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?


Wealth and the annihilation of built culture in East Asia by mattsteinglass
March 29, 2010, 5:03 am
Filed under: Architecture, China, Vietnam

I spent two weeks in Beijing five years ago and loved it. At that point the hutong neighborhoods had already experienced a campaign of progressive annihilation for five or ten years, but there were still large swathes of them remaining, and there was a groundswell of opinion among Chinese architects that they ought to be preserved. Also, the city had put some brilliant young urban planners in high positions for the plans for the 2008 Olympics. It looked like a new generation of better-educated young urban planners and designers with international perspectives might mean a more sophisticated approach to the future of the city that preserved some of its heritage and texture.

That doesn’t seem to have happened. In fact, the Beijing neighborhood I found most appealing, the one hutong area that looked likely to persevere because it had become a hipster, arts and bougie tourist mecca, looks to be slated for one of those dismal Disneyfied “renovation” projects.

Much of the problem here is the lack of widespread appreciation for the genuine feel of the historical in these late-modernizing East Asian societies. Only a few, mainly older, educated members of the elite care about such things. But I think there may be another factor at work besides (lack of) aesthetics. Over the past couple of years, as I’ve watched many of the nicest houses in the Hanoi lakeside village where I live getting demolished for larger, nondescript modern houses and small apartment buildings, I’ve come to feel that much of the problem may be the dramatic income differentials that are appearing in third-world countries successfully leaping into development and modernization. The construction workers who build new houses in our neighborhood come from desperately poor areas of the countryside where nominal per capita income may still be under $300/year. Rent for a house in our neighborhood is averaging at least $2000 per month; a six-floor apartment building would bring in over $5000/month. The disparity between the daily wage of a construction worker and the price his labor can bring (in the form of new rents) is simply too large; it’s sweeping away entire neighborhoods. Much of the classic French colonial architecture of downtown Hanoi has already been annihilated. Because officials know they’re supposed to preserve the aesthetic feel of such areas, they commission multi-story blocks with pseudo-French detailing, huge mansard roofs and window shutters, but the clumsy postmodern imitation only exacerbates the ugliness. But I can’t quite believe that the reason Paris has remained Paris, while Hanoi is turning into some cut-rate Singapore, is solely due to the aesthetic superiority of the French themselves. I think it’s possible that the vast economic gap between what it costs to employ a day-laborer and the worth of an urban building simply never opened quite so wide in Paris in the 19th century, when the country was making its leap to modernity.

Overall, obviously, economic development is a good thing. But I have a feeling that within 25 years there’ll be very little reason to visit China or Vietnam. They’ll look more or less like Tysons Corners, Virginia, but with less nature. And the fast-food restaurants in the strip malls will serve pho. Though I understand you can get a mean bowl of pho in Tysons Corners, too.

Wikis and Communism: same same, but different by mattsteinglass
March 9, 2010, 5:06 am
Filed under: and Planning, Architecture, Vietnam

A wiki is a collectively produced knowledge product that anyone can participate in, that belongs to no private individual or organization and is distributed for free. Sounds vaguely Marxist: from each according to his knowledge, to each according to his curiosity. On the other hand, wikis are totally non-hierarchical and transparent, and there can be no censorship on ideological or other grounds because no one, proletarian, vanguard or otherwise, is in control. Definitely not resembling actually existing Communism! Though some utopian socialists or anarcho-syndicalists might still say that true Marxism is not incompatible with the wiki vision.

Anyway, one of the coolest loci to fuse these two ideological entities is WikiHanoi, put together by the folks at, which if I understand it correctly is associated with the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association. All kinds of great stuff about the evolving Hanoi master plan here, and anybody can leave their comments and suggestions. Plus very cool old maps!

Transparency in legislatures fails in US, Vietnam by mattsteinglass

Igor Volsky notes that the failure of the health-care reform summit to produce a substantive compromise shows why you don’t want C-SPAN cameras in the room when politicians are trying to do a deal. Transparency, he writes, “is overrated.” (Matthew Yglesias concurs.) This insight is also, interestingly, illustrated in the design of Vietnam’s new National Assembly building, currently under construction opposite the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

Vietnam National Assembly design, courtesy Flickr E8 club

The building is designed by the German firm GMP. When I spoke to the firm’s Hanoi office last year, they explained that the central hall, with its glass ground-level lookthrough towards the skylit circular central chamber where the deputies meet in session, had been influenced by Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin.

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

Reichstag dome, photo Björn Laczay

The Foster design was commissioned in 1992 in the aftermath of the reunification of Germany, and the concept was to exemplify the transparency of democratic governance in contrast to Communist opacity. From the dome, spectators can look down into the Bundestag’s chamber and watch the delegates debating. But the GMP architects told me that when they presented similar ideas in Vietnam, they found that while government liked the idea of transparency visually, National Assembly delegates didn’t actually want to have people be able to see from the street while they were in session. So the skylit central core of the new building descends to a closed inner cylinder housing a main assembly hall whose interior isn’t actually visible through the street-level glass facade. Rather a nice metaphor for false transparency.

The funny thing, though, is that the old Soviet-era building they tore down to build the new one was actually extremely informal and physically transparent. Once you got clearance to enter the area, as press or whatever, you entered the main building and stood in side hallways that had only  a low waist-level concrete wall and pillars separating you from the main assembly hall where the deputies sat. You were basically in the same space as them, though they’d sometimes draw heavy velvet curtains while proceedings were underway. In a clunky informal concrete Soviet-style way, it was very “transparent”; I remember my news assistant once spotted former Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu walking out of the chamber and just walked up and chatted with him. I have a feeling nothing of this sort will be likely in the new building, which will have lots of glass but where access for the public and press will likely be better segregated from the deputies and government officials themselves. Similarly, you need all kinds of clearances to attend briefings at US government institutions, whereas in Vietnam pretty much anyone could walk in off the street and attend one of the Foreign Ministry’s useless press conferences.

Formal “transparency”, in other words, often leads to substantive opacity, while informal “closed” systems can often be relatively open and easygoing if you can figure out a way to get in that front door, which often isn’t as hard as you’d think.