Saturday, 22 March 2014

Love it or lose it

Central Phnom Phen

 In this part of the world, you don't have to look very hard to find evidence of the part played by France in Vietnam's history.  Many of the key buildings of state were erected by the French.

But, it wasn't until my visit to Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, that I became aware that there is some concern about the possible loss of the architectural heritage left by the French in South East Asia.  

That weekend I read, in the Phnom Penh Times, that there are two points of view when it comes to the older buildings there. One side values the history, culture and architectural beauty; the other values the real estate and the possible financial gain from redevelopment of the large city centre sites occupied by these 'grand old ladies' of architecture.

Decaying French architecture 

Of course, Saigon simply wouldn't have the same charm without the old Post Office, the Opera House, the old L'Hotel de Ville that is now home to the People's Committee.  Apart from the glory of their elegance that is evocative of another age, each one of these buildings has a fascinating story to tell.
The former Hotel de Ville - Saigon

L'Opera -Saigon

But there is a less conspicuous legacy of little merchants' shop houses that give the streets of Saigon their unique character. The oldest of these modest buildings are now 150.  

Some have been loved and maintained but many are suffering the ravages of time and crumbling or disappearing behind giant hoardings and modern concrete 'embellishments' and extensions. 

Central Post Office - Saigon

The three storey shop houses adjacent to Ben Thanh market (below)are an example of this kind of treatment. If the advertising companies, sign makers and property owners are allowed to continue defacing, disguising and disfiguring Saigon's architectural heritage, these buildings will be lost and the character of this iconic area will be changed forever.

As humans, we collect the memories and souvenirs of all the people and events that have influenced or changed our lives. It is the nature of people to want to hold on to some aspects of the past - it can give us a sense of belonging and it confirms out identities. 

For this reason, many people are unsettled by too much loss and change. Our favourite cities are just like people, they are a collection of souvenirs that represent all the different cultures, religions, political regimes, nationalities and trends all leave their traces behind as they pass through. These traces remind us who we are.

Many townscapes in the west have suffered at the hands of careless town planners who erased neighbourhoods and demolished old buildings in their town centres to make way for modern, concrete shopping malls and car parks. The wounds left behind have, still, not healed. People can feel demoralised and lose their sense of place. Sometime 'we just don't know what we have lost until it is gone'. 

But cities that have cherished their unique tapestry of architectural styles through the ages are warm, vibrant, welcoming and interesting to all.  Those who have filled their towns with concrete are regretting the loss of history now. 

Former shop houses in Singapore's city centre

In Singapore, properties like the old merchant houses that line the broad avenues of Saigon, are being renovated and turned into comfortable homes by young professionals. Maybe it will be a while before the young Vietnamese develop a taste for this style of living.  In the mean time, it is everyone's duty to preserve this cultural and architectural heritage so it can be enjoyed by the next generations.