Heritage equivalence: A cattle barn and a theater

By Le Quang   April 10, 2019 | 11:13 pm PT
Heritage equivalence: A cattle barn and a theater
Hoa Binh Theater in downtown Da Lat is to be demolished for a commercial complex as announced in March by local authorities. Photo by VnExpress/Khanh Huong
Those planning to give Da Lat a facelift by pulling down key historic buildings should do some careful research.

The tale of new buildings, old buildings, and heritage buildings is a never-ending story. 

A heritage building is not just an old building built long ago.

There are structures that have been standing for 100 or even 200 years but still can't be called heritage buildings. This is the same for people. There are people who grow "smaller" with age, who can't be considered wise despite their gray hair. There are also young, wise people and those who do become more respectable and better role models as they age.

Buildings are like people: their values must be determined by both their self-worth and their relationship and effect on the living environment, urban or rural.

The preservation of heritage buildings must be seen as an "investment" and not an "expense."

I have worked for long in Vietnam, but have participated in many projects to renovate or reorient small cities and towns overseas.

For some projects, I was the lead researcher (such as one for the city of Kriens in Switzerland); and for others, I only played a small part in the general plan (such as one in the German village of Dornburg). Then there have been projects in which I worked directly with the heritage building's owner (like one in the city of Parras de la Fuente in Mexico), and there have been projects in which I only worked with local authorities (in Shina Dockyard in South Korea's port city of Tongyeong).

For me, regardless of the significance of my role or the size of the design, I always treat my projects equally, work hard for them and treat each of them as an opportunity to learn more, to gain more knowledge.

In all this project participation, I have realized that the architect only plays a small role. By the time an architect starts studying architectural options, a large-scale pre-project research has already been completed.

This phase is called the pre-feasibility study, which is a study conducted by social researchers, investors, local authorities, experts on urban landscape, conservation experts and consultant teams in geo-economics, geopolitics and programming.

These components work very seriously to make detailed assessments for the potential of the locality's "development," rather than simply arguing about what to keep and what to demolish. That is how an interdisciplinary research team works.

When speaking of "development," many Vietnamese often think of demolishing the old and building the new. This is because of our innate reaction to the aftermath of the wars, in which everything must be new, proper, large and beautiful, and anything that is "old" is but a remnant that needs to be removed for us to enter a new age. We have made this mistake many times throughout our history.

Researchers involved in a project's pre-feasibility study understand "development" very differently. They will only focus on proving that preserving a cultural heritage is an "investment" and not an "expense." If they can't prove that, they will not consider the object of their study as a heritage. All issues must revolve around economy and politics.

Since the 1950s, many European cities have suffered the consequences of having their economic growth blur out their thick, deeply-rooted urban identities. Therefore, in their studies, the pre-feasibility study research units must struggle with each other to emphasize the role of development to meet the needs of the current generation without affecting future generations' ability to achieve them (intergenerational responsibilities in resource use).

So there needs to be case studies of different proportions and scales.

However, regardless of the scale, the issues in such a study must be considered carefully, because, theoretically speaking, the development of a city should be a slow and long term.

'The big question'

To highlight this point, I would like to refer to this article's title, which relates to a cattle barn in Germany and the Hoa Binh Theater in Da Lat.

I don't mean to diminish the value of any structure in Da Lat or to elevate the value of some anonymous barn in Europe. It simply implies that old structures need to be evaluated and considered to determine whether it is a heritage structure or not.

Back when I participated in a project in central Germany, I had to ponder whether or not to retain a certain structure in the project's general plan or remove it. After working with the researchers with the pre-feasibility studies, I learnt that the structure was an old cattle barn built some 120 years ago.

The barn was already dilapidated, with rotten floorboards and wobbly columns, so much so that most people would probably choose to knock it down and build some pub there without a second thought.

However, after many discussions, the pre-feasibility study team came to the conclusion that we "must retain that cattle barn as part of the village's heritage."

'The reasoning'

Hundreds of pages of research material including drawings, statistics, questionnaires, economic calculation tables, investment efficiency and profitability were sent to me, highlighting the following points:

1. It is considered a cultural structure that has persisted for over a century. It is a heritage (cultural memory) of past generations that must be transferred to the future generations (considered the center of history) as a basic element of their identity.

2. It is considered a social landscape lying within social/civil networks. Its contribution to the general plan helps tighten the structure and scale of the general plan, thereby creating a decisive factor for construction density and atmosphere of the social landscape. Airy, large, beautiful and spacious is not always good. In many cases things need to be small as local residents are used to small structures and would not accept large ones.

3. It is a structure that reflects local expertise, knowledge and entrepreneurship, as well as the creativity of the local people in the past. It helps differentiate people living there from other places. The structure may be old but it is still beautiful and reflects the locals' high building skills in the past.

4. It contributes to the long-term financial-economic landscape of the locality, which also includes local credit institutions, cooperatives, granaries and workshops promoted by the residents. If these structures are renovated with new functions, they are capable of stimulating tourism.

5. The assessments and drawings that record the existing state of the structure can prove its feasibility when renovated with new functions within the general plan. This part is very important for any old structure, as these assessments will help the research team estimate the feasibility of renovation work.

Based on these five points, the research team and architects agreed that the cattle barn was a component that should not be separated from the village's historic urban landscape complex and must be treated as a heritage building.

On the other hand, many structures that were also very old, like the granary, sheep pen and bell tower, were still removed from the general plan as they did not have all the necessary elements for them to be considered heritage structures.

Sometimes, an individual structure might not create a heritage, but a heritage can be created from a collection of individual structures known as an "artificial heritage landscape complex."

Similarly, when we say "banyan tree, water well, communal temple's yard," the phrase evokes a particular atmosphere and impression, but this does not happen if we only say "water well."

Therefore, when discussing heritage, we need to observe things from many perspectives.

Removing interest groups

During the phase when architectural solutions are studied and issues come up that need support, an architect has the power to start a discussion, like in the example above, or request answers to issues belonging to other disciplines. These are dialogues, calculations and careful considerations, all of which aim towards "development" – and it is not about retaining or removing, expensive or cheap, or beautiful or ugly.

This is the democratic orientation of urban development and the removal of the "interest group" factor that we have often talked about as an enemy.

From the story of the cattle barn in that German village, we can see that the assessment of a heritage conservation project's feasibility should be done through serious research that is practical, fair and without personal feelings. For instance, if personal feelings were involved, they would not have preserved the Roman Colosseum.

Furthermore, the decision to keep or demolish must not be an ideological one. Instead the decision-makers must always verify their judgments against case studies. Architects participating in the project should also regularly ask for explanations on the pre-project team's development orientation, as there are many issues that lie outside the expertise of architects.

Back when I was in school, when practicing "intervention measures" in old cities, I often made the mistake of abusing my design skills without doing feasibility assessments. My teacher would point out: "It took them 500 years to build a city. Getting your hand on those 500 years, what do you think you can design?"

This teacher is a world-famous winner of the Pritzker Prize (the equivalent to the Nobel Prize in architecture) and is an undeniable expert, but it was only later, when I had real practice, did I realize that what he taught was right.

We can have many good architects whose designs have personality, but if we put them in a machine with a wrong operating method then the product we get can still be bad. An architect is not God, even if the work they do might give some people that impression.

In developing countries, architects are often very good at providing solutions without thinking of asking questions or doubting the questions they receive. But in many cases, they use all the skills they have at their disposal to find the right solution to a wrong question.

Now let's discuss the case of the Hoa Binh area in Da Lat

[Editor's note: Da Lat authorities have announced plans to demolish and change key historic structures in the tourist town's center, including an old market and the Hoa Binh Theater, to make way for a new commercial center. The plan has generated controversy and debate of heritage preservation.]

Even though I haven't had the opportunity to see the pre-feasibility study document, by looking at the final proposal, I personally guess that the pre-feasibility study might've been done sketchily and perhaps the people behind it should've been more careful.

Architect observers as well as architects who directly participated in the project, as also the team behind the pre-feasibility study, need to have more democratic discussions and seriously consider public opinion.

Partial publication of the research document is completely unacceptable, especially since it has been said that it has already been completed. For old structures, the research team should provide their research notes and the as-built drawings. After all, old structures may be precious but they are still created by humans and not something that just fell down from the sky.

Old structures have witnessed many changes in the society, witnessed the birth and growth of generations. Their bodies have nourished people with their functions, and their souls are alive in the mind of each person. That is why people feel nostalgic, and this feeling needs to be respected.

Development is inevitable, but its conceptualization and orientation have to be carried out in a transparent, democratic manner. A city can transform, but it should not leave behind the people who had helped create it.

My old teacher often stressed that it takes 500 years to have a city.

He did not want to say that, to destroy a city, it would only take just one wrong decision made in a single moment.

*Le Quang is a Vietnamese architect working in Switzerland. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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