Furious typhoons hammer the land, triggering torrential downpours and earth-shaking winds. In coastal settlements, some communities sit submerged while others wash away entirely. In the highlands, devastating landslides sever roads and bury farms.
This isn’t an eschatological prophecy, but the reality central Vietnam faced in 2020, an abnormally calamitous year. The press reported that natural disasters – probably exacerbated by the climate crisis – caused $1.6 billion worth of damage, five times that of 2019. While the end wasn’t nigh, many hundreds lost their lives and thousands more lost everything but.
In Quang Nam, a hard-hit province, one building fared better than the rest. The seven-cubic-meter Terra Cotta Studio, an atelier, sits near the Thu Bon River, which regularly bursts its banks. During the 2020 floods, river water poured into the artist’s studio. But unlike the houses in the village, the studio drained swiftly because of its perforated brick walls. While moisture lingered in the houses for days, water damage in Terra Cotta Studio was minimal because the exposed brick dried quickly after the flood receded.
Ho Chi Minh City-based Tropical Space, one of several Vietnamese architecture firms that are exploring innovative solutions to extreme weather, built Terra Cotta Studio for ceramicist Le Duc Ha in 2016. It has two stories, so while Le can use the cooler lower floor as a workshop for most of the year, during a flood he transports his equipment and earthenware upstairs. After the flood water subsides, the greenery that envelopes the studio absorbs the drainage.
Tropical Space takes a holistic approach to the climate crisis, which means reducing Terra Cotta Studio’s carbon footprint as well as proofing it against flooding. During daylight hours, the perforated exterior tempts sunshine to illuminate the studio so that Le doesn’t need to turn on the lights. Even more significant for the workshop’s energy usage, there’s no need to mechanically cool the space during Quang Nam’s roasting summer months because the gaps invite the breeze to cool the space naturally.
“We like using light and basic materials to save energy, which in turn helps to fight climate change.” says Tran Thi Ngu Ngon, Tropical Space’s co-founder and one of the lead architects. Brickwork has become Tropical Space’s trademark aesthetic, and although brick tends to be more environmentally friendly than concrete or glass, Tran is still keen to do everything she can to minimize her firm’s carbon footprint.
“We try and limit the amount of material that we use as much as possible,” she says. “We [also] always make sure that we use the nearest brick factory to the site.” The nearest suppliers tend to be cheaper, but getting materials from the closest possible source also helps to reduce emissions, Tran says.
In Hanoi, Doan Thanh Ha of H&P Architects is experimenting with a different material. Inspired by native architecture in the northern and central highlands, Doan’s solution was to raise houses on stilts by using lightweight bamboo. The result was Blooming Bamboo, a structure that costs just $2500 per unit and only takes a few weeks to assemble. Doan designed Blooming Bamboo with flexibility in mind; it could be dwelling, restaurant, café, community house or holiday home.
For most of the year the proprietor can use the area below the house to farm. When the plot floods, water passes beneath the house, keeping the indoor spaces dry. Terra Cotta Studio aims to embrace floodwaters, whereas Blooming Bamboo seeks to rise above them. “We’ve experimented with models that can withstand flooding of up to three meters,” says Doan, though he accepts that his prototypes need more work before they can be viable residences and recreational spaces.
One issue is the material. Although eco-friendly, bamboo rots if it isn’t treated effectively. Solving this problem and making bamboo suitable for construction is the ongoing lifework of Vo Trong Nghia of Ho Chi Minh City-based VTN Architects. He believes that bamboo has several advantages over wood. Cut a tree down and it’s gone, “but pluck bamboo branches and the plant will survive, leaving it to produce more shoots in the future,” says Vo. He also says that he can harvest bamboo after just five years, while timber takes decades to cultivate.
Trees can help fight the effects of intense storms because they reduce the likelihood of landslides, which is why the government has pledged to plant 1 billion trees by 2025. But in terms of safeguarding highland communities, maintaining an existing forest is more effective than planting a new one. Vo believes that if bamboo can become a mainstream construction material, it will dampen the demand for wood, help fight deforestation and reduce the risk of landslides caused by typhoons.
Raising bamboo’s profile is one reason why Vo’s projects have become increasingly daring and eye-catching. In 2020, he completed the Casamia Community House in Hoi An, Quang Nam with 22 arch frames, each one almost nine meters high, that support a domed roof made of local thatch. This vault structure relies on horizontal forces that helped the community house withstand even the fiercest winds during the 2020 typhoons.
The natural disasters in 2020 felt apocalyptic, but the real tragedy is that they might be just a taste of what’s to come across the country. There’s scientific consensus that global heating is making extreme weather like tropical storms more likely in Vietnam. A 2019 report by Climate Central warns that rising sea levels may place the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City under water by 2050.
The future is bleak in many ways, but a new generation of Vietnamese architects are refusing to submit to the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. And if local architects can continue to innovate to help fight global heating and extreme weather, there is at least one reason for Vietnam to be hopeful.