A city’s planning structure sets the scene for its character. For Ho Chi Minh City, the character was set 140 years ago when the city was established — narrow laneways, treelined connector streets and wide boulevards. A central business area. But importantly the French didn’t separate residential uses from retail or commercial uses, thus the city’s streets became alive with a rich mixture of uses. The texture and thus the character of any city is established by its buildings in three ways; shaping the city skyline with their form and shape; shaping their local community with the way they interact with it at ground level, and shaping the lives of their occupants by the way they deal with the physiology of their inhabitants.
In my ideal city, all buildings should give benefit equally on these three criteria.
Now we have the arrival of the multi-storey apartment building. How do they fit with this character?
1) Shape and Form
Apartment buildings give designers more choice in how they express their form, however designers are constrained because each apartment must be individually sold (as opposed to a commercial building that has one owner) and selling agents do not like too many variations in apartment types.
While buildings have more design scope than the high-rise commercial towers, most are built to a formula and many of these buildings, especially the newer ones end up being bland. (A saving grace for many apartment buildings is the expectation of an external clothes drying area and these spaces make for deep recesses in the building facade, giving the building form a decent start).
Some of the blandness is to do with the uniform colour they are painted (often white). But much is to do with the way these buildings carry their weight on external walls. Oddly this is the exact reverse of modern commercial buildings that have lightweight construction at their edges. For apartment buildings, in addition to the lacklustre window placement, and the lack of balconies, is the lack of attention paid to the roof level; the buildings often finish as if someone ran a trowel across their top. There is little contribution to the skyline.
2) Relationship to the Street
Many apartment buildings ignore the street by turning away from it, creating exclusive zones for their inhabitants, guarded by security guards. At ground level, four-storey podiums are set back from the street and entry is only navigable through stairs and across large vehicle crossings. The intimate connection with the bike or the pedestrian is lost and thus the original street character of the city is lost.
3) Relationship to their Inhabitants
The functionality inside the building is often compromised, as high-rise buildings tend to isolate rather than bring people together, completely contrary to traditional Vietnamese culture.
In the city’s quest to become another Singapore it must be understood that Singapore has started from a completely different base and culture. The present Ho Chi Minh City pattern of dense three to five-storey buildings is its defining characteristic; it is one of the densest cities in the world. In coping with rapid expansion, of course more residential stock must be built, but that new stock should complement, not ignore the existing city pattern. Ho Chi Minh City is a profoundly more vibrant and interesting city because of its character, and that must be celebrated and enhanced rather than imported from elsewhere.