I’m sitting cross-legged cradling a cup of warm tea. The scent of the fresh brew flavors the air while trickling water and bulging pot plants nourish the space. The man facing me is youthful and handsome, his thick eyebrows raised in excitement. He’s guiding me through a small book.
It feels like a spa manager is presenting a tempting selection of treatments in some far-flung rural retreat. In reality, an architect is explaining building plans in a high-rise office. The crafted tranquility of the Hanoi workspace gives a sense of how these plans will be realized.
An Viet Dung, who built this office to give his clients a sense of his work, is one of Vietnam’s most promising young architects, evidenced by his 2018 VAC Library in Hanoi. VAC Library is a timber climbing frame with leafy concrete planters that sits next to a koi carp pond and some chicken coops. It houses several sheltered nooks with books that can be plucked and read at any moment during playtime, encouraging children to climb, learn and connect with animals and plants all at the same time.
I’ve been reporting on Vietnam’s biophilic design – design that connects humans with nature – for almost two years. After covering tens of projects from a handful of prominent designers, nothing has captured my attention quite like An’s thoughtful approach to architecture.
“I don’t just want to be an architect; I want to be an environmental conservationist,” says Dung, who was born to farmers in 1986 in rural Ninh Binh, a province of karsts, rivers and rice paddies. His work shows evidence of his agrarian upbringing. “I want to build small-scale agriculture into my architecture,” he tells me in between sips of green tea.
Soon after completion, An’s VAC Library won praise in a slew of international architecture publications and received several awards. In 2019, CNN featured the structure in “Iconic Hanoi” and Time listed it as one of the “World’s Greatest Places.” It was the reason Dung was invited to craft a VAC Library-inspired installation at the Yokohama Triennale in Japan in 2020.
At first glance, VAC Library isn’t groundbreaking in its appearance; it’s the philosophy behind the architecture that attracted attention. Besides creating a playful learning environment, what’s special is the structure’s incorporation of three traditional components of rural Vietnamese homes: vườn, ao and chuồng (or VAC).
Vườn means “garden,” and refers to where vegetables and plants are grown. Ao is the “pond” where fish live. Chuồng is the “cage” where animals like pigs and chickens are kept. A traditional Vietnamese countryside home has all three of these elements, forming a neat and efficient two-way ecosystem. Looking at the cycle from one direction, the plants feed the animals, the animal excrement nourishes the fish and the pond water irrigates the plants. Looking at it from the opposite direction, the plants oxygenate the water, the fish are food for the animals and the animal excrement is manure for the plants. At the top of the food chain is the human homeowner, who eats the vegetables, fish and livestock.
Though not uncommon in the Vietnamese countryside, contemporary city life has no space for this more sustainable and self-reliant way of living – which is what An wants to change. “I want to bring the VAC concept to the city,” Dung says. “I want to adapt it to modern life.”
After studying urban planning and architecture at the National University of Civil Engineering in Hanoi, Dung won a scholarship to study a master's in environmental engineering at the University of Brescia in Italy. Taking advantage of Erasmus, a European study exchange program, he visited Israel, where he chanced upon aquaponics, a food production system that simultaneously raises fish (aquaculture) and grows plants without soil (hydroponics) in the same environment.
“I was constantly thinking about what could be applied in Vietnam, and when I came across aquaponics, I decided that it would be really suitable.”
Blending his upbringing in rural Vietnam with what he’d learned in Europe, he came back to Hanoi in 2017 and opened his architecture firm: Farming Architects. “At Farming Architects, we are not only architects,” he laughs, after explaining the simple aquaponics system in his office, where the plants oxygenate the water and the fish feces sustains the plants. “We are also farmers that pay attention to the ecosystem that nourishes us.”
Although not all his projects contain all three VAC components – keeping pigs and chickens in a city isn’t always popular with the neighbors – almost all An’s projects feature aquaponics. In Hanoi he built The Lighthouse, a home with a living room encircled by a fishpond and garden that are mutually reliant. In Binh Duong he built The Valley, another home with an aquaponics system that operates on two levels: the upper level for the plants and the lower level for the pond. The water is pumped up to nourish the plants, which Dung put high up to take advantage of sunlight, before trickling back down to the pond.
Most biophilic architecture in Vietnam seeks to link humans with nature by building trees and plants into the structure. Through building entire ecosystems into architecture for soothing and pleasant indoor environments, Dung is taking biophilia to the next level.
With a collection of city houses under his belt, Dung is now looking further afield. In Ha Giang, Vietnam’s northernmost province, he’s building The Library of Ha Giang Tea for a Taiwanese client. Inspired by ethnic minority architecture and offering panoramic views of the province’s centuries-old tea hills, the public space will catalog the history and diversity of Ha Giang tea farming.
While Farming Architects is still young, Dung is still pinning down his approach. “I want to focus on defining the meaning of ‘farming architecture,’” he says after showing me detailed sketches of the tea library. And while I’m excited to see him working on small projects in other parts of Vietnam, what really interests me is how Dung might apply his ideas to bigger, more ambitious projects. “Once defined, I can focus on scaling these concepts up,” he says.