Thanks to an introduction from the Masukos from Pizza 4P’s, we were given the opportunity to chat with Shunri Nishizawa, an architect from Japan who has built up a portfolio of work in Vietnam specializing in tropical and contemporary architecture.

We stopped by the office of Shunri’s firm, NISHIZAWAARCHITECTS, to get the scoop on what architecture means to him and what his firm is trying to do differently in the ever-changing landscape of Vietnamese urban development.

Why did you choose to launch your firm here in Ho Chi Minh City?

My Vietnamese friend and classmate from Tokyo University asked me to design some projects with him over a long period of time after we graduated. So after working for Tadao Ando for four years, I started a collaboration with him for two years. During these two years, I met many Vietnamese clients and friends. In a way, I appreciated Vietnamese culture much more after working with more Vietnamese people. The life and culture is refreshing compared to Japan. Soon after, this led me to start my own practice in Vietnam.

Nishizawa Architects

Tell us more about NISHIZAWAARCHITECTS. What are its goals? How is it different?

From a general architectural perspective we are focused on tropical and contemporary architecture. Our architecture design team looks at integrating natural expressions and sensibility. Socially and culturally, we want to contribute to Vietnamese culture and improve people’s quality of life through better, more sustainable architecture. We’d also love to help young architects. At the moment, our team is comprised of entirely Vietnamese. I’m the only Japanese person here. Our team works together using English.

On a project basis, 50% are free standing homes or shophouses. The other 50% are factories, schools, restaurants, farms, and museums. Our clients are 70% Vietnamese, and 30% foreigners.

Nishizawa Architects

Can you share with us the vision that you have executed for the Masukos at Pizza 4P’s in their Ben Thanh market location?

The core design features of the Ben Thanh market location include the importance of the building envelope and the buffer zone. From an interior and exterior design perspective, our team focused on maintaining the urban feel of the space as well as the historical significance.

Inside the building, we’ve featured jalousie windows and handcraft materials extensively to help define the atmosphere. It’s required close collaboration with the construction team.

As of right now, the exterior is not completely done yet. The renovation of the building has proven to be difficult.

Nishizawa Architects

What was it like working under Tadao Ando? What are the key lessons that you learned from him?

Life in Tadao Ando’s office emphasizes design techniques of course, but more importantly mental attitude. Creation starts with creative freedom and respect for human intelligence. Architecture requires us to understand ourselves and to think about sensibilities. About humans, animals, nature. This is because architecture influences many people and involves so many different contexts and environments.

Nishizawa Architects

Is there a lot of information about Vietnam in Japan?

There’s been a huge flux of information in the last few years. Most of it is travel related content on TV. Generally, there’s a good impression about Vietnam. For Japanese people, Vietnam is mysterious. Around 20 years ago, most Japanese people were scared of traveling to Vietnam. Now, more Japanese are able to see the modern Vietnam. More Japanese have access to information about the cool stuff going on.

Brands like Pizza 4P’s, owned by a Japanese couple, have helped to elevate the cultural brand and value of Vietnam in Japan. The curtain on Vietnamese culture is being opened, though it’s still not as openly recognized as countries like Thailand in the eyes of Japanese people.

Nishizawa Architects

What excites you about Vietnam?

I’ve found that working with Vietnamese clients has given me more flexibility in design creativity. Japan is quite rigid in its beliefs. It’s grounded in tradition and many often create what has already been created before. Japanese society is more sensitive and careful. Risk management often favors conservatism. Most don’t like to ask young people to take care of big projects. Also the number of projects are smaller in Japan. Most cities in Japan are trying to shrink, whereas Vietnam is only beginning to start modern infrastructure projects.

As a younger architect, I wanted more experience building projects. In Japan, it’s a lot of copying. How many times are you given the chance to lead the brainstorming of a project? It’s many times more possible in Vietnam at a younger age.

Nishizawa Architects

What are the main differences between Japanese and Vietnamese architects?

In Japan, people traditionally had built homes and offices for the summer. These designs required people to wear warmer clothes indoors during the winter. As a result, older architecture in Japan features summer-friendly designs such as longer canopies and consistent air ventilation. I think this is naturally comfortable form of Asian lifestyle.

However, Japanese society is becoming very convenient today. Buildings are tightly closed by walls and glass, controlling its temperature and humidity by Air conditioning system. And Japanese society, generally, becomes more difficult to accept the unpredictable elements such as nature in their life… which was once an important sense for Japanese tradition.

When I arrived in Vietnam, the stable and consistent temperature gave me a lot of ideas about tropical architecture. If you have a big roof and nice ventilation you can live freely in Vietnam. Designing something innovative and contemporary for tropical living will be a fresh addition to the world of architecture.

Nishizawa Architects

Where can someone spot you on a Friday night in Ho Chi Minh City?

At our office? Maybe the construction site of one of our clients.

How is your family adjusting to Vietnam?

I have two daughters here in Saigon. Five and three years old. My wife, a designer by trade, is from Kanazawa, a very cold region in northern Japan. For her, Saigon is easy to live because of the heat. For example, when our kids accidentally wet their pants, they can run around naked. It’s always so hot, so we don’t need to worry about them getting cold.

What was your dream job as a kid?

I love science, art and nature. I had three dream jobs before I took the leap for architecture. First, I wanted to become a marine biologist. At the same time, under my sister’s influence, I wanted to become a music conductor. I also was interested in botany and gardening. When I enrolled at Tokyo University, I met Tadao Ando and decided to become an architect.

In a way architecture involves a basic knowledge and application of science, art and nature.

Nishizawa Architects

Who should I talk to next?

Hiroyuki Oki, a Ho Chi Minh City-based Japanese photographer. He’s a one of rare photographer who can shoot professional architecture photography. Over the last 10 years, as Vietnamese architecture has progressed, he has helped to elevate the brand of Vietnamese architecture by featuring works in international magazines and websites.