My right to detest other people's aesthetic preferences by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2010, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Development, Vietnam

Here’s a sight I saw in Ha Giang province last week.

This is how people all over the hilly parts of northern Vietnam are making room to build the cement and brick houses they can suddenly afford: they bring in a bulldozer and wipe out part of a hill. I find it disgusting. I understand that the new landscape reflects the autonomous preferences of a person who, for the first time in their lives, has access to a modicum of wealth and well-being. To me, this is less important than the fact that it is an ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape. The long-term erosion problems are a significant but in a sense separate issue.

Here, in contrast, is how the landscape looks when it hasn’t been bulldozed and people are living in wooden, rather than concrete and brick, houses.

What is the moral basis for the claim that I should welcome the transformation of the latter landscape into the former?


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

How about forming a special interest group to help educate people on how to build homes with thoughtful consideration to the landscape by using the natural contours of their land as a “part” of their structural plan, which in turn will both beautify and add value to their property.

Comment by grob

I’m half with you – half against you.

First off – though pleasing to the eye, terraced rice paddies aren’t exactly natural.

Arguably they could also be described as an: “ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape” if compared with the original grander of the mountains and hills. No doubt their original formation was an environmental nightmare and wrecked all sorts of habitats.

Also the amount of land moved in that shot of the rice paddies is more than the bulldozing of a small hill.

I agree that bull dozing the hill is unfortunate but I don’t believe that everyone building a cement house is causing that amount of damage. I’d certainly argue for some kind of planning permission that lessens environment and aesthetic damage.

But given the choice between a concrete house and a wooden house, in the kind of conditions that the family inside would endure – I know what I’d go for.

For all the fact that it’s not looking pretty right now (and there is no before picture to judge it against) I am pretty sure that given the same circumstances I’d be switching my damp old wood shack for a more modern concrete one.

Hopefully, admittedly with one eye on lessening any environmental impact.

Do bulldozing hills and concrete houses have to be linked?

In short I’m obviously against the former but entirely understanding of the latter.

Comment by stevejackson

stevejackson — you’re quite right that terraces aren’t “natural”, but that isn’t really an issue for me, as such. Terraces are gorgeous; these half-assed muddy carve-outs are ugly. I think that’s related to the organicism of the way the terraces work with the landscape, and also to the care and attention you can see in each one; it says to the eye that this is made by people who are living in a constant interaction with the landscape. Which isn’t surprising since they’re, you know, farmers.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

I don’t really understand your article.

You said: “What is the moral basis for the claim that I should welcome the transformation of the latter landscape into the former?”

What claim? By who?

And….”My right to detest other people’s aesthetic preferences.”

You have every right. Did anyone say otherwise? Though perhaps not every right to tell people how to live.

Comment by stevejackson

Authenticity is everywhere a foreign value and beauty a measure of elusiveness, but complaint is a gift each of us receives in the womb and nurtures all our lives. When you lament changing landscapes and new-fangled architecture, you act as a brother to the Vietnamese peasant and all men.

Comment by citifieddoug

snarky answer – the destruction of the hillside required labor, much like hurling a brick through a window requires labor of the glazier.

non-snarky answer: I assume, based on my admittedly limited experience, that the concrete home will be safer. it will last longer. It will be more comfortable, less riddled with insects, less drafty and it will not blow down if the Big Bad Wolf (or a large storm) happens by.

Denying people a chance at a safer, more comfortable life because they don’t appreciate the beauty of their rustic surroundings and lifestyle is fairly paternalistic. I’m not saying this is what you think.

To answer your question:
“The moral basis is that these people are living there full-time, and you are merely an occasional visitor (if that). The comfort and quality of their lives trump your breach of taste, IMO”

Comment by johnbr

I don’t there’s any even physical way to prevent people from using new housing technology. That’s not on the table, except in the case of carved-out “cultural preservation” tourism zones, which every country has, and which tend to generate so much money in Vietnam (see Hoi An, Sapa) that the “problem” becomes locals artificially pretending to be more old-timey to draw more tourists, rather than the opposite. Then the question becomes the degree to which such cultural zones are voluntary or imposed, and since that takes place outside an outsider’s purview, I frankly think I have no information to make a judgment. What I can judge is what I can see, and what I can see is that the new concrete houses are ugly. I also think they’re unsustainable: those sharp carve-outs will wash down over time, which is both bad maintenance for the houseowner and has bad externalities, with silt clogging rivers, and lost vegetation leading to poor water retention and more flooding. The shift probably stems at least in part from a lot of non-rational or non-voluntary factors, especially an aesthetic notion of what constitutes a “modern” house drawn from TV and magazines, and in-migration by lowland ethnic Viet (who live in brick houses) to an ethnically Dao, Thai and Hmong (wooden stilt houses) highland area. Finally, a large part of what’s happening in the first flush of modernization in Vietnam and China is that people are trading durable but non-“modern”-seeming goods for flashy, crappily manufactured modern goods that break down after six months. This is a complicated issue about the time it takes for a sophisticated mass consumer economy to develop and I think there’s a real problem at this phase with the disappearance of previously extant high-quality goods (quality silk, e.g.) that cease to exist because of the availability of sort-of lookalikes that don’t last, but which consumers have not yet developed the sophistication to distinguish. I think this is true in the case of concrete houses in new areas as well; many of them have to be completely rebuilt after 15 years.

I’m not calling for some kind of mass intervention. But I am saying that it’s actually healthy for people with more sophisticated tastes to communicate those tastes to people who haven’t seen very much, rather than recusing themselves out of a misguided anxiety over cultural imperialism.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: