The ultimate mid-century material, the beautifully speckled terrazzo tile is having a renaissance. Once the flooring of choice for airports, schools and supermarkets thanks to its durability, today terrazzo is hailed for its eco credentials. And for those who like artist and curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran grew up in Saigon, the material comes with a tinge of nostalgia.
“To me, terrazzo is a representation of Saigon,” says Arlette who took inspiration from pre-1975 Saigon modernist architecture when designing her duplex apartment in District 2.
“If we look closely at the old buildings here, standing out in contrast to the art deco motifs and the neoclassical style prevalent during the French colonial rule, terrazzo was the material that was imported to Vietnam to facilitate the country’s modernist shift,” explains Arlette.
As part of the nation-building process in the 1950s, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government turned to architecture to help define Vietnam’s new identity. As a wave of French-trained architects returning to Vietnam brought fresh ideas with them, modernist buildings constructed with US aid technology and capital started popping up all over Saigon.
Interestingly, Arlette credits not Saigon but Pittsburgh, a city in the US, with spurring her interest in Saigon’s unique brand of modernist architecture. “In Pittsburgh, you see terrazzo everywhere: from the sprawling airport to ice cream shops. Not unlike mid-century Saigon.”
Yet unlike Pittsburgh, Saigon has little sentimental attachment to its modernist buildings, notes Arlette. As a result, they are disappearing from the fabric of the city to give way to new developments. Revisiting her relationship with the city and contemplating settling down with her young family in Saigon (her nomadic lifestyle meant mostly living out of a suitcase in rented apartments), Arlette had an idea of a home that would preserve the spirit of the era – a time capsule of sorts.
And so, from Arlette’s sketches, the vision for Mài Apartment was born.
“The tropical romance of Saigon was to be achieved through basic geometry in spatial composition rather than glossy decorative features,” says Arlette. The use of shapes is a nod to the influential American architect Louis Kahn, whose structures often feature geometric openings. In fact, it was at Kahn-designed National Parliament House of Bangladesh that Arlette had “an eureka moment” and settled on an idea for her dream home.
It took three years for the Mài Apartment to take its final shape. Due to the complexity of the project, Arlette had to tap into the expertise of Le Hanh of the Whale Design Lab and architect Nguyen Anh Cuong of Nhabe Scholae who helped her find creative and technical solutions, as well as supervising the construction.
Ironically for a city once renowned for its use of terrazzo on industrial scale, Arlette struggled to find a contractor who could deliver quality without charging through the nose for it. “I found this surface solutions company called Thanh An online and had to literally beg the director to accept my job, because his company only undertakes large-scale projects like hotels and hospitals.” Luckily, Arlette was convincing and the resulting museum-quality, all-over terrazzo surfaces are what defines the Mài Apartment.