If you pass 213 Dong Khoi today, you’ll see temporary wooden walls postered with pictures of The Reunification Palace, the People’s Committee Building, the Opera House, Ben Thanh Market and a blooming lotus. Many of Saigon’s symbols are accounted for — but not the posthumously famous one whose Art Deco rubble threatens to overwhelm the three-metre-high walls.
To some it’s natural for buildings like 213 to come down, as Dong Khoi-centred downtown continues its march to skyscraper-dotted prosperity. But nowhere on HCMC House Trade Management Co. Ltd’s banner is there a Vincom Center or a Bitexco.
On either side of the temporary wall where 213 used to stand are old constructions. One is a former part of the demolished building — its insides now gutted, its 213-facing side open to the elements — the other is the People’s Committee Building, a relic of the same era, but with a perfectly maintained facade, floodlit at night. Across the streets that 213 used to corner on are the twin presences of Vincom Centers A and B, threatening to overwhelm them all.
Buildings with Souls
Vincent Scully, one of the US’s leading architectural critics over the past century, wrote in a 1985 New York Times article, “Nothing shows up more definitively in a building than a lack of love, unless it is the love of money.”
He wrote this at a time when New York City was at a crossroads, in the process of leaving behind its checkered past for a more prosperous future. Scully’s worry on seeing the towers of modern New York rise was that they “look[ed] devoid of life; their surfaces are closed and dead”. They were no longer part of the city below, and upon entering one had to leave the atmosphere of the city for a closed-off, air-conditioned world.
Scully felt that an architect’s responsibility was to design “buildings that fit, in a civilized manner, into the man-made environment”. At a different crossroads in New York history, Scully was a vocal critic of the 1963 destruction of the original Beaux-Arts-styled Penn Station rail terminal — whose unconsulted demolition kick-started the modern historic preservation movement nationwide. About the transition to the modern, utilitarian Penn Station, Scully said, “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Saigon is at a crossroads now, similar to the one New York faced in 1963. Modern New York was built on the bones of demolished buildings — there wouldn’t be a Times Square without them.
But modern New York was also born of the historic consciousness of its public. Three years after Penn Station fell, the National Historic Preservation Act became law. Such an integral part of New York’s fabric never fell again.
213 Dong Khoi wasn’t the original Penn Station, but it was a building that mattered to many people, a building with 85 years of history and point-of-reference status in cultural touchstones like The Quiet American. And now it’s been excised from the modern city forever.
Tim Doling was prominently involved with raising consciousness about 213, and he thinks that its loss “might not have been completely in vain... It has received a great deal of publicity, and many concerned local people (not just expats!) now seem to be questioning the speed at which old buildings are being destroyed in Ho Chi Minh City.”
For the rest of us, there’s a new concern on the horizon. The 126-year-old former Cochinchina government secretariat at 59 - 61 Ly Tu Trong, directly behind 213 Dong Khoi, has been slated for ‘renovation’. Recessed from the street, it’s not as immediate a landmark as 213, but it has been a foundational block of the modern city for as long as it has existed. It’s one of those buildings that we won’t miss until it’s gone, until it’s only a fading photograph from old Saigon.
But there might be some hope for compromise here, the kind we’ll need for the modern city to resemble its past. Tim says, “I hear they are commissioning a new competition for designs which retain/incorporate the old building rather than destroy it.
“I really hope that the powers that be will recognise the heritage value of that building and find an alternative solution to demolition.” — Ed Weinberg