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Identity values under threat
By Son Nguyen
Thursday,  Oct 4, 2018,21:34 (GMT+7)

Identity values under threat

By Son Nguyen

The conflict between preservation and development has always been a constant one, but in HCMC, it is even more striking given the fast pace of development. The issue therefore steals the limelight when local authorities put forth for public comment a scheme to tear down an ancient building to allow for expanding the municipal administrative center.

As widely covered in local media, the municipal government has plans to develop a concentrated administration cluster that will encompass the current City Hall and adjacent areas to have sufficient working space for 1,700 civil servants of the city. Under a blueprint prepared by an international consultant, an ancient building aged more than 150 years on Ly Tu Trong Street – often called Thuong Tho Palace and being the seat of the city’s Department of Information and Communications – will be replaced by modern building facilities as part of the administration cluster project.

To achieve social consensus on the scheme, the city government in May posted the plans and maps on the project at the old building for public comments. The reactions are mixed, but experts and professionals voiced stiff objection to the scheme. As many as 3,000 intellectuals, many of them being architects and historians, have even signed a letter to the HCMC chairman, urging the authorities to keep the French-built palace intact.

Upon such protests, the city’s Department of Zoning and Architecture, at the order of HCMC Vice Chairman Tran Vinh Tuyen, hosted a seminar here last week to gather opinions from professionals on the issue. Voices to protect the building were so overwhelming and will likely prompt the municipal government to rethink the plan.

As stated by professionals at the seminar, the ancient building is among the oldest in the city, dating back to the 1860s when the French first set foot in the country. Thuong Tho Palace had existed before other landmarks in the city like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Municipal Theater, or the HCMC Post Office, according to experts at the seminar. 

In 1860, works started on Thuong Tho Palace and Xa Tay Palace, the latter being the current City Hall. And in 1864, the French Governor of the South decided to establish the Department of Interior headquartered at Thuong Tho Palace, and the acronym DI engraved on the gate of the building is still found today, Tran Huu Phuc Tien, a history researcher, said at the seminar.

“The foundations of these two buildings contain vestiges of not only Gia Dinh Citadel but also Tan Khai Village, which used to be the cradle of the Vietnamese people when first setting foot in Saigon,” Tien is quoted by as saying at the seminar.

Ngo Viet Nam Son, a well-known architect, rang a bell of alarm at the seminar, saying the city’s management over heritage sites is inadequate, leading to a gradual loss of many valuable heritage structures, according to the Vietnam News Agency.

Architect Tran Van Khai from the HCMC University of Architecture stresses that “demolition of urban architectural heritage sites is suicidal in terms of culture, since preservation of such heritage sites will add momentum to the socio-economic growth,” according to, which is the website of the Voice of Vietnam. Similarly, Tran Ngoc Chinh, chairman of the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association, says in the news site that Thuong Tho Palace boasts apparent cultural, historical and architectural values and is closely associated with the development process of the city.

In Nguoi Lao Dong, history researcher Nguyen Thi Hau says it is obvious that development will lead to changes, but changes that cause urban symbols like Thuong Tho Palace to disappear indicate that the development is not sustainable.

In fact, the city government has been cautious over the plan from the beginning, but no State agencies in the city have opposed the project. In the past, the city government has suggested preservation for the building as it could be a historical site, but no agencies have confirmed this status, says the city government’s chief of staff Vo Van Hoan in Vnexpress.

The crucial point is that the building is not listed as a cultural or historical heritage site in the city, and thus not protected under the law. It is this point that aroused grave concerns at the seminar.

Ngo Viet Nam Son says in Nguoi Lao Dong that apart from Thuong Tho Palace, the city government should have solutions to protect structures that have not been included in the list of heritage sites, and it will be a big regret if protection is given to only those sites included in the list. “Many heritage sites in the city have not been formally recognized, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Municipal Theater, the HCMC Post Office, Ben Thanh Market, and Grand and Majestic hotels, bust such sites in reality are major symbols of the city to the residents and visitors,” the architect is quoted as saying.

The online media The Leader says heritage sites are precious gifts from the past for today’s urban economy, and many urban centers around the world have benefited greatly from their heritage sites. Exploring another dimension of the conflict between preservation and development, the media outlet argues that the conflict emerges due to wrong perceptions. “Either the point that preservation must be against development, or that development requires demolition of the old is wrong. In fact, preservation and development are not necessarily on the collision course,” says the news site. It also points to examples of Dalat and Hoi An, saying while the former with more modern development is losing appeal to tourists, the latter is thriving owing to better preservation.

However, positive changes are expected after the above-mentioned seminar.

According to Vietnam News Agency, the city government has directed the Department of Zoning and Architecture to enlist Thuong Tho Palace as an architectural site considered for preservation. However, greater efforts are needed to protect not only Thuong Tho Palace, but also many other sites that are deemed to hold the identity values of the city, otherwise they will be replaced by modern buildings due to the fast development of the city.

Nguyen Minh Hoa, a researcher on urbanization, says in The Leader that despite numerous French-built structures that are very beautiful in the city, such sites account for only 5% of recognized sites in the city. “Several Catholic churches that are considered architectural masterpieces, such as Notre Dame Cathedral, are not recognized in the list of heritage sites,” Hoa says in The Leader.

The development without a proper scheme to protect heritage sites will push the city’s identity values to the oblivion, says Architect Ngo Viet Nam Son in Vietnam News Agency, adding it is imperative for the city to have a fully-fledged scheme with legal validity to protect such sites.

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