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An architect with a deep green thumb

Update: January, 12/2015 - 16:09
Sylvan: A section of the Wind and Water Bar in Binh Duong Province, designed by Vo Trong Nghia.

Architect Vo Trong Nghia has shifted his focus from upmarket eco-friendly designs to durable low-income houses made with natural materials. Thu Van has the story.

Two years without a single client. The situation can be unnerving for any professional, and particularly so for an architect who has returned home after a decade of studies abroad.

But Vo Trong Nghia was prepared.

Staying true to what he really wanted to do was more important to him than bowing to market diktats.

He returned to HCM City in 2007 knowing that his vision of modern architecture, bringing back greenery to the cities suffering from the loss of green spaces as rapid population growth exerted increasing demand for concrete buildings, would not find immediate takers.

"It was very difficult because my designs were different from what people here are familiar with," Nghia said.

"It's very normal that you fail in the first place. What was important to me then was that I knew what I wanted, what my goal was, so I just took the road slowly.

"It might take longer to convince people about green architecture, but I was willing to walk my way, and never thought of bending my motto."

Nghia's idealism was not about building castles in the air. He had proven his talent in Japan, winning the Furuichi Award for an outstanding MA thesis and the Dean's Award for his PhD dissertation from the University of Tokyo Award.

When he did get the opportunity to show his mettle in Viet Nam, national and international acclaim followed almost naturally.

Durable, affordable: A house for low-income people in Long An Province that can be built "like a lego game." — File Photo

Nghia's work can be described very easily as eco-friendly architecture, given the preponderance of living plants and trees in his designs.

Whether it's the Bamboo Wing Cafe in Vinh Phuc Province, where he uses a bamboo cantilever structure, or the Stacking Green private house in HCM City that has its facades at the front and the back composed of layers of concrete planters cantilevered from two sidewalls, or the Farming Kindergarten with a continuous green roof in Dong Nai Province, Nghia's message is clear.

"If the current way of thinking does not change, sooner or later, citizens will actually live in concrete jungles."

Only time can tell whether Nghia's vision will percolate deep enough into Viet Nam's urban psyche, but the prolific international recognition that his works have garnered will help.

He won two gold medals from the Asian Architects' Association, five International Architecture Awards from the United States and two Asia FuturArc Green Leadership awards.

However, his fulfillment and happiness did not stem from trophies, Nghia said simply and clearly without any mock humility.

"It's the work I love, the feeling of accomplishing a design I pour all my heart into."

He finds all of his days enjoyable. He must, for putting in the long hours that he does, working from 8am in the morning until 8pm in the evening.

Life's calling

Nghia's original mission for bringing nature back into the cities in a big way has not blinded him to rural needs in Viet Nam.

The 38-year-old architect, born in a small poor village in the central province of Quang Binh, had seen the pursuit of a career primarily as way to escape poverty.

A charity trip to some Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta provinces brought him face to face afresh with poverty, and as he saw many people living in temporary huts that are highly vulnerable to flooding and other natural disasters that occur frequently in the area, he found his life's calling.

Instead of resting on his many laurels and designing houses for people with deep pockets, Nghia resolved to come up with a housing concept that incorporates the safety and durability that low-income people in rural areas need.

It took him three years and numerous trials, but he finally introduced a prefabricated prototype house that was durable, affordable and repairable. It would cost just US$4,000.

He calls it the S House.

The house is made with lightweight steel, with slender lattice walls supporting the overall structure. Weighing 1,200 kilograms, it comprises a precast concrete frame and foundation that's bolted together with steel fixings, and a cement roof.

Local materials such as nipa palm leaf and bamboo are used to finish it. The light structure can also be transported in small boats.

"It's like a lego game - you can assemble the house yourself, and finish it in three hours," Nghia said, laughing.

Although the S House was built for rural poor in the Mekong Delta, the potential is vast for its expansion to other areas of the country and beyond.

The architect with lofty ambitions is now focused on having the S House mass-produced to serve basic needs.

"I call it the super project of my life," he said. — VNS

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