Emergent Urban Ecologies: The Edge Space in Urban Vietnam

This article describes investigations undertaken by Intermediate Unit 6 at the Architectural Association, conducting research into the social performance of architectural and urban structures. For the past five years the studio, led by Jeroen van Ameijde and Brendon Carlin, has studied urban centres with unique spatial and cultural conditions including Hong Kong, Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. The recent research focused on Vietnam culminated in the design a series of unique architectural proposals situated in the country’s two largest urban areas, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam presented an exciting and engaging context for the unit because of its unique and dynamic urban conditions. Vietnamese cities continue to experience sweeping transformations, rapid economic growth and an increasing infiltration by global economic and cultural trends. In spite of this, the Vietnamese cultural and political latticework seems to act as a kind of filter; amplifying, transforming or resisting these powerful forces and their tendency to homogenise urban conditions globally. Vietnam’s distinctive culture, rooted in the local climate, geography and a history of conflict seems to celebrate inventiveness, resilience, and a noticeable abundance of eccentricities. These qualities manifest in many elements within the local economic and social patterns of interaction, which have a powerful effect on, and are deeply affected by, the city form.

The work departed from investigations into the public spaces in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, questioning which (limited) role architectural design and urban planning might have amongst the emergence of such chaotic and intricate networks of interaction. We identified edge spaces as a primary catalyst for socio-economic exchange and cultural identity in the Vietnamese city, observing an incredibly rich and unique landscape of activities taking place around the perimeter of open spaces, streets and alleyways and in between the established territories of live and work functions. Rapid urban transformation here however manifest in the form of foreign typologies and planning models being injudiciously imposed or adopted within complex Vietnamese conditions. We asked the students to catalogue cases of both failed foreign typological insertions and aspects of the local climate, materials, informal economy and culture that could instead inform a more open-ended and context-specific architecture. Through this method, we aimed to explore ways of designing ‘frameworks for urban development’, conceiving of unique architectural systems that would be able to accommodate the unique characteristics of Vietnamese society and within this, provoke the emergence of vibrant new centres for cultural exchange.

Research Focus: The social performance of urban fabric
Under its current agenda, Intermediate Unit 6 has been conducting research at London’s Architectural Association since 2010. The unit development evolves in response to real-world challenges found in a wide range of urban and architectural projects at the tutors’ London-based practice, Urban Systems Office. In both environments, projects depart from the desire to explore and test new means by which we conceive of, and inhabit the city when it is understood as a highly complex set of interdependent ecologies. We are interested in how new modes of thought, high-resolution mapping of urban spaces and the use of digital design software allow us to set up design processes that are calibrated against precise sets of social, environmental and programmatic information related to the urban environment. These processes aim to create design solutions that address complexities in full, crafting architectural systems that operate within a socio-economic understanding of the city and that offer enriching places for contemporary urban life to evolve.

Design processes within Intermediate Unit 6 are developed as a specific approach to the practice of generative design, using the new ways of harvesting, processing and translating the information related to each project to create specific solutions which can be evaluated against realistic societal challenges. As many contemporary researchers have identified, we use the analogy of the evolution of urban and architectural typologies to processes of growth and other organising principles in nature. In natural systems, form, structure, and material act upon each other, and the behaviour of all three cannot be predicted by the analysis of any of them separately. The way in which for example trees develop within a natural environment is governed by the interplay between its materiality, structure and the influences from its environment such as gravity, climate and neighbouring elements. If architects aim to create buildings with a similar intelligence in efficiency and adaptation, they should consider similar interactions between the several aspects of their digital designs.

There are several architects and researchers that explore rule-based design systems that ‘generate’ proposals. Yet most of this research remains fully in the digital realm, applying the concepts at a theoretical level before any outcomes might be placed within a site. The research of Intermediate Unit 6 has focused on design proposals and scenarios of building usage that can adapt and evolve over time, in dialogue with the potential occupancy of the structures and the surroundings in which the solution is to intervene. This creates a site-specific architecture within the limitations of a particular context, allowing buildings to take full advantage of and contribute to their surroundings. Analogous to nature, the process does not depart from considerations of the formal qualities of the final result, yet each successful process generates exciting possibilities, reflecting and nurturing an intricate balancing of complex forces at work.

Mapping Public Spaces
In the first term of the 2013-2014 academic year, students dedicated several weeks to developing knowledge of social behaviours within urban space through mapping, reading and writing exercises inspired by William Whyte’s 1980 book and film, ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Places’. William H. Whyte (1917 – 1999) was an American urbanist, organisational analyst, journalist and people-watcher who published several books on the study of human behaviour in urban settings. His book titled ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ was published in 1980 and together with a short film uncovers the correlations between measurable spatial and material conditions of public spaces and the multitude of human activities and interactions that occur within them.

Each student also conducted detailed research into a series of architectural precedents, focusing on both technical achievements and the political framework or social context within which the chosen proposal emerged. Some of the precedents include selected work by The Japanese Metabolist architects Kisho Kurokawa and Fumihiko Maki. Students also studied the work of Moshe Safdie, Yona Friedman, Jean Prouve and Alejandro Aravena amongst others, studying speculative and built projects with the capacity to incorporate user participation and adaptation over time.

In parallel to the mapping exercises and precedent research, the unit process was initiated in its early phases by fabrication experiments which culminated in the design of an inhabitable structure on the site within which the mapping exercises were conducted. The design was based on each student group’s particular theory and aims, which developed from evidence and insights discovered during mapping. Every project involved an attempt to alter, amplify or discourage certain social behaviours on site through the control of factors such as people movement, environmental qualities, social proximities and spatial characteristics. This allowed students to explore assembly, structure and spatial configuration and to speculate on people’s behaviour in reaction to the architectural features and effects.

One example is Sungbum Hong and John Kanakas’ ‘filtering mesh’ project (images). The proposal includes integrated furniture, structure and canopy intended as a catalyst for social encounters and to provoke spontaneous staying, sitting and people watching. The structure was digitally generated through rule sets designed to drive the geometry of the structure in relation to sun angles, adjacent programme and patterns of human movement. Seats orient towards traffic flows, structural elements are configured to permit views and a the size of openings in canopy are calibrated relative to sun angles at times of day when people are likely to engage in the expected behaviours. The structural system was designed to be precisely cnc milled and easily assembled on site, virtually eliminating the need for skilled labour or quality management and ceding control of the final outcome largely to the architect.

After the initial work in London, the unit travelled as a group first to Hanoi and secondly Ho Chi Minh City where the dynamic Vietnamese city condition became the setting for a series of architectural investigations. The unit researched, observed, mapped, and over the course of the remaining year designed a series of proposals for both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. We quickly discovered that the in-between space of the city and particularly what we call the edge space is a primary incubation space for socio-economic exchange and cultural development. What we call the edge space – spaces found at the threshold of building and sidewalk or alley, or pockets and strips of street space not absolutely necessary for pedestrian and vehicle flows – is constantly bustling with some form of production and exchange. It is clear that these edge spaces and the forms of activity that they breed are an organ vital to Vietnamese livelihood, production, exchange and identity. They conceal crucial spatial, structural and programmatic information key to proposing any new urban intervention in the city. This edge space condition is a distributed, city-wide mixed use phenomena which nurtures the emergence of informal and more established family run eateries, retail outlets, workshops, studios and public social spaces, often in front or on the lower floors of living space. In contrast, heavily regulated and sterile new mono-programmatic mall type retail facilities impose an imbalanced hierarchy, concentrating and isolating rather than distributing services, consumption and decision making; they appear slow to generate the same amount of economic and local-cultural conductivity as the urban edge spaces.

Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are emergent ecologies in that their rich character, activity, physical characteristics and the uncanny order of the city society are very much driven through the interplay of bottom-up, decentralised, and perpetually changing interactions. In light of these observations, one of the key questions to be addressed by the unit revealed itself: Can we as architects design open-ended frameworks to foster user input and negotiation during the process of design, construction and inhabitation, leading to more suited, intelligent and flexible buildings?

Proposals for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
The unit produced nine projects during the academic year, several of which will be described in the following paragraphs. The projects are varied by, amongst other characteristics, the degree to which the design, growth and appropriation is decided by the future inhabitants of the building. At one extreme of this spectrum is a project which proposes entire neighbourhoods to be custom designed through the assembly and interaction between future inhabitants. The outcome would be an emergent and user driven assemblage of specifically designed components in negotiation with neighbours, influences from the surrounding city and the climate. At a more architect controlled end of the spectrum, students proposed designs with a unique urban typology, aiming to influence the future patterns of inhabitation directly through the architectural composition of certain guiding elements. Several students used a load-bearing structural frame to embed certain qualities that would benefit the community as a whole, while allowing a certain amount of freedom to allow for tailored solutions to emerge through user-based participatory development and negotiation.

Considered as a complete body of work, the projects propose an alternative thinking model for urban development in Vietnam. They test different degrees of flexibility and user-based involvement intended to harness the kind of intelligence and adaptability observed in the informal street economies. The proposals also aim to provide technological and design innovations to mediate more productive negotiations between old and new, informal and formal, fixed and flexible and public or private.

Laurenz Berger’s project (images) investigates an architectural system for self-organisation, tested through scenarios for a neighbourhood in Hanoi to be constructed by its inhabitants. Laurenz designed a kit of parts composed of a timber column, beam, tension cables an unusual steel node component, leaving other architectural elements to be added by the inhabitant. Through extensive testing of full scale prototypes and scale model kits given to volunteers, Laurenz tested the structural performance, ease of assembly and possible outcomes of inhabitant assembly, using what he learned to inform a redesign of the system in several iterations. The challenge of the project was to find a balance between allowing for certain degrees of individual freedom while also guaranteeing environmental, social qualities and economic opportunity for the overall neighbourhood. This was achieved by providing an initial arrangement of foundations with strategic spacing, to guide the initial growth of the system. The design also incorporates limitations into the nodes and beams to limit the size of any single building, and prevent the obstruction of public, open or circulatory spaces. Users, who would mandatorily only use the strategically designed kit of parts, would be forced to include cantilevering roofs in their dwelling assembly, creating porches for social interaction and limiting the connection of dwellings into clusters that would be too large and have a negative effect on the social quality of the neighbourhood. Through extensive testing of growth scenarios over time, the project seeks to find alternative to existing planning models and architecture’s strategies to incorporate contingencies. The potential outcomes are adaptive and instrumental within the rapidly transforming preferences of Hanoi’s urban inhabitants.

Jamie Queisser’s project (images) uses a differentiated reinforced concrete space-frame as an open framework for urban growth, creating an ‘urban catalyst’ that intensifies and juxtaposes traditional and newer, larger types of economic activities in Ho Chi Minh City. A strict rule-based design system informed by detailed field research was used to create spaces with varying degrees of porosity and privacy. He developed a construction methodology using flexible reusable moulds, which would allow an effective and low cost construction scenario where the permanent frame enables simple temporary appropriations by users. Following on from Yona Friedman’s work, the project proposes a open framework that will house a vibrant mixture of small and large economic activities such as workshops, offices, shops and restaurants. However instead of providing a generic grid, the structure features varying size spaces and different degrees of obstruction through subdivision of the space frame logic, embedding the buildings with similar neighbourhood qualities as found in the mapping of local cultural and contextual patterns of interaction. The project would enable the emergence of a hyper-dense version of activities similar to those found in the existing alleyways of the city, yet mixing them with larger scale programs in a three-dimensional network of circulation. It aims to incorporate Vietnam’s typical street life economy while giving it additional possibilities for connectivity, overlap and exchange.

Sungbum Hong’s project (images) acknowledges the need for introduction of large scale economic developments such as retail malls, this project proposed an architectural system to mix different scale of urban spaces within a vibrant network of streets and public spaces. Calibrated by his earlier quantitative field research into street widths and socio-economic activities in Vietnam, he designed structural modules in a range of sizes to accommodate different programmes and activities. The modules are intended to be stacked three-dimensionally to create a layered and interwoven urban landscape, open to inhabitation and adaptation by both companies and individuals. The project seeks to find a way to accommodate new, international brand name stores and formal retail shops within a new commercial and residential neighbourhood. The geometrical operation of ‘twisting’ inside the modules deliberately creates ‘edge spaces’ that would nurture appropriation by inhabitants or visitors such as street vendors, creating a much more open-ended and democratic urban landscape than a typical new mall or condominium development.

Ji Soo Hwang’s proposal (images) is developed around the multiple variations and combinations of different types of public spaces, creating an advanced urban infrastructure that houses a series of programmatic clusters that juxtapose housing, offices, market and leisure activities. Using detailed studies of existing characteristics of street vending and other uses of public space in Vietnam, the project integrates context-specific cultural conditions within an architecture aimed at bringing a high quality urban regeneration and densification to one of the poorest districts in Ho Chi Minh City. The project would be allowed to grow, adapt and evolve under the guidance of architect-controlled rule sets which prescribe the incorporation of several conditions of private and semi-private courtyards. The pixelated architectural landscape assembled out of a factory produced kit of parts would always incorporate the necessary voids for the provision of sufficient light, ventilation and circulation opportunities, simultaneously creating many spaces for different types of social gathering.

What is unique and exciting about Vietnam is that it’s vital, unique culture and political environment has led to unusual manifestations and appropriations of the urban fabric, largely driven by interactions on the street between people. The Vietnamese metropolis presented Intermediate 6 with an informative and engaging context because what the unit observed and recorded in its studies there both reinforced and challenged the premises underlying its agenda. The task of steering the evolution of economics, politics and architecture in Vietnam presents an interesting challenge to be considered carefully by politicians, urbanists and architects alike; it seems that the indiscriminative imposition of foreign typologies within this dynamic context will not work. Instead, new modes of thinking, designing and building which challenge the architect to design contingent, open-ended and inclusive systems seem more promising and synergistic, holding the possibility to nurture invaluable new cultural peculiarities.

Can we, as architects, consider local climate, materials, informal economy and culture to inform a progressive, unique and context-specific architecture? The projects presented here demonstrate the attempts to incorporate and catalyse complex and dynamic existing cultural and socio-economic urban conditions and take advantage of open-endedness in design, construction and use. They explore the possibility of constructing ‘frameworks for future urban ecologies’, and to conceive of unique architectural systems that provoke the emergence of vibrant and unique new urban realities.