City admin center scheme threatens Saigon's vanishing heritage

By Tim Doling   April 29, 2018 | 05:13 pm PT
City admin center scheme threatens Saigon's vanishing heritage
The old French government building at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong in Saigon is earmarked for destruction under a plan to build a new city administration center. Photo provided by Tim Doling
The scheme involves the destruction of yet another old building from the city's historic low-rise center.

One of Saigon's key tourist hubs, Dong Khoi Street, the former rue Catinat, once boasted many beautiful old buildings. The scheme to build a new city administration center poses the latest in a series of threats to its historic architecture.

In recent years, a spate of unsympathetic new developments on Dong Khoi Street have inflicted serious damage on the integrity of the historic urban fabric. Several heritage buildings on and around this street, at 151 and 164 Dong Khoi, and 22-26 Ly Tu Trong, currently stand on so-called “gold land” and thus are also earmarked for future demolition and redevelopment.

If the current pace of destruction continues, Dong Khoi once described as the “Canebière of Southeast Asia” to compare it favourably with the famous shopping street in Marseille will have little attractive architecture left other than the Municipal Theater, Continental and Caravelle. Once old buildings have gone, they are gone forever.

The scheme announced in 2014 to build a new city administration center immediately behind the old Town Hall began with the demolition of No. 213, one of the city's most attractive old art deco apartment buildings. Due to a subsequent change of plan, that elegant 1929 structure was recently replaced - not without a sad hint of irony - by a dull “faux colonial” wing to the Town Hall.

Following a public exhibition of shortlisted designs for the new city administration center, no first prize was awarded, but in October 2015 it was implied in newspaper articles that the authorities would proceed with the implementation of the judges’ “second choice” design by the Nikken Sekkei company, which involved preserving the 130-year-old building at 59-61 Ly Tu Trong on the Dong Khoi junction. This important building had served from 1888-1949 as the Secrétariat général du gouvernement (Government Secretariat general), from 1949-1955 as the Ministère de l’Intérieur (Interior Ministry), and from 1955-1975 as the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Photo by Tim Doling

The old art deco apartment building at 213 Dong Khoi before its demolition in 2014. Photo by Tim Doling

After October 2015, nothing more was heard of the scheme until April 2018, when it was announced that an entirely different city administration center design by the U.S. firm Gensler would be placed on public view for consultation. Unlike that of Nikken Sekkei, this design involved demolishing the old Secrétariat général building altogether. This latest scheme has been met with opposition from many quarters.

The planned destruction of yet another old building in the city's historic low-rise center comes at a time when HCMC's tourist authorities are seeking to find ways to increase the 2.6-day average tourist stay and to tackle the problem highlighted in 2016 by the Pacific Asia Travel Association that only 6 percent of first-time visitors to this country ever return.

Research elsewhere in the world has shown very clearly that heritage tourism generally attracts older, wealthier people who stay longer, take part in more cultural activities and spend more money, yet little is currently being done here to promote this important end of the market. Instead, the very built heritage which attracts such visitors is vanishing rapidly under a wave of unfettered development.

As in many other Asian cities, the tourist experience is now also increasingly marred by the deteriorating quality of life in a city beset by traffic chaos and increasingly high levels of air pollution. In Saigon, this situation has been exacerbated by the construction of massive new commercial and residential complexes on key arteries right in the heart of the city center, where road and parking infrastructure has already far exceeded capacity. The proposed city administration building, extending over a land area of 18,000 square meters and accommodating up to 1,700 staff from eight different government departments, would only intensify such problems in an area already frequented by many tour groups.

*Tim Doling is a British historian and author of the walking tour guidebook "Exploring Ho Chi Minh City". The views expressed here are his own.

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