SAH Blog

  • On Teaching, Traveling, and Learning: Brooks Fellowship Summary

    2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow Amber N. Wiley
    Jul 13, 2015
    When I began my teaching career at the Tulane School of Architecture I had a specific challenge ahead of me: re-fashioning a course entitled “History of Architecture: Ancient to Medieval” that previously centered on the Western tradition to one that had a global focus. This meant including more sites outside Europe: those found in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. Suddenly the textbooks I was most familiar with, from surveys in undergrad and pursuing my masters, would not suffice. My first hurdle was to find the literature that would work for such a major undertaking. I searched for online course syllabi that dealt with the same topics and time span, reviewed their readings, and created my own patchwork of readings from various publications. Even after giving myself the proper framework (in the form of course readings) to begin to talk about a global history of architecture I still had to think about organization—would it regional or thematic? Chronological or based on common climates? In the end I divided the course into two sections: Western and non-Western. I was not satisfied with the decision, but it was useful for practical purposes.

    The course transformed again the second time I taught it, to become “History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism I: World Architecture to the Enlightenment (Global Settlements).” Yes, I realize the length of the title was unconscionable. I shortened the subtitle the third year I taught the course, dropping “to the Enlightenment,” the only hint at a time frame. Certain aspects of the course were growing clearer, even as the course title became more vague. I adopted three texts that would inform my new way of thinking about the course. These texts would also inform the itinerary I created when submitting an application for the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. The texts were Richard Ingersoll and Spiro Kostof, World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History, Dora P. Crouch and June G. Johnson, Traditions in Architecture: Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania, and Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. I wanted several themes to come to the fore in my teaching. First, that we (as a class) were examining the built environment on a variety of scales, from individual buildings to patterns of settlement, and then looking at the relationship of the settlements to the surrounding landscape. Central to our architectural analysis was how different cultures and communities made meaning in their everyday lives through design, discussion on what architecture reveals about societal concerns and hierarchies, and the ways in which natural settings are exploited for sustenance and protection.

    Figure 1. Slide from introduction lecture in “History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism I.”

    Figure 2. Another slide from the course introduction lecture.

    These ideas underlined the creation of my itinerary and the various aspects of design that I would investigate over the course of a year with the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. I selected sites that were not a part of the Western canon. The sites I visited are in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, specifically Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam. I wanted to see not only the ways that communities create, inhabit, and think about space, but what these interactions reveal about the society in which the space is produced. As a result, while I gained a greater understanding of individual structures, cities, and landscapes themselves, I also thought deeply about the intersections of culture, geography, design, preservation, and public history. The places I visited have complicated histories, and are located in countries that face a variety of challenges. Public history and preservation practices have to acknowledge strong indigenous cultural traditions and reconcile a colonial past with a post-colonial present. Additionally, these sites and cities struggle with political corruption and/or instability, and, in some cases, burgeoning populations and a high premium for real estate in historically significant areas.

    These themes came up time and again in my blog entries, as well as many of the readings I chose to highlight in the blog. Every country I visited was considered “Third World” in the traditional sense of the word. The desire to classify these countries persists, and most of them now fall under the banner of the “Global South.”1 The terms Third World and Global South, while both contested and fluid, do evoke very specific negative connotations: those of poverty, heavy industrialization, pollution, public health crises, and overpopulation. The term Global South, however, seems to be a rebranding and repositioning tool that allows for more positive connotations as well. I have found many scholars of the Global South describing urban conglomerations such as Mumbai as cities of the future, with emergent economies. As political alignments have shifted, and as economies have diversified from agricultural and industrial-based, some of these countries no longer fit in that outdated mode of Third World categorization: Mexico and India are prime examples. All of these issues put pressure on the tourism industry. They also inform how historic preservation works and how culture—as a quantifiable and tangible product—is constructed. These are some of the issues that added richness and complexity to my investigation of specific sites throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

    In addition to learning about the world and seeing sites firsthand, my time abroad also forced me to learn new technologies (or at least technologies that were new to me) and think about how I would deliver my thoughts and experiences to a wider audience. The fellowship required that I upload images to SAHARA, so automatically I was adding to the SAH commitment to the digital humanities.2 I also worked with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Galileo Offline Maps, Google Maps, Instagram, Wordpress, and Prezi. Lightroom allowed me to edit and organize photos en masse, Galileo was great for navigating each city and town, Google Maps for recording the various sites and cities I visited, Instagram for keeping me engaged in daily photographic documentation via my iPhone, and Wordpress for my personal blog.

    Although I had learned about Prezi several years ago while serving as a teaching fellow at the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching at Tulane, I only began working with the platform after my trip was finished. Prezi offers free account services for educators and students, so I signed up to teach myself how to use the presentation platform. I visited my 11-year-old niece in South Korea at the end of my trip and I wanted her to understand the trajectory and geography of my travels. I thought a regular PowerPoint would not do, and found a World Geography template through Prezi that was perfect for my purposes. The first Prezi I created was entitled “2014–2015: Auntie Amber’s Travels.” While I do not intend to rely solely on this tool for teaching (I do prefer PowerPoint), after my initial experience with it I can easily imagine using both Prezi and PowerPoint throughout the school year, as needed.

    Another venture into digital humanities during my travels was my reliance on databases such as the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online collection, Flickr: The Commons, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture for historical photographs and maps of the sites I visited. This allowed me to acquire digital images in the public domain from a wealth of archives such as the LOC, CCA, the British Library, Internet Archive Book Images, the Cornell University Library, the National Archives UK, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Nationaal Archief to supplement my understanding of the history of the sites and cities. Many historical images I used in the blog, from cities as distant as Antigua, Delhi, and Hanoi, were from these online sources.

    Figure 3. Screen capture of Flickr: The Commons and a few of the archives included in the online image collection.

    Moving forward, my immediate plans after the fellowship include readjustment back to the States, taking care of various writing projects and deadlines, board duties for two organizations, as well as seeing friends and family after a year absence. I will begin a new position as assistant professor of American studies at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I teach two courses in the fall, “Introduction to American Studies: The American City,” and “Themes in American Culture: African-American Experience.” While my early background is strictly architecture—undergraduate degree in architecture, master’s in architectural history—my doctorate is in American studies. My specializations within the field are architectural history, urban history, and African-American cultural studies. My research interests focus on the built environment, but expand beyond that to take into consideration social issues that relate to design. I often joke that I am a “Professor of Place.” The travel that I completed over the course of this year has significantly impacted not only my understanding of architectural sites across the world, but also my understanding of the particularities of place. New understandings of place and ways to talk about our lived experiences within spaces will inform how I teach my fall courses. Teaching is a creative endeavor, and my experiences have sharpened my ability to make cross-disciplinary connections in the examination of place. Therefore my “American City” course provides snapshots of the nation’s history through an investigation of communal and urban sites. Topics include pre-colonial beginnings, European colonies, the new nation, westward expansion, the industrial city, changing technologies, changes in urban social and spatial structure, urban politics, migration and immigration, and suburbanization. Meanwhile, my “African-American Experience” course pays particular attention to migratory patterns of African-Americans within and outside of the United States. This consideration illustrates how industry, war, social segregation, international diplomacy, and family ties helped shape the relationship between the rural and urban African-American experiences.

    Figure 4. Illustrations on my fall course syllabi. Top illustration is for the “American City” course with Daniel Burnham’s plan for Chicago. Bottom illustration is for the “African-American Experience” course with Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.

    Figure 5. Seeing the U.S. with new eyes: exploring the Film Exchange District in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

    Just recently a friend of mine commented on an Instagram picture I posted while visiting family in Oklahoma City. I was exploring the major changes happening downtown. I walked around the Film Exchange District, a historic section that focuses on art production and celebrates various western architecture and art deco motifs in the area through ongoing preservation efforts. The picture I posted was a reflection of a store window that captured items for sale as well as Devon Tower, a symbol of the emergent skyline that is a result of a booming energy economy in the state. The friend exclaimed, “I love that you're continuing to wander and take pictures and think like your trip hasn't ended. Maybe that's the key!” I am seeing everything with fresh eyes—including places I know well, like my hometown of Oklahoma City. These fresh eyes will help me be a better researcher, writer, and a professor. In fact, that is the key.

    1. See Martin W. Lewis, “There Is No Third World; There Is No Global South,” GeoCurrents November 15, 2010 Dayo Olopade, “The End of the ‘Developing World,’” New York Times February 28, 2014; Marc Silver, “If You Shouldn't Call It The Third World, What Should You Call It?NPR January 4, 2015
    2. See Dianne Harris, “Learned Society 2.0,” SAH Blog September 1, 2011
  • Hanoi: An Evolving Capital

    2013 H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow Amber N. Wiley
    Jun 19, 2015
    Saigon is to New York City as Hanoi is to Washington, D.C. Or at least that was what I was told. Yes, Hanoi and Washington, D.C., are both capital cities. Ho Chi Minh City (commonly referred to as Saigon in Vietnam) and New York City are booming financial centers for their respective countries. This analogy, while seemingly straightforward, implies heavy cultural criticism and assumptions that were later elucidated in conversation. The main assumption was that the capital cities were stagnant and dragging behind socio-cultural and financial development because of their heavy bureaucratic functions as seats of national government. What was often articulated to me was that, in addition to its lack of sophistication due to government hegemony, Hanoi was especially dry because it was closer to China than its southern counterpart Saigon, and that it has been long shaped by communist ideals that drained the vitality of the city’s cultural heritage.

    These types of comparisons do not truly capture the life in any of the aforementioned cities. First, Washington and Hanoi are not cities where culture goes to die. As historian William S. Logan notes:

    One of the key additional roles a capital city plays is as the symbolic head (though perhaps not always sentimental heart) of the political territory and nation. The government and the people expect the capital to represent them—that is, to reflect their achievements, not just for themselves but, on the international stage, to the governments and peoples of other countries.1

    It is true that the projection of a united front, in the form of national culture, often overshadows the idiosyncrasies of local traditions. It is equally true that local traditions exist in spite of this. Many of the cities I have visited throughout my journey were capital cities. Some of them had only a short history in the modern era, such as Addis Ababa. Others, their status as the primary city of a particular region, city-state, and later nation had roots back to antiquity, such as Mexico City. All were laboratories where culture was produced, contested, recycled, and reinterpreted to the whims of various political administrations. This is the reality of a city like Hanoi, which was the capital of North Vietnam during the most tumultuous period of the country’s history, and which became the capital of a united Vietnam after the war.

    Cultural Practice and the Challenge of Heritage Planning

    The Old Quarter of Hanoi is touted as one of the city's top tourist and heritage attractions. Cultural heritage specialist Alexandra Sauvegrain proclaims the government is promoting the city’s Old Quarter, as “an untainted representation of true Vietnamese identity.”2 I stayed in the Hoan Kiem Lake area, on the western edge of the Old Quarter proper. I was initially disappointed while walking through the heart of the Old Quarter. I had hoped to explore remnants of the historic fabric of Hanoi. Instead I experienced a twentieth-century agglomeration of modern facades and tight thoroughfares riddled with traffic. I imagined something more quaint, perhaps along the lines of historic Hoi An. The reality is that what is old about the Old Quarter is less the buildings themselves, and more the place names, street patterns, and cultural practices. This makes for a very complicated heritage preservation issue in the heart of Hanoi. Several scholars have researched the built environment of the Old Quarter in efforts to document the structures and, perhaps sometime in the next decade, inform the development of a cohesive heritage preservation program for the neighborhood.3


    Figure 1. Map of Hanoi, 1873, Pham Dinh Bach. This section of the map shows the Thang Long, the imperial citadel to the left, and the Old Quarter to the right. Source: Flickr.

    The Old Quarter formed as a commercial and market counterpart to Thang Long, the imperial citadel. Thang Long was constructed in 1010, and the city served as an important political center for most of its thousand-year history.4

    Craftsmen from various villages migrated to the capital, and settled near the citadel. Members of the villages were skilled in numerous trades. Those of the same village and trade settled in close proximity to each other and soon developed craft guilds. The Old Quarter comprised of 36 streets, each of which was named after a particular trade guild—Hang Bac (silver), Hang Gai (silk), Hang Bo (baskets), and so on. The built environment of the Old Quarter morphed over time, changing most drastically in the twentieth century. What is particularly meaningful in the space is not necessarily the construction—it would be difficult to craft a statement of authenticity (along Western standards, that is) for these properties. Instead, it is the fact that commercial and craft trades are still practiced in the quarter today, though not to the same magnitude as in the past. Scholars Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura note in their 1991 study of housing in central Hanoi “handicrafts still survive, but are in decline.” They continue by observing, “services, including restaurants, cafes and hairdressers are on the rise.5 The service industry now includes a proliferation of hotels, hostels, and tour agencies, which cater to the increasing tourist population in Vietnam.


    Figure 2. Tan My Design, a designer store that sells high-end artwork, clothes, and furnishings. This business is located on Hang Gai, the silk guild street, and grew from crafting silk works to its current expanded offerings.

    As preservationists take on the task of planning and creating policy for the Old Quarter, several issues weigh heavily in the planning process. The first challenge for preservation planning is that individual property ownership is low. The state owns most of the residences in the Old Quarter, and in the country for that matter. Property ownership was brought to the fore of urban planning concerns as Vietnam pushed forward economic reform in the Doi Moi policies. Moving individual properties from state to privately owned status is, and will continue to be, exceedingly difficult given the current economy of Vietnam.6 The second challenge is the fact that the history in the Old Quarter lies primarily in the cultural practices and the street pattern. Sauvegrain notes, “although its shop houses mostly date to the late nineteenth century the quarter is the only area of Hanoi that resembles in plan the older, precolonial city.”7 International development and design specialist Danielle Labbé recently studied the changes in preservation policy in the Old Quarter, observing how preservation projects have widened from a focusing on architecture to broader topics of tradition, including “the preservation of immaterial heritages such as traditional economic activities and lifestyles.8

    Art, Culture, Everywhere!

    The state has repurposed many of Hanoi’s French colonial public buildings for its own needs. Logan has observed these buildings “were given new capital-city but socialist and/ or nationalist functions, such as the old customs house, which became the Revolutionary Museum, the colonial army barracks, now the Army Museum, or the Lycee Albert Sarraut, now the Communist Party of Vietnam's Central Committee headquarters.9” Numerous grand French colonial villas, smaller in scale (though still quite large) were adapted for use as international cultural institutions. Casa Italia, for instance, an “Italian Country Promotion Center,” is situated on Le Phung Hieu Street, around the corner from the Hotel Metropole, the Hanoi Opera House, and the museums of Vietnamese History and Revolution. Several embassies occupy French colonial villas on the same street as Casa Italia. L’Espace, a French cultural center in Hanoi, offers a range of programming—exhibits, performance, education. This institution is housed in a former printing house that was constructed in 1907.

    Figure-3Figure 3. Casa Italia, housed in a French colonial villa.

    Figure 4. L’Espace is located in a former printing house.

    Hanoi is connecting to other countries and growing its international prominence through cultural exchange. It has teamed up with Cambodia and Laos in a “Common Heritage” initiative promoted through UNESCO. The city has formed numerous educational, cultural, and architectural partnerships with French cities and organizations. By expanding its sociopolitical dealings in Southeast Asia and in Europe, the city hopes to benefit from mutual support and promotion leading to increased tourism, research, and status.

    Additionally, Hanoi has a vibrant art scene, one that captures the imagination, all the while reflecting on the past. I discovered this after a long day full of cultural and historical exploration. I wound my way west through the French Quarter, heading north to the Old Quarter on Nha Chung Street. I stopped to do photo documentation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, then continued toward my hotel. A few blocks up, on my left, I saw a sign that read “Ly Quoc Su Art Cafe Area.” I was exhausted from my wanderings, however my curiosity got the best of me. I walked into an alley where I came across another sign for the Art Vietnam Gallery.

    I walked up the stairs and went into the gallery. It was one of many magical moments of serendipity during my fellowship travels. The gallery was hosting a photography exhibit entitled “Vietnam – 25 Years Documenting a Changing Country.” Catherine Karnow was the featured artist—I had only discovered her work a month before, when my mom’s college friend Rosetta sent me a link to the Brown Alumni Monthly magazine cover story, “Vietnam Through a Lens.”

    Figure 5. Screen capture from Hanoi Grapevine for Nguyen The Son exhibition “Hanoi - A Living Museum.”

    While at the Art Vietnam Gallery I met Suzanne Lecht, art director for the space. Lecht has lived in Hanoi for more than two decades, and has tirelessly promoted the contemporary art scene with purpose and pizazz. It was Lecht who introduced me to the work of Nguyen The Son, a resident artist of Art Vietnam Gallery. Son’s most recent work, displayed at the gallery as well as the recently opened Hanoi Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center investigates Hanoi as a “living museum.” As Son explains:

    As if a debtor to the city, I tirelessly seek out and decipher the tenuous linkages between the remaining visual signs of the past etched upon the facades of the structures and thing that arrive all at once, then all of disappear in the relentless spiraling circle of today’s consumption society.”10

    Son’s work is important in that it critically investigates changes over time in this capital city. It is honest, dynamic, and necessary. Son’s work completely destroys the false assumptions of the “stagnant culture” I was warned about when I planned my visit to Hanoi. Viewing the work I was introduced to the complexities that face the city in the twenty-first century—those of crumbling architectural stock, heavy motor traffic, and a vitality of fast-paces everyday life that shapes the spaces of the city.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended Readings

    Mike Ives, “Folk History of Vietnam in Buildings; A Local Artist Assembles a Tourist Attraction to Protect Country's Heritage,” International Herald Tribune

    June 20, 2012: 202

    William S. Logan, “Russians on the Red River: The Soviet Impact on Hanoi's Townscape, 1955-90,” Europe-Asia Studies 47 no. 3 (May 1995): 443-468

    Le To Luong and Wilhelm Steingrube, “Hanoi’s Population Claims for More Public Parks!” Journal of Settlements and Spatial Planning 2 no. 2 (2011): 95-99

    René Parenteau, François Charbonneau, Pham Khanh Toan,

    Nguyen Ba Dang, Tran Hung, Hoang Manh Nguyen and Vu Thuy

    Hang with the assistance of Hoang Ngoc Hung, Qui An Thanh Binh and Nghiem Hong Hanh, “Impact of Restoration in Hanoi's French Colonial Quarter,” Cities 12 no. 3 (1995): 163-173

    Dinh Quoc Phuong and Derham Groves, “Sense of Place in Hanoi’s Shop-House: The Influences of Local Belief on Interior Architecture,” Journal of Interior Design 36 no. 1 (2010): 1-20

    Nguyen Quang and Hans Detlef Kammeier, “Changes in the Political Economy of Vietnam and Their Impacts on the Built Environment of Hanoi,” Cities19 no. 6 (2002): 373-388

    Sarah Turner and Laura Schoenberger, “Street Vendor Livelihoods and Everyday Politics in Hanoi, Vietnam: The Seeds of a Diverse Economy?” Urban Studies 49 no. 5 (April 2012): 1027–1044

    1. William S. Logan, “The Cultural Role of Capital Cities: Hanoi and Hue, Vietnam,” Pacific Affairs 78 no. 4 (Winter 2005/2006), 560.
    2. Alexandra Sauvegrain, “Dialogues of Architectural Preservation in Modern Vietnam: The 36 Streets Commercial Quarter of Hanoi,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 13 no. 1 (FALL 2001): 23.
    3. See Danielle Labbé, “Facing the Urban Transition in Hanoi: Recent Urban Planning Issues and Initiatives,” Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique Centre – Urbanisation Culture Société (January 2010), Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura, “Housing in Central Hanoi,” Habitat International 15 no. 1/2 (1991): 101-126, and Sauvegrain.
    4. See Ho Dinh Duan and Shibayama Mamoru, “Studies on Hanoi Urban Transition in the Late 20th Century Based on GIS/RS,” Southeast Asian Studies 46 no. 4 (March 2009): 532.
    5. Hoang Huu Phe and Yukio Nishimura, “Housing in Central Hanoi,” Habitat International 15 no. 1/2 (1991): 103.
    6. Basil Van Horen, “Hanoi,” Cities 22 no. 2 (2005): 165
    7. Sauvegrain, 26.
    8. Danielle Labbé, “Facing the Urban Transition in Hanoi: Recent Urban Planning Issues and Initiatives,” Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique Centre – Urbanisation Culture Société (January 2010), 15.
    9. Logan, 563.
    10. Exhibition “Hanoi – a Living Museum” of Nguyen The Son,” Hanoi Grapevine. April 24, 2015. 


  • An American in Saigon

    Amber N. Wiley, 2013 Brooks Travelling Fellow
    May 6, 2015

    April 30, 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. This event was highlighted in posters all throughout Vietnam, from Ho Chi Minh City in the south, to Hue in central Vietnam, and Hanoi in the north. The posters displayed images of proud men, women, and children—farmers, graduates, businessmen, and servicemen.1 I was in the capital city of Hanoi on April 30, and expected to witness festivities that celebrated Reunification Day, as the event is officially known in Vietnam.2 This would not be the case, since the activities were directed south toward Ho Chi Minh City—Saigon, the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam. In fact, halfway through the day I forgot it was a holiday at all. I was reminded when the fireworks display above Hoan Kiem Lake commenced promptly at 9:00 pm.

    When I got up that morning I switched back and forth between channels showing the parade in Ho Chi Minh City celebrating reunification and CNN’s coverage of the unrest in Baltimore. As an American who has loved the time I have spent in Vietnam and also my visits to Baltimore, the irony cut like a knife. Physical and emotional scars from the Fall of Saigon still exist in Vietnam and its diaspora. They were hidden under the veil of unity, while the freshly reopened wounds of disunity in Baltimore were being laid bare for the world to see.

    On April 30, 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front captured Saigon as the remaining U.S. Marines evacuated, along with thousands of South Vietnamese in Operation Frequent Wind. There are many lasting images of the final days of the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is called in Vietnam). Hopeful evacuees rushing the U.S. Embassy grounds, overloaded helicopters lifting up precariously from rooftops. The image of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through the front gates of the Independence Palace is iconic for the Reunification holiday. 

    Figure 1. Reunification Day poster in Hue, Vietnam. Image of tank at the Independence Palace is superimposed on the number 40.


    Modern Ho Chi Minh City is fast-paced, bustling, and cosmopolitan. It is similar to Addis Ababa in that none of the places I visited in the city were listed as World Heritage sites. This does not mean that the city’s heritage is based solely on the image of a modern metropolis, as it is in Addis Ababa. In fact, the two major centers I visited in Ho Chi Minh City are referred to as historic Cholon (Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown) and Saigon. Both of these neighborhoods were previously independent cities that date back to the late 17th and 18th centuries, respectively.3 Chinese merchants settled Cholon, while Saigon was the Viet area. A Khmer minority was also present in the region.

    Figure 2. Cholon and its waterways. Source: Elisee Reclus, Nouvelle Geographie Universelle. La terre et les hommes (Paris, 1876): 923. The British Library, The Flickr Commons.

    Cholon and Saigon were industrious ports located along the canals of the Saigon River. “HCMC is among SE Asian cities whose first civilizations were founded at water intersection areas,” notes geographer Vu Thi Hong Hanh. Hanh continues “The navigable rivers and canals have served in the past as an important route into the city, often being the main approach to city.”4 The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Gia Long Palace) covers this early history and geography, emphasizing the various commercial trades of neighborhoods within Cholon and Saigon.5

    Figure 3. Binh Tay Market in Cholon. “Cho Lon” literally means “big market” in Vietnamese. The original Chinese (in both Mandarin and Cantonese) name for the area meant “embankment.”

    Figure 4. Exhibit on commercial and artistic trades. Museum of Ho Chi Minh City.

    The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City is one of the lesser-visited sites in the city, but I would argue it is imperative to understanding the complex history of the former capital of South Vietnam. The official mission of the museum has evolved over the years from focusing on the revolutionary past to the city’s past. The revolutionary past still takes a prominent position in the exhibition space; however, efforts have been made to focus on other cultural aspects such as arts, family life, and technology.

    Another important aspect of the museum is the history of the building itself. This is not covered in a thorough manner in the museum, but it certainly should be. The building is an artifact that could aid in one’s understanding of the various political forces that shaped the history of the city. Built by French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux during the time of French colonization, the building passed hands from the French to Japanese imperialists back to the French, to the State of Vietnam to the Republic of Vietnam to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It was a residence, administrative office, courthouse, and museum. Today it also serves as occasional backdrop for wedding photographs. All of this in less than 100 years.

    Figure 5. Passageway to bunker that was constructed in 1962 during Diem presidency.

    This schizophrenic past is only lightly interpreted in the building, and focuses on the additions completed during the time of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam. Diem had a bunker and underground tunnel system constructed under the building when he used it as a residence in 1962. His previous residence, the Norodom Palace, had been bombed and partially destroyed.

    On Reunification

    My favorite singular building in Ho Chi Minh City was the Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace. Similar to the site of the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, this building, its garden complex, and its geographical setting within the larger area of historic Saigon are all imbued with the complicated narrative of the history of the city. This 1966 building was constructed on the site of the Norodom Palace, an extravagant building completed in 1875 meant to serve as the residence of the Admiral-Governor of Cochinchina. With the reconfiguration of the French colonies in Southeast Asia the Norodom Palace played a lesser role than originally intended, and sat vacant for several decades, used only occasionally for ceremonial events. It wasn’t until 1955 that the building was renamed Independence Palace, and was later used by Diem as his presidential palace.

    Figure 6. Palais du Gouverneur General a Saigon (Norodom Palace, later Independence Palace) 1875. Photograph by Emile Gsell. Architect: Georges L'Hermitte. Constructed between 1868-1875. Source: Flickr.

    Members of the Vietnam Air Force bombed Norodom Palace in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Diem in 1962. Diem survived and moved his residence to the Gia Long Palace, where he constructed the shelter and underground tunnels. The damage to Norodom Palace was significant, and Diem ordered demolition of the building and replacement with a modern palatial structure. Diem was eventually assassinated before the new building was completed.

    Figure 7. Reunification palace today. Architect: Ngo Viet Thu, 1966.

    French-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu designed the new Independence Palace, which still stands today. Thu studied architecture at École Supérieure d'architecture in Đà Lạt, and later the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1955. There is a dearth of literature on Thu and his work, although it appears he had a successful career and international recognition—he was the first Asian architect designated an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

    Figure 8. Game room in Reunification Palace.

    Architectural critic Mitchell Owens describes the interior design of the building and its symbolic layout in flowery prose befitting of the amount of opulence and careful contemplation put into the edifice:

    The palace that Thu built is deliriously glamorous, a lip-smacking mix of Turandot melodrama and James Bond cool. Walls sprout gilded sconces the size of industrial-strength woks. Ceilings drip with blocky chandeliers. A reception room is sheathed in gold lacquer and scattered with Parsons tables, while the den is a 1960's rec room writ large, right down to the barrel-shaped wet bar and king-size sectional sofa.6

    Photographer Richard Ross chooses to highlight the other, more sinister side of the building’s design in his visually stunning book Architecture of Authority. He includes bleak images of a communications bunker and underground passageway, necessary components of the design in the fragile status of the Republic of Vietnam.

    Thu’s design for the structure is explained in the display boards throughout the structure. This building is exceptionally well maintained (Owens describes it as preserved in “curatorial amber”—obviously this made me chuckle) and interpreted in a straightforward and explanatory manner, in contrast to its close neighbors the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City and the War Remnants Museum. Most of the interpretation is given over to the history of the building itself, the use of its various rooms, and its design. Explanatory boards offer interpretations in Vietnamese, English, and French.

    Figure 9. Display board in Reunification Palace.

    The Reunification Palace is a central landmark to the festivities on Reunification Day. The giant government-organized parade that happens in Ho Chi Minh City starts at the Saigon Zoo, runs down Le Duan Street, and symbolically passes through Reunification Palace. Legions of military men march through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, followed by civilians in colorful outfits celebrating Vietnam’s heritage. The heavy military representation, however, along with the symbolic encounter with Reunification Palace is an annual re-enactment of conquest, a reminder that old Saigon is no more.

    On Remnants

    It was on my visit to the Taj Mahal that I had one of many deep conversations with my friend Roshida about cultural heritage and destruction. Roshida also studied at the University of Virginia, although she was pursuing a law degree while I was pursuing my master’s in architectural history. Our tour guide had just explained that the Taj Mahal was covered with bamboo scaffolding during World War II as a means to divert potential bombing by the Axis Powers.7

    “But it’s the TAJ!” I exclaimed. “Who would bomb the TAJ??!! Someone would actually bomb the Taj??”
    Roshida, slowly and patiently, as if explaining to a five-year-old, “Yes, Amber, someone would bomb the Taj.”
    “I just can’t believe it, I mean, it’s the symbol of India!”
    “Amber, we would bomb the Taj.”

    This was a hypothetical, of course, and I understood the point she was making. U.S.-India relationships have warmed since the Cold War, and President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have committed to supporting each other on several key foreign policy issues. It is highly unlikely that United States would have to take an aggressive military stance towards India, but the comment made me reflect on what I hold as infallible truths. I do not think I operate under a cloak of naiveté when it comes to pondering the extent of man’s capacity to destroy objects of intrinsic, universal value. While I was in India, for instance, news of Islamic State militants destroying historic sites and artifacts in Iraq went viral. Cultural preservationists and lay people alike know of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan in 2001. I am well aware of the U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and also the looting of the National Museum of Iraq after the U.S. invasion of the country. The U.S. military presence added a degree of destabilization that left cultural artifacts vulnerable. The list of World Heritage sites destroyed in the Syrian civil war continues to grow. We have ancient examples, millennia worth, of structures destroyed in the name of war and conquest. It still is unfathomable for me to believe that in this day and age, destruction of irreplaceable heritage is considered a viable strategy for various parties in conflict. My time in Vietnam, however, has been eye opening, pushing me to confront the realities of war.

    Ho Chi Minh City, while retaining the historic infrastructure of canals and prominent streets, does not retain much of its historic urban fabric. This was annihilated during the Tet Offensive of 1968—Cholon suffered heavy damage, the whole neighborhood was practically razed. The Vietnam War was not fought on traditional rules of “warfare” (I have a very hard time understanding how war even has rules, it is all destruction to me, but that is a different blog post for a different day), and forces on both sides of the conflict wreaked extreme havoc on cities and civilians. It took a lot of effort on my part to reimagine historic Cholon while I was visiting. There is very little in the way of interpretation in the neighborhood itself.

    Figure 10. Cholon after Tet Offensive. Source:

    Two World Heritage sites that were particularly poignant in juxtaposing the remnants of war with the present were the My Son Sanctuary outside Hoi An, and the Citadel in Hue, another site of a major battle during the Tet Offensive. At My Son there are signs marking craters that were telltale emblems of the carpet-bombing by American forces in 1969. In Hue there was a concerted effort to present to the public the vast amount of damage that the Citadel complex suffered during the Tet Offensive, and the tremendous amount of work done to reconstruct the buildings in the complex. A number of natural World Heritage sites in Vietnam were also physically altered by the war, these include Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Ha Long Bay. From the obliteration of cultural sites, to neighborhoods, to whole towns, to forests and farms, to the lasting environmental and human effects of Agent Orange, the amount of destruction in the country by both North and South Vietnamese forces and their allies is almost immeasurable.

    Figure 11. Ruins of My Son Sanctuary. The green space in the foreground is one-fourth of a bomb crater from a U.S. carpet-bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.

    Figure 12. Exhibit in Citadel at Hue that documents the post-war restoration process throughout the city.

    I felt a manner and degree of shame I was not accustomed to when visiting these complexes. This is where the “we” that my friend Roshida referred to in India comes in. As an American I am a part of that “we.” That “we,” of course, did not refer to Roshida or myself, per se. We, as Roshida implied, was the United States government and military, and as such, we, the civilians, are implicated in the destruction. Or are we? I have spent much time in Vietnam thinking about this question. Wondering if my shame was warranted—I wasn’t even alive during the war. Wondering if my shame was instructive—could these remnants of war be lessons I could teach my students, could they be things I take with me on my day-to-day activities as both scholar and preservationist?

    There is much work to be done in Vietnam around issues of cultural preservation and heritage, particularly as it relates to the “American War.” One could write a book, or several books, on interpretation of historic sites related to the drastic socio-political changes that swept the country, sites like the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (Gia Long Palace) and the Reunification Palace, about purpose-built sites such as the War Remnants Museum (which will be discussed shortly) and about the UNESCO World Heritage sites that are currently being reconstructed as a response to the growing tourism in Vietnam, such as the My Son Sanctuary and the Citadel of Hue.

    The War Remnants Museum was formerly called “Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes” as well as the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression,” and “Museum of American Atrocities.” It is important to go into the museum with an understanding of that information, since the narrative of the museum still follows those lines. Cultural geographer Jamie Gillen, who is my contemporary in age, notes:

    I was born after the war ended and in the eyes of the Party I have only a patchwork and biased understanding of the Vietnam War and no understanding of the American War. The narrative driving the museum is of such targeted force and with such contemporary relevance that it is arguably one of the goals of the museum to create a sense of personal responsibility about the American War among tourists like myself who would not ordinarily give it much sustained thought.8

    This is one of the many goals of the museum. It is successful in that endeavor. As cultural critic Mark Edmunson notes, “The museum has an effect on people. American students break down in tears; they talk about being ashamed to be Americans."9 I went as an observer, as a public historian, as a professor of American studies. Certainly I went as an American too, but one with a personally informed view of the events as a black American, and as someone who is close to an uncle who served with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam.

    Figure 13. War Remnants Museum.

    There were a few actual war remnants in the front lawn of the museum complex, mainly airplanes, helicopters, and tanks. There was a replica prison and torture cell off to the left. Upon entering one goes to the top floor to follow the exhibit sequence down to the ground floor. The first exhibit room is entitled “Historical Truths” as a means to either: set the record straight, or push forward propaganda, depending on your own interpretation of the events that led to the American War.

    The photography exhibit entitled “Requiem” is striking—it is aesthetically poignant, moving and compelling, at the same time that it leaves one stunned. Stunned from the horror of it all. The museum is light in the way of artifacts, and perhaps this is because the pictures speak for themselves. They are absolutely shocking. There is little contextual interpretation though there are lots of captions. Some are speculative. I found the photography exhibit interesting as a photographer myself. It was captivating to see which countries the photojournalists came from—Vietnam, the U.S., France, Japan, Australia, Austria, England, Germany, Switzerland, Cambodia, and Singapore. These are men who put their lives on the line to document one of the most gruesome chapters in world history.

    Figure 14. Cover of Bunyo Ishikawa's book Vietnam War Through a Photographer's Eyes. Source:

    The number of black faces I saw in the museum struck me. And I don’t mean other visitors; I mean black faces on the walls, in the pictures, on the American side. One doesn’t often see black faces in museums unless they are African or African-American themed museums. Here it was clear there was an overrepresentation of black faces. One of the photographers, Bunyo Ishikawa from Japan, even had a black soldier as the cover image of his book, Vietnam War Through a Photographer’s Eyes. I saw my 82nd Airborne veteran uncle’s face on every black soldier in the exhibit. It hurt me to the core to think that these were some of the memories he had hidden deep within his psyche. Things he still won’t talk about to this day.

    When I got back to my hostel that evening, I did a bit of research on the percentage of black soldiers serving in Vietnam. Blacks were overrepresented on the front lines, and a higher percentage of blacks were serving in the war than the percentage of blacks in the States at that time. Part of this is due to the draft, and part of this is due to the dire situation in inner-city communities in the United States—men enlisting to complete a tour of duty and hopefully come home with military benefits granted to veterans. I came across a book while in the museum entitled Memphis Nam Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter. It made me think of the perilous situation that black active military and veterans faced in the twentieth century, putting their lives on the line in war and facing discrimination at home.

    These observations relate back to the current situation of urban unrest in Baltimore in very real ways. While doing research on architecture in Vietnam I came across an article in the Journal of Architectural Education by urban planner and peace activist Robert J. Heifetz. It was eerily relevant to me as an American visiting Vietnam during the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, and as a black American watching Baltimore burn while I am abroad. The article, entitled “The Urban Crisis,” was published in October 1969. It was adapted from an address Heifetz gave at the ACSA conference earlier that year. In it, Heifetz calls for a radical new approach to architectural education that is critical of Band-Aid fixes to urban issues and that continually reinforces the architecture profession’s social responsibilities. Additionally, he argues that the organizational structures that govern the profession should be committed to supporting activities meant to “end poverty and discrimination and to improve the quality of the physical, social and economic environment.”10 Heifetz argues that organizations such as the ACSA should protest “the misallocation of over 80 billion dollars to support an enormously inflated military machine … thereby draining the energies and resources away from the essential social, economic and physical reconstruction so essential both at home and abroad.”11 Here, of course, he is talking about American military investment in the Vietnam War. Heifetz quotes Lewis Mumford, who gave an address entitled “Vietnam Before and After” to the Ethical Culture Society in New York City on May 3, 1968, for the Committee of the Planning Professions to End the War in Vietnam:

    What right has the American government to preach law and order, respect for life and property, in American cities, when it has carried lawlessness and disorder, dehumanization and moral degradation to their ultimate limits in Vietnam? The group of architects, planners, engineers and technicians that have come here tonight are right in believing that the state of our cities today is directly connected with the shame of our presence and our actions in Vietnam. They are right, likewise, in believing that the tens of billions of dollars that have been squandered on putting a huge military establishment into Vietnam, and on poisoning crops, burning villages, defoliating vegetation, spraying napalm on innocent civilians, or saturating North Vietnam with TNT bombs by the multimegaton, should have been invested in permanent works of construction and education in the United States. Our moral bankruptcy, our political bankruptcy and our economic bankruptcy have gone hand in hand, one re-enforcing the other.12

    The historical context of Mumford’s statement is crucial. His address was given almost a month to the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The anguish of that event was felt around the world, and particularly in the United States as predominately African-American communities in Washington, D.C., Wilmington, Delaware, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Louisville, and yes, Baltimore, were scenes of civil unrest and riots. It does not take a major leap to see how these issues are connected and still relevant in April 2015—in Baltimore and Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon.

    I have a few more weeks here in Vietnam, and my time will certainly not always be spent looking into the horrific legacy of the war. For a part of me, thinking about these things is natural—I am a historian, I focus on public interpretations of the past, and quite frankly I’m traveling to do just that—to undertake a study of various preservation practices on the international level. The sites I have examined throughout this trip have complicated histories, and are located in countries that face a variety of challenges including reconciling a colonial past with a post-colonial present, struggles with political corruption and/or instability, and, in some cases, burgeoning populations and a high premium for real estate in historically significant areas. 

    In a sense, it is my job to think through the ugly, mangled portions of our collective past, but I like Vietnam too much to continuously go back to the war. Plus, this country has millennia worth of history to examine, and I intend to check out ancient architectural sites that had nothing to do with the ugliness of the Vietnam War. It does not mean I will avoid the topic—it would be intellectually lazy and dishonest of me to do so. I will maintain reverence for the fallen at the sites I visit. I will also enjoy what Vietnam is today—a beautiful, tropical, and lively destination with a friendly, welcoming population and a lot of gorgeous things to offer in the way of culture and history.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended Readings

    Jonathan Burton, “Mobile Guide: Saigon, Then and Now,” Wall Street Journal September 3, 1991: A16

    Jeanne Conte, “Southern Vietnam Today: Where Healing Goes On — Slowly,” World & I 20 no. 11 (November 2005): 5

    Jennifer W. Dickey, “Review: Reunification Palace,” The Public Historian 33 no. 2 (Spring 2011): 152-162

    Elena Givental, “Ho Chi Minh City: Contested Public and Private Space in the Vietnamese Metropolis,” Focus on Geography 56 no. 1 (2013): 32-44

    Erik Harms, “Eviction Time in the New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development,” Cultural Anthropology 28 no. 2 (2013): 344-368

    Gregg Huff and Luis Angeles, “Globalization, Industrialization and Urbanization in Pre-World War II Southeast Asia,” Explorations in Economic History 48 (2011): 20–36

    Du Huynh, “The Misuse of Urban Planning in Ho Chi Minh City,” Habitat International 48 (2015): 11-19

    Annette M. Kim, “The Mixed-Use Sidewalk,” Journal of the American Planning Association 78 no. 3 (2012): 225-238

    Priscilla Koh, “You Can Come Home Again: Narratives of Home and Belonging among Second-Generation Viet Kieu in Vietnam,” Sojourn: Journal o f Social Issues in Southeast Asia 30 no. 1 (2015): 173-214

    Chee-Kien Lai, “Beyond Colonial and National Frameworks Some Thoughts on the Writing of Southeast Asian Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education 63 n. 2 (2010): 74-75

    Ann Marie Leshkowich, “Wandering Ghosts of Late Socialism: Conflict, Metaphor, and Memory in a Southern Vietnamese Marketplace,” The Journal of Asian Studies 67 no. 1 (February 2008): 5-41

    John Martone, “Historic Truths / Looking at Earth,” Public Culture 14 no. 3 (Fall 2002): 477-492

    Simon Montlake, “Will Urban Growth Trample Vietnam's Charm?” Christian Science Monitor 99 no. 75 March 15, 2007: 7

    Srilata Ravi, “Modernity, Imperialism and the Pleasures of Travel: The Continental Hotel in Saigon,” Asian Studies Review 32 no. 4 (2008): 475-490

    Carl Robinson, “A Time-Out,” Metropolis Magazine (September 2013)

    Hue-Tam Ho Tai, “Representing the Past in Vietnamese Museums,” Curator 41 no. 3 (September 1998): 187-199

    Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)

    1. I will refer to the city as “Ho Chi Minh City” when discussing present context and “Saigon” in the historical context.
    2. Due to the very complex nature of the war, the day is also known in various Vietnamese communities as Black April, Day We Lost the Country, Liberation Day, National Day of Shame, National Day of Resentment, and Victory Day.
    3. Before the city was known as Saigon, it was Prey Nokor, part of the ancient Khmer Empire.
    4. Vu Thi Hong Hanh, “Canal-side Highway in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam – Issues of Urban Cultural Conservation and Tourism Development,” GeoJournal Special Issue: Heritage, Politics and Identity in Southeast Asia 66 no. 3 (2006): 172.
    5. The structure was originally meant to serve as a commercial trade exhibition space, but never fulfilled that purpose. Instead it was retrofitted for the residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of Cochinchina.
    6. Mitchell Owens, “Madame Nhu Almost Slept Here,” New York Times January 12, 2003
    7. The Taj Mahal was covered several other times, during the Indian-Pakistani Wars of 1965 and 1971, and shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
    8. Jamie Gillen, “Tourism and Nation Building at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 no. 6 (2014): 1313.
    9. Mark Edmundson, “In the New Vietnam,” Raritan: A Quarterly Review 28 no. 2 (2008): 160.
    10. Robert J. Heifetz, “The Urban Crisis,” Journal of Architectural Education 23 no. 4 (October 1969): 33.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibid., 33-34.
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