Today, 56% percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas—a 10% growth since the turn of the 21st century. The United Nations forecasts that by 2050, that number will have grown to 68%, with 90% of this increase happening across Asia and Africa.
This steady and rapid increase is visibly evident in Vietnam, where the skylines of Hanoi, Danang and particularly, Ho Chi Minh City have transformed markedly almost year on year to accommodate a growing, more moneyed population. As late as 2010, Bitexco Tower was only nearing completion, Landmark 81 hadn’t yet been conceived, central District One lay remarkably flat in comparison to today, so too did the now high-rise dense areas of Binh Thanh and District Four.
The Cost of Urban Development
But this change is coming at a cost. When Vietcetera spoke to SCE Project Asia CEO Luigi Campanale in October about the future of cities, cultural legacy and architectural heritage, he remarked that “(Southeast Asian) Cities nowadays tend to look similar, if not the same: anonymous high-rises, a smattering of ‘landmark’ buildings that are pretty much interchangeable, cookie-cutter shopping malls, a lack of green spaces and public areas, dearth of cultural facilities and ultimately, a lack of cultural identity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has driven populations into working from home while shining a spotlight on the limitations of traditional workspaces, has reinforced the need for us to reshape our working and living spaces. It’s also afforded us the opportunity to open up a dialogue on how we can do this within a culturally sustainable and people-friendly framework.
If the expected surge in urban populations is inevitable, then so too is urban development. How can we reconcile this with the preservation of cultural heritage?
Italy, Cultural Heritage & Urban Regeneration
Italian architects and urban planners have gone further than most in doing just this by using technology. Though it’s a country lauded for ancient architectural works that integrate art, technological innovation and cultural relevance — the Pantheon, the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel to name just three— it’s also recently been at the forefront of the popular urban regeneration movement.
Urban regeneration describes the process of merging technological innovation with design to make developments more sustainable, people-centered, eco-friendly, less prone to decline, and ultimately, more liveable and prosperous for residents.
In Italy, Turin and Naples have both seen the benefits of a rethink in urban planning. Turin’s economy had largely been driven by the car industry in the early to mid 20th century, thanks to Fiat’s growth and success, but when the company fell upon hard times and de-industrialization began to set in, the city was left with 6 million square meters of disused industrial areas.
Two former Fiat complexes have been converted to better serve the city today, including the 20,000 square meter Environment Park which features an all-grass rooftop.
The interior of Lingotto, Europe’s largest and most modern manufacturing plant when it was built in the 1920s, was converted into a multipurpose commercial complex with hotels, retail and office spaces, and a theatre. True to its origins, the exterior hasn’t changed and still features its rooftop racetrack. Fiat’s management team has set up the base again in the office complex, and the Polytechnic University of Turin’s Automotive Engineering faculty also calls Lingotto home.
In Naples, a tech-led urban planning scheme seeks to regenerate both the urban and environmental health of the city by rejuvenating nature in former industrial zones and creating cultural and recreational areas in the process. The aim is that this in turn will reconnect nearby neighborhoods to the urban fabric of the city.
In June, it was also announced that the heavily polluted seaside quarter of Bagnoli, occupied by a derelict two million square meter steel plant, will be decontaminated, replanted, and reimagined into a bio-diverse, agricultural area.
Using The Past To Build The Future of Vietnam’s Urban Areas
Vietnam’s economy has continued to grow even during the pandemic, and no doubt urban development will rumble on. However, it’s important that as the country continues to thrive, that cultural heritage and residents’ well-being are protected and promoted.
In the race to make its cities bigger and brighter, it’s also imperative to make them both liveable and worth living in.
Massimo Roj is a Milan-based architect, founder, and CEO of integrated architecture company Progetto CMR. Through its branches in Vietnam, China, and Taiwan, Roj’s goal is to help spread tech-driven Italian architectural procedures across Asia to promote flexibility, sustainability, eco-consciousness, and a people-centered design approach. The company also adheres to the belief that the future can only be built by learning from the past and interpreting it with modern strategy, creativity, and cultural acknowledgment.
However, Roj’s vision with Progetto CMR goes beyond the restoration of existing architectural heritage. Instead, it involves building “from the inside out”, allowing form to follow function in the context of peoples’ needs, the local environment, and social and cultural identity.
In Vietnam, particularly in the south, the abundance of 20th-century modernist buildings represents a precedent for this forward-thinking, functional, and tech-enabled design style. While the “best” of Vietnam’s urban architectural heritage often evokes images of French Colonial structures, the modernist movement was adopted from the French but carried out on Vietnamese designers’ own terms.
Today, landmarks like the Independence Palace reflect the cultural value of the movement. So too, in a way, does the now-famous cafe-apartment block at 42 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, where the newfound function of the building, to house cafes and boutiques, was followed rather than led by its eye-catching exterior —a colorful patchwork grid of shopfronts. In its own almost uniquely Vietnamese way, the place became as people-centered as any in the city and is doing its part in preserving culture.
But now the future beckons, and more change is inevitable. Can Vietnam adapt to it and adopt the tech-driven, people-focused Italian approach into their own cities of tomorrow?
This is a country whose people have long been lauded for doing the best they can with what they have. Now that we have more means than ever, with a booming economy and access to advanced technology and innovative ideas, what’s the best we can do?