On April 30th, Vietnam celebrated forty years since the end of the Vietnam War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. It was on that date in 1975 that North Vietnam and her allies in the Liberation Army of South Vietnam (Viet Cong) seized Saigon, which at that time was operating as the southern capital. The image, perhaps most emblematic of Saigon’s collapse, is that of a North Vietnamese tank tearing through the gates of the Presidential Palace and the palace’s South Vietnamese flag being supplanted by the rebel flag of the Viet Cong.
Today, the former Presidential Palace is a tourist attraction, renamed Reunification Palace in honor of the events of April 30th. It remains one of the few artifacts of the short-lived Republic of Vietnam. It was completed in 1966, and comprises an idiosyncratic blend of (almost) decadent late modernism and the conservative, east Asian tradition. More generally, the palace is a reminder of the importance of architecture (and landscape) as an expression of power and authority.
Ngô Viét Thu was commissioned to design a new Presidential Palace following the destruction of the French-built Governor’s Palace in 1962. Mr. Thu had earned his degree at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was a winner of the Grand Prix de Rome and had been working on South Vietnamese government projects since 1960. His contemporary design for the Presidential Palace incorporated many elements: the suspension of the building’s core upon columns, the enveloping of the core in an outer curtain, and the building's crisp rectilinearity.
The interior of the Palace remains untouched since the 1960s, and its opulent display of mid-60s (in)sensibilities verges on kitsch. More than one commentator has noted the interior’s resemblance to the lair of a James Bond villain, but the eastern flourishes (particularly the use of lacquered wood) somehow keep this den on the right side of stylish. The most decadent element here is the number of recreation rooms, culminating in a rooftop disco, initially intended to be the President’s personal meditation chamber.
The exterior tells a slightly different story, one of China’s influence on Vietnamese culture. Whilst the facade is unashamedly modernist, the “columns” comprising the curtain surrounding the core are an abstraction of the bamboo forms so prevalent throughout east Asia. Inspired by Feng Shui, the horizontal and vertical lines of the facade can be interpreted as a variety of Chinese characters, representing humanity, intelligence, and strength. Geomancy has also informed the building’s footprint which, when viewed from above, resembles the Chinese character for good fortune. The building is even said to sit on the head of a subterranean dragon, ensuring wealth and prosperity.
Following reunification, Saigon lost many of its citizens, its status as a capital, and even its name (it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975), yet it retained this edifice most at odds with the austerity of the new regime.
Was the provisional revolutionary government a fan of architecture, or just the rooftop disco? How have buildings in your community changed with political leadership? Share your thoughts and city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích Trâm. Data linked to sources.