Thursday, September 28, 2017

Making a New Hanoi—French-style

                                                              by Jim Goodman

Palais du Résidence-Superieur, the first French administrative building
In 1884 French military forces seized Hanoi.   Two years later, while the French army was still battling resistance beyond Hanoi, Paul Bert arrived as the first civilian administrator.  He and his staff set out to immediately impress upon the Vietnamese that they were a conquered people and that their new overlords were here to stay.  They launched an assault on places most associated symbolically with the imperial regime they had just displaced, starting with the Citadel.  To open a new residential area for the anticipated influx of colonists and administrators, the French demolished the walls and filled in the moats around them to make new streets.
St. Joseph's Cathedral
Hòa Phong Tower
       The next target was the examination ground on today’s Tràng Thi Street.  They built a military post in its place and widened the road on the south side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, demolishing the lakeside houses, and, since they intended to introduce French currency, tore down the mint on Tràng Thi and turned the area over to French merchants for shops.  They renamed the street Rue Paul Bert, starting a trend they would continue as they built more new roads, naming them after colonial administrators or soldiers.
the former Báo Ân Pagoda
       The colonial adventure included mission civilatrice as part of its policy, with the spread of Catholicism a main factor.  So the French decided they needed a cathedral right away, too, both for themselves and for Vietnamese converts.  But instead of finding an appropriate empty lot, of which there were many, they chose to erect it on the site of Chùa Báo Thiên, one of the city’s most venerable pagodas, dating from the reign of Lý Thánh Tông, that had been standing there for over eight centuries.  The French leveled the pagoda, expropriated much of the compound of the Lý Quc Sư Temple next to it and constructed the Gothic style, twin-spire St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  It held its first services Christmas Eve, 1886, though it took several more years to finally complete. 
Chwvassiwux Fountain
      Across the lake the relatively new Báo Ân Pagoda was the next target.  In 1892 the French destroyed the entire compound to build a post office on the land facing the lake.  Only the Ha Phong Tower, which was outside the proposed new road, was left standing.  Beside the post office they erected a standing statue of Paul Bert, with a cringing Vietnamese mandarin below his right side.  Further up, they demolished the Temple of Reason, built to commemorate Vietnamese victories over the Chăm, to erect a new Town Hall.
       The new French buildings were in the European, neo-classical design, massive, ornate, and, in the mind of the government’s chief architect, Henri-Auguste Valdieu, were expected to overawe the local population and remind them of France’s might and majesty. This attitude partly stemmed from their perceived need, in the face of ongoing resistance to their rule, to overwhelm the conquered population with highly visible symbols of their own power. 
the French bandstand, used for Sunday concerts
       But the early French administrators also held a low opinion of Vietnamese culture and arts and expected the Vietnamese to recognize the superiority of French civilization.  They would build their own version of Paris by developing little-used portions of the existing city, but they would also introduce modern improvements into the old city, expecting the grateful residents to then realize the value of their “civilizing mission.” 
      The largely vacant area south of Hoàn Kiếm Lake was to be the main colonial residential neighborhood.  The French constructed wide parallel streets intersecting at right angles and houses in the French style.  Unlike homes in the old quarter, jammed together with shared walls, those constructed in the new French Quarter were two- and three-story mansions surrounded by a wall enclosing gardens and trees.
ex-Governor-General's Palace, now Presidential Palace
       As the government began constructing ministries and palaces further away from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, new neighborhoods began springing up, especially around the old Citadel in Ba Đình and on today’s Quán Thánh Street, leading to West Lake.  Still the French Quarter remained the social center.  It was close to the lake with its big, shady trees and mixture of old and new buildings, a favorite place to stroll.  The main business outlets serving the foreign community were there, as well as the Hotel Métropole, which would long be rated among the finest in Asia, and the Resident’s Palace just opposite.  In a small triangular park just up from the Métropole was the Chevassieux Fountain, built in 1901 in a blend of styles, with spouting dragons around the edge of the pool of a basically French-style fountain.  The bandstand, with its free Sunday concerts, was in the vicinity, too, so a colon in the French Quarter could wander around in neighborhoods near his home that resembled, and suggested, life in the mother country.
Long Biên Bridge
       Bert’s successor, Paul Doumer, sponsored the construction of yet more gigantic buildings intended to overawe the Vietnamese.  In 1901 he ordered a new Governor-General’s palace built on 20 hectares of land in Ba Đình, past the Citadel.  This involved demolishing a Lý Dynasty temple and expropriating private land without compensation.  Completed in 1906, in classical northern French style, four stories high, with rectangular windows on the upper floors and arched windows on the lower floors, all spaced evenly apart, low-angled tiled roofs, lavish ornamentation on the façade and the building painted a mustard yellow, it was the most impressive French building in the city yet.
Municipal Theater
       With the Red River Delta pacified by this time, he ordered the construction in 1903 of an iron bridge, 1.7 km long, across the river, for trains to reach the countryside.  Originally named after himself, it is now called the Long Biën Bridge, bombed during the American War, but restored to its original condition afterwards.
       At the same time, back in the French Quarter, at the east end of Rue Paul Bert, work began on the Municipal Theater, completed in 1911.  Budget constraints kept it from having annexes and more decorative stonework.  Nevertheless, it is still quite a large structure, with pillars on the front façade, a pair of domed, slate roofs, decorative balustrades, the walls a light yellow.  The interior was in the ultra-baroque style, opulent furnishings everywhere, marble floors, high ceilings and a grand staircase.  Commonly known as the Opéra, it could seat 870 patrons, at a time when the French population of the city was around 2500.
Ô Quan Chưởng--the last of the old city gates
       Besides creating neighborhoods for themselves, the French also imposed changes on Old Hanoi.  Admittedly, the city had suffered infrastructural neglect since the beginning of the Nguyn Dynasty.  The dikes were in sad shape and one of the first French actions was to commission their renovation.  They would later fill in parts of the Tô Lch River and the small ponds scattered throughout the old town.  They also demolished the city walls and all but one of the city entry gates
       Vietnamese mandarins, ostensibly working for the French authorities, lobbied to protect one city gate as a symbol of their heritage.  The French agreed to spare it, but not for that reason.  They kept it as souvenir of Francis Garnier’s ill-fated attempt to seize Hanoi in 1873.  This gate, Ô Quan Chưởng, still standing, was the one Garnier passed through to attack the Citadel.
the water tower on Hàng Đậu
       Most of the French projects in the old town aimed to improve sanitation and hygiene and make it easier to get around.  Besides demolishing the walls that separated the old town guilds, they widened the streets by lopping off the fronts of the houses.  In 1895 they installed electric street lamps and in 1900 electric tramways.  Besides filling in the ponds, they also built public urinals and constructed a water tower at the end of Hàng Đậu Street, which piped water to several collection points in the city. 
       French colons were not about to move into the old quarter as a result, but the administrators hoped that by improving the living conditions of the Vietnamese the latter would at least acquiesce to French rule.  Mandarins could occasionally resist the changes and save some ancient trees and the last city gate, but not often.  The French had their own ideas of what Hanoi should look like.
       After World War I this attitude became somewhat modified.  Reformers pushed new ideas like ‘association’ and ‘cultural relativism’ that were designed to incorporate indigenous styles into building designs and make adaptations that took into account the local climate and culture.  In 1923 the colonial government established a Town Planning and Architecture Service, with Ernest Hébrard its first Director.  He expanded the city south and west and created a new administrative zone in Ba Đình.  But it was in architecture that he made his greatest impact.
Hébrard's Cừa Bắc church
       In Hébrard’s view the existing French-style buildings in the city, with their mansard roofs, attics and tiny windows, were ill suited to local weather conditions.  They were also, like the Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral with its towering spires, out of synch with the rest of the city’s architecture.  The church he designed—Ca Bc, outside the northern gate of the Citadel—dispensed with Gothic features and exhibited an eclectic set of influences, especially art deco, Hébrard’s own favorite.  And for secular buildings Hébrard favored verandahs, canopied windows, bigger rooms for greater ventilation and indigenous decorative motifs.
       Four other major city buildings, all featuring Hébrard’s Indochinese Style, went up in the mid-1920s.   The Pasteur Institute, several blocks south of the French Quarter, most resembled a French building, in a pale mustard color, but had bigger windows and lay surrounded by gardens.   The long, three-story Ministry of Finance in Ba Đình featured roofed balconies at each level.  The University of Hanoi entrance gate had a double roof and a long, thin arch just above the door.
the former Bank of Indochina
       The masterpiece of the period is the Louis Finot Museum, now called the History Museum, just beyond the Municipal Theater.  With a tall, double-roofed tower in the front, the building has a long, two-story extension in the back, with columned verandahs and tile roofs supported by wooden brackets.  The façade is embellished with chiseled corbels and regular indented spaces of rectangular glass panels, evoking the parallel sentence boards on the pillars of a village communal house.
       In 1927 authorities set up the Hanoi School of Fine Arts to instruct Vietnamese in the principles of architecture.  Hbrard hoped to instill his Indochinese Style into the students’ consciousness.  But already a competing, international modernist style was appearing with the construction of the Bank of Indochina, completed in 1930.  This long, sleek building featured tall, dark rectangular recesses along the front façade and an entrance tower with a layered dome canopy and stone screens on its upper walls.
Pasteur Institute
       With the economic depression of the1930s fewer official buildings went up, but the newly trained Vietnamese architects found employment with both European and Vietnamese clients and constructed over a hundred villas in the French Quarter and around Ba Đình before the end of World War II.  They featured terraced roofs, curved facades, arched and circular windows and Vietnamese designs in ornamental plastering above doors and windows.  Many of these today serve as foreign embassies.
       They also worked in the southern part of the city, where the land space was far more restricted.  So Vietnamese architects adopted a modified Old Quarter tube-house style, with the fronts employing the features of the villas.  They combined elements of art deco, Western classical and native Vietnamese in a way that went beyond the characteristics of the Indochinese Style.
main entrance to Hanoi University
       After World War II the French were too absorbed in fighting the insurgency to do much building in Hanoi.  And as they faced defeat, some of the original animosity to Vietnamese culture returned.  In a last act of cultural vandalism before their evacuation from Hanoi, the French blew up the One-Pillar Pagoda, which had been standing there for over nine centuries.
       After independence the Vietnamese rebuilt the pagoda, though a little smaller, and demolished the Town Hall on Hoàn Kiếm Lake and replaced it with a very modern building.  But the other colonial administrative buildings they kept and used themselves.  For example, the Governor-General’s palace became the Presidential Palace.  The former Resident's Palace became the State Guest House for visiting foreign statesmen.
Ba Đình villa, Vietnamese-designed
Vietnamese version of the Indochinese Style
       In the 1990s, after more decades of war, isolation and privation, Vietnam’s economy began improving such that suddenly architects were busy replacing old houses with new ones.  Nowadays the results of their mixed architectural heritage are rows of houses with individual facades, balconies, multi-paneled windows, each house a different color, each sporting a different kind of roof, different exterior designs, no two alike.  Different from urban houses anywhere else in Southeast Asia, they exemplify the further elaboration of the Indochinese Style of decades earlier.
       With his patronizing attitude, Hébrard had assumed his Vietnamese students would adhere to the style he taught them.  But as with everything the Vietnamese import from foreign cultures, they added their own notions and wound up creating an indigenous style of their own.

the History Museum--the masterpiece of the1920s
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