Meet Vo Trong Nghia, the architect transforming Vietnam's city skylines

Updated 8th December 2016
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House for Trees, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2014)
Meet Vo Trong Nghia, the architect transforming Vietnam's city skylines
Written by Kate Springer, CNN
Move over Singapore -- Ho Chi Minh City could be Asia's next garden city. That's the vision of leading Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia whose designs feature cascading gardens, open-air corridors and lots of bamboo.
Last month, he won the prestigious 2016 Prince Claus Award, for forward-thinking architects making a positive impact on society.
Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia
Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia Credit: Vo Trong Nghia Architects
And as Vietnam's urban population grows at a rate of 3.4% per year, his mission is becoming increasingly important.
His five-residence House for Trees project, for example, is a green oasis in one of Ho Chi Minh City's densest neighborhoods, each property resembling enormous potted plants, with greenery growing from their rooftops.
CNN caught up with the architect to discusses his plans to transform Vietnam's cities.
What was it like growing up in Vietnam, the youngest in a family of seven children?
I grew up in Quang Binh province in the really small, super poor village of Van Xa village, in the mountains. The area was heavily bombed during World War II. We lived like farmers together with the other villagers.
Honestly, I originally wanted to be an architect to become rich! But that was a misconception. Being an architect is just really hard work. Once I started studying architecture, I fell in love with it. I might not be rich but I love it more than money.
How did that experience shape your philosophy as an architect?
My village was located the forest. I remember going to the forest and cutting down trees to sell the timber. We destroyed that forest when I was in secondary school. By the time I was about 20 years old, the entire forest in that area was destroyed by the village.
It got me thinking about how to protect timber. Other architects tend to use a lot of timber, but I try to use bamboo instead, because it's more sustainable.
The hard wood, like that in our area, takes a long, long time to grow back. But with bamboo, it grows quickly, it is strong, and it's attractive, too. Using bamboo relieves the pressure on the forest. We can use this in restaurants, hotels, homes -- it can be used for everything.
What do you hope to accomplish with your designs?
Architecture contributes to nature and to society. We try to bring nature back into the city, protect the environment, and form a connection between humans and nature.
Nghia's Vietnam Pavilion
Nghia's Vietnam Pavilion Credit: Courtesy VTN Architects
It's not just about architecture as a function of beauty. The city is like an urban jungle. And we need to be more connected with the earth and the trees.
Is green architecture important in Vietnam?
As Vietnam develops faster, we are cutting down forests and destroying nature. We don't have much greenery in our big cities, like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. They're becoming concrete jungles.
Now we are using internet, we are living online, we are living in air-conditioned rooms. We don't have places for walking, playing sports, or even playgrounds.
People end up going to bars to drink beer and release stress, and that leads to more and more stress and societal issues. We want to encourage people to get outside, relax and enjoy nature.
This city lifestyle is causing a disconnection with human beings and nature. People are more stressed out and it's a big challenge for all cities -- not just in Vietnam, but in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hong Kong. This is a huge problem in the world because it's easier to get angry, to feel stressed, to misunderstand each other.
That's why we try to reconnect people with nature. It's one way to keep our minds more peaceful.
What has been most challenging so far?
The first five or six years it was really hard to build, because we had to convince people and the government about our ideas.
We started with small houses ... that led to bigger community projects, like university campuses, museums and playgrounds.
We work with the government, always asking them to loosen the regulations so we can more easily make green roofs and have more flexibility in the designs.
The system is evolving. Now we can build every day, every month. But every time we build something new, we destroy nature So that's a big challenge -- how to balance development with conserving and protecting nature.
Tell us about one of your most distinctive works ...
The House for Trees, the Farming Kindergarten or the FPT University Ho Chi Minh City One are the best examples of how we try to bring green space and social space to the city.
For example, take the Farming Kindergarten -- we have almost no playgrounds for kids in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, so the kids don't have anywhere to play.
There is also a huge amount of cars and motorbikes on the roads, so they can't go out and play. It is very risky.
So the concept was to provide a playground for them and to make a rooftop farm so they can reconnect with nature, enjoy architecture and learn how to farm.
How do you approach each project?
We try to reduce the emissions and the reliance on nature by planting trees. If it's a hotel, then we try to work with the company to set up systems to reduce waste, recycle water, and reduce air conditioning.
When you go into one of our hotels, it looks like you're entering a forest.
A green facade can save a lot of electricity. It's really hot in Vietnam, but if we cover a building in greenery, then it keeps its cool inside and you don't need as much air conditioning.
You founded your company, Vo Trong Nghia Architects, in 2006. How does it operate differently to other firms?
I think we are different because we do company-wide meditation every day.
We started meditating four years ago, after I joined a 10-day course that was 12 hours a day -- no email no phone, no nothing.
It's hard to imagine in this day and age. We do two hours every day, the first session is between 7:30am and 8:30am and the second is from 5pm to 6pm.
This keeps our minds really calm and focused, and we feel the tranquility of nature.
Why is meditation important to your work?
It's really simple. Normally, people can focus like three to five seconds and then something will interrupt the mind.
But if you do meditation, you can focus longer, and it makes your mind and work more efficient and clear.
We focus on cleaning up our minds and our hearts, and then we contribute to the problem we are trying to solve: how to connect humans with nature.