms since the 1950s. It's a 20sq.m (5m x 4m), compartment which now accommodates eight members of the family. They have another similar-size room they use for paying respects to deceased members.

The warren of rooms that share the number 50 Hang Bac Street is one of 237 similar residential complexes throughout the Old Quarter that have been listed as having "high architectural value."

They are recommended for protected under the new draft regulation on managing and preserving the capital's most famous suburban relic for posterity, along with its associated architectural and social characteristics.

The draft regulation, written by the city's Department of Planning and Architecture, applies to the 100ha Old Quarter in two parts: a Level-1 preservation area which covers 19ha and aims at "maintaining the image and traditional guild style of the Old Quarter", and a Level-2 preservation area, which covers 81ha and aims at "protecting works that have high architectural values and historical-cultural heritage".

The draft regulation suggests limiting the opening of bars, hotels and production workshops and banning the opening of supermarkets, commercial centres, pawnshops in both preservation areas.

It also stresses the need to preserve the architectural style of houses facing the streets, with renovations and new buildings having to meet strict requirements in height and construction materials and to be in keeping with "the architectural style of nearby houses and the entire street".

Department Deputy Director Duong Duc Tuan said the draft regulation required more thorough studies about the use of space, street segments and requirements that varied according to the level of preservation and living space, and must take into account new urban elements such as parking lots and urban railways.

The most important thing was to "ensure the old quarter's specific architectural style", Tuan said, referring to the quarter's tube housing, courtyards and interior spaces.

Nevertheless, despite the city's newest efforts to preserve the Old Quarter, some people are questioning whether it will make any difference to the area's preservation after countless numbers of debates on the same issue.

And some experts have said the area of preservation is too large. One of those is architect Dao Ngoc Nghiem, former director of the department, who said instead of stipulating Level-1 preservation for 19ha, work should focus on specific street routes and their individual trade.

The draft regulation also lists 237 houses that have "high architectural value" that must be preserved in their original architectural styles. Old Quarter Management Board Deputy Head Pham Xuan Long said the city would "consider" having some kind of support for the house owners once the Draft Regulation was finalised.

However, Professor Hoang Dao Kinh, an architecture and heritage conservation and restoration expert who has spent decades studying Ha Noi's architecture and providing consultancy to authorities, said the Draft Regulation was written to "chase a heritage that has been constantly undergoing changes".

The preservation, he said, was not about listing the number of houses that needed to be preserved but, instead, identifying the core values of the Old Quarter that could be preserved amid rapid development and urbanisation.

"We have so many projects that aim at preserving the Old Quarter but so far not much has been done," he said. "This is not benefiting the residents. What's the point of telling them their houses are listed among those that must be preserved while their houses are dilapidated?"

University of Civil Engineering lecturer and architect Tran Quy Duong said the draft regulation was too "general and vague" and did not take into account the specialised characteristics of each street.

Without careful consideration, the regulation would again "violate" the rights of locals to conduct businesses, Duong said.

"The Government should designate a stable source of land to accommodate the residents, where part of the family could be relocated elsewhere and the rest could stay to take care of the home business," Duong said. "We need a way to preserve the Old Quarter in the long term."

The draft regulation also sets the target of reducing the population in the Old Quarter from 76,200 to 50,000 by 2020. About 26,200 residents are expected to be relocated by 2020.

Dao Thi Gia Thien, 63, of 14 To Tich Street, said she didn't care if her home was listed for preservation in the draft regulation.

Thien's "house" of only 11.5sq m doubles as a souvenir shop. Her three sons had to live in the homes of their wives' families because there was no space for them.

Her dream now was that she could sell her place and relocate.

"As much as I want to remain in the Old Quarter, I really hope to find more suitable homes for my sons," she said. — VNS

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