“Generic city" is a concept suggested by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. It describes a city free of context, history and identity expanding in lockstep with unbridled population growth.
Today this trend is especially apparent in emerging countries. By 2050, when the world’s population is expected to reach 9,8 billion people, generic cities will be the dominant form of urban habitat.
The critics of the concept decry the loss of the cultural identity, while those in favor speak of a difficult but necessary compromise where the watering down of each destination’s idiosyncrasies is inevitable if we want to provide safe and comfortable housing for large urban populations.
For the latest edition of the Pizza 4P’s Attitude of Authenticity series, we interviewed Shunri Nishizawa, a Vietnam-based architect who earned his stripes at Tadao Ando Architect and Associates, one of the most renowned Japanese practices.
Looking at Vietnam’s urban planning model, Shunri Nishizawa speaks about the processes shaping the generic cities of today, as well as contemplating how local people can pass down their culture to the next generation.
Why did you move to Vietnam after training at Tadao Ando Architect and Associates?
While still at Tadao Ando, I came across a Sri Lankan housing project that really inspired me and piqued my interest in Southeast Asia with its relentless dynamism and the buzzing energy of its people and cities.
Generally speaking, what I’m observing today in architecture is an emphasis on functionality rather than creativity. Specifically, a functionality that is dictated by the need to meet the expectations of many diverse consumers – without fail and without delay. To create a people-pleaser, if I can put it this way.
For example, the interiors of modern high-rise condominiums are certainly convenient, but because of the materials favored by developers, we can’t help but select ready-made parts from the catalogues and build cookie-cutter houses from these prefabricated blocks. Which of course means that we never get to say things like “Let’s make this kind of window this time” or “Let’s try this kind of door”.
Perhaps it is possible to achieve a comfortable and efficient lifestyle through the means of highly commercialized architecture. But I am personally more drawn to the idea of finding a deeper meaning in urban dwellings than simply meeting our basic need for shelter: looking at housing through the prism of life’s richness and living in a more welcoming environment.
In Vietnam, owing to its recent history, people don’t shy away from challenges. Being traditionally self-reliant means they are not too worried about the upkeep of their homes as they can usually do the work themselves. No matter how simple the house, the residents look happy. And they don’t seem to mind investing time and effort in keeping their dwellings in good shape. That’s the essence of Vietnam for me – feeling alive and happy.
Tropical climate makes it possible to put a higher value on the enjoyment of life than on convenience and functionality, as far as architecture is concerned. So one of the reasons for my move to Vietnam was to be able to focus on the monsoon season and its influence on contemporary architecture.
There’s a famous phrase in “Essays in Idleness”, a collection of texts written by the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko: “How you build a house should be based on the weather in the summer”. I think there's a possibility that the beauty of life in a tropical climate and the sensitivity of traditional architecture will intrigue people beyond local borders, especially in the light of the climate change.
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What would be a good example of Southeast Asian sensitivity in contemporary architecture?
The concept of contemporary architecture as we know it originates in Europe. Outside of that canon, modern Southeast Asian architecture is often expected to have an oriental element to it, usually something low-tech, low-cost and eco-friendly. But right now, we are seeing the loss of this tradition.
Vietnam, however, was largely able to preserve its unique brand of tropical architecture inspired by local wisdom, culture and climate. I thought it would be interesting to explore these elements in depth, because for me, the purpose of architecture is to remain close to people’s lives.
The Restaurant of Shade (Pizza 4P’s Hai Ba Trung) was inspired by the theme of “light and shadow in the tropics”. The power of sunlight in southern countries is greater than one might imagine. This power also manifests in rain and wind. Finding beauty in daily life and turning it into inspiration is a common element for all of Mr. Nishizawa’s projects.
Which of your projects best expresses the said Southeast Asian sensitivity?
The Chau Doc House we built in An Giang Province, Vietnam. It takes about 7 hours to reach by bus and ferry boats from Saigon. This area along the Mekong River suffers from floods, so most houses are stilted or floating.
Communities here live literally on the water and I find their lifestyle fascinating. But most locals think negatively about their houses and usually think that their homes are too shabby to invite people in. A client in Chau Doc commissioned a house similar to what we see in Saigon – a convenient box. While for me it has no identity and thus no value, it is considered a status symbol.
It took a while to convince the client that the house would have more value if we designed it around water, considering that the element is what local life revolves around anyway.
Once the project was completed, both the client and local people were happy with the result, sending me letters saying, “thank you for reminding us of the beauty of our daily lives”. I’m pleased to see that the way local people think about “richness” is changing little by little.
Measurements of the original dwellings (left) and a review sketch (right) for a renovation project of a workers’ apartment complex. By demolishing the existing building, the architect was able to address the problems one by one before carefully reassembling the upgraded structure.
When carrying out a project, how do you find richness in a building or a place?
I think one of the defining features of modern life is a tendency to standardize things and assign them specific roles and functions. Because the end goal is standardization, before we know it, concepts such as “way of living” or “richness” also became standardized.
The same goes for architecture. For example, I feel the layout of many houses in Japan’s emerging residential zones is completely standardized, even though a house is also a reflection of a person’s way of living. Therefore, with each project, we take the time to sit down with the client and consider the following questions: “What kind of richness can we nurture?” and “What is the way of living we are trying to achieve here?”
For example, when an opportunity to renovate an apartment for workers in Saigon came up, the plan was to build a stylish and efficient complex. However, when we conducted a measurement survey, we realized that each house was different in size and that the proposed living space would overflow into the shared alley because each room was only about 12 sqm.
What made the original structure so appealing was that the landscape gave an impression of a welcoming small town, a tightly-knit community. There was this inner garden in the middle of the alley with natural light streaming in, as well as a loft-like space that residents could access via a ladder. These were existing and enjoyable spaces corresponding to the way of living and thinking of the residents. Through such observations and discussions with the client we were able to find a solution that works on all levels.
So to answer your question, “richness” is non-uniform, but is something that flows from the people who inhabit the space and from the place itself.
How can a city grow affluent without losing its identity, especially given how quickly emerging cities are becoming more generic?
In Western countries and Japan, people are usually reluctant to experiment with designs of their houses. In Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, on the other hand, you often see residents haul in bricks, spread cement and build an extension or an outdoor kitchen, or whatever else takes their fancy.
Architects don’t generally look kindly on such crass interference. But you can also look at it this way: there's this powerful confidence in organizing your own environment as you see fit. I say, good on them!
I've also noticed that the concept of personal space is practically nonexistent here. That’s why when you find yourself at a Southeast Asian market, the energy and motion have such a pull on you. In very crowded spaces with loose zoning rules, people find creative solutions like making shelves, putting up walls or ‘trading’ space to squeeze as much use as possible from their surroundings.
I think the confidence we feel in such a can-do attitude and the energy of Southeast Asia’s communal spaces is what makes the region tick. If this is appreciated by the whole city or the whole country, I think it will lead to a vivid and diversified urban landscape that is fundamentally different from the direction in which western cities are going.
I truly think it's important that we create cities where an individual can live a free and energetic life rather than a stylish abode for a society that knows only one pursuit: that of economic growth.
Shunri Nishizawa was born in Tokyo in 1980. After graduating from the University of Tokyo, he worked at Tadao Ando Architect and Associates before establishing Nishizawa Architects in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Among Shunri Nishizawa’s many industry awards are the accolades from Vietnam Association of Architects, ARCASIA Awards for Architecture and WADA 2017 Award.