Filed under: and Planning, Architecture, Design, Politics, US, Vietnam, World | Tags: Berlin, Germany, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, National Assembly, Norman Foster, Soviet Union, Vietnam, Vietnam National Assembly
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.
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.
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.