East German architecture leaves a lingering legacy in Vietnam

Building Socialism

East German architecture leaves a lingering legacy in Vietnam

(Courtesy Duke University Press)

Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam
By Christina Schwenkel
Duke University Press, 2020
MSRP $31

In 2010, anthropologist Christina Schwenkel moved into the dilapidated modernist neighborhood of Quang Trung in downtown Vinh, Hò Chi Minh’s birthplace and one of Vietnam’s secondary urban centers. In the ensuing years, she lived intermittently among residents, studying their relationship with the buildings they inhabited. She tackled an extensive range of topics—from the patterns of occupation of space, changing political and economic conditions, and the deterioration of the aging buildings to family histories, gender and class hierarchies, and the affective bonds with their neighborhood. At one point, she even briefly enrolled in architecture classes at a local vocational school to better understand the organization of domestic space in traditional Vietnamese architecture. The result of such thorough fieldwork is a fine-grained image of life in Quang Trung, which traces a downward trajectory from an initial enthusiasm about the radical modernization of life, shared by residents and planners, to current disappointment with the “unplanned obsolescence” that makes some buildings almost unlivable.

the cover of Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam
(Courtesy Duke University Press)

If this narrative about modernist housing’s failure seems familiar, the case of Quang Trung is far from typical. In Building Socialism, Schwenkel not only pays close attention to local patterns of life but also casts the estate as an important site of global encounter where architecture became entangled with geopolitics. Throughout the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force rained down bombs on cities such as Vinh, which was reduced to a sea of rubble by the conflict’s end. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) came to the aid of its fellow socialist state, sending architects, engineers, and equipment to assist in postwar reconstruction. Comprising some two dozen modernist slabs, Quang Trung emerged from this act of international solidarity as a model for the modernization of the entire country. The stakeholders presented the project as a collaboration rather than foreign charity, revealing a clear awareness of the need to balance power relations between unequal partners. The exchange did not come without its share of problems and contradictions, but it did establish bonds that survive to this day on both sides: In Vietnam, German generosity and superior engineering retain a mythical status, and in Germany, the experience of Vinh still kindles personal memories of socialist solidarity, officially repressed by the public discourse since reunification.

With its dual focus, Building Socialism brings together two recent scholarly trends. On the one hand, architecture has always been an important locus of study for anthropologists, who have probed the apparent material solidity of buildings to reveal their inherently unstable social nature. Because of its aspirations to radically change society, the former socialist world has emerged as an especially productive site for such investigations, inspiring several fascinating books. Paving the way was An Archaeology of Socialism, Victor Buchli’s 2000 study of Moisei Ginzburg’s revolutionary Narkomfin building in Moscow; it was followed by other important works, including Politics in Color and Concrete, Krisztina Fehérváry’s 2013 book about the spaces of domestic life in the panel buildings of socialist Hungary, and The Palace Complex, Michał Murawski’s 2019 book about the Palace of Culture and Science, a Stalinist skyscraper that continues to dominate Warsaw’s skyline.

On the other hand, architectural historians have recently discovered the outsize role that the former socialist world played in the Global South in the postwar decolonization process. Łukasz Stanek’s book Architecture in Global Socialism, published in 2020, was a signal achievement in this respect, as it mapped for the first time the astonishing extent of architectural exports from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East. Schwenkel extends this map to Southeast Asia even as she constrains her focus to a single site. It’s a particularly effective tack that shows how the global and the local intersected in an alternative project of world-making distinct from capitalist globalization.

Looking down a tiled hallway
(Courtesy Duke University Press)

Building Socialism is divided into three parts, addressing respectively the destruction of Vinh during the war with the United States, the city’s reconstruction in collaboration with East Germany, and Quang Trung’s current state of decay. It opens with a view from the air, that of the U.S. pilots who perpetrated full-scale urbicide on Vinh. (A quarter of all American bombs expended in Vietnam were unleashed on the city.) This irrational “techno-fanaticism,” Schwenkel argues, was obsessed with destroying material infrastructure, but in reality, it obliterated entire social worlds. The perspective then shifts to the ground plane to tell the stories of Vinh’s inhabitants, their mass trauma, and strategies of survival, including digging an underground network of trenches and tunnels. By the end of Part One, Schwenkel has shifted the perspective yet again, widening her frame to take in international responses to the destruction. The “sympathetic solidarity” that the countries of the so-called Second World forged with Vietnam found special resonance with East Germany in the appeals to the shared experience of suffering brutal aerial bombardment.

Part Two comes closest to standard architectural history, as it discusses the work of East German architects and planners in Vinh and its adaptation to vastly different material and cultural conditions in Southeast Asia. Chapters move through progressively smaller scales, from the mobilization of East German expertise and technology for use in Vietnam, via the urban planning of Quang Trung, to the design of individual buildings and apartments. Schwenkel paints a complex picture of international solidarity often undermined by cultural differences, misaligned expectations, and racial biases, as well as by the contradictions between altruism and self-interest. As she shows, the East Germans’ activities in Vinh were indeed motivated by anti-colonial solidarity, but they also had other motives, among them a desire to improve their country’s international standing. Similarly, the tremendous amount of material aid shipped to Vinh—in total, some 60 cargo ships’ worth of machines, vehicles, and tools—appears less impressive in light of the fact that some of it was already considered obsolete in the GDR. Other contradictions emerged from the attempt to “translate” European modernism to a context such as Southeast Asia. Some of these translations were successful and involved input from both sides, attesting to the perception that the design was carried out collaboratively.

For example, Quang Trung’s climatic responsiveness continues to be praised, because it allows for ample airflow between buildings and through individual apartments. Other translations were more problematic, above all the shoehorning of a largely rural population accustomed to collective life into individual apartments designed for nuclear families. The result was what Schwenkel calls “Viêt Ðúc hybridity,” a peculiar mix of German technics with Vietnamese raw materials, unskilled labor (predominantly by rural women), and ways of life, which nevertheless made Quang Trung into the country’s most modern neighborhood in material, functional, and aesthetic terms. From an architectural standpoint, this entire section of the book is especially enlightening, both for Schwenkel’s thorough analysis and for access to previously completely unknown material about global transfer of architectural knowledge. One, however, wishes for more extensive illustrations, especially original architectural plans, but that may be a future task for an architectural historian.

Unlike the book’s first two parts, which shift between macro- and micro-scales against the backdrop of the 1970s, Part Three is exclusively concerned with Quang Trung and the modulations of time. Its four chapters pursue a theme of obsolescence with respect to the original buildings, which are in evident decline due to the combined effects of age and unforeseen use. Especially fascinating is Schwenkel’s discussion of various apartment modifications, which reveals both the cultural inadequacies of the original German design and the rise in living standards over the past decades. These modifications range from simple adaptations of the interior layouts to fit the principles of traditional geomantics (phong thúy) to the construction of coi nói, extensive exterior additions that hang precariously from the facades and serve a wide variety of purposes. In the book’s concluding chapter, Schwenkel assesses the mass housing that has appeared around Quang Trung in recent years, leading her to some unexpected conclusions. Despite its shortcomings, the neighborhood still seems to fare better than the housing built after the political reforms of the 1990s, which is widely considered shoddy, environmentally unresponsive, alienating, and seismically unsafe. To be sure, Quang Trung itself underwent neoliberalization through the compulsory privatization of units, which put new economic burdens on its residents, and through the replacement of several original buildings. However, communal life in the remaining parts of the neighborhood, long adapted to its modernist framework, continues to thrive, and most residents not only favor Quang Trung’s refurbishment over demolition but would like to see it protected as a heritage site and a monument to the international solidarity that produced it.

Throughout the text, Schwenkel expresses a simultaneous sense of dissatisfaction with and appreciation of Quang Trung. In so doing, she presents a much more nuanced picture of modernist mass housing and its “utopian” aspirations than the still-common narrative of unqualified failure would have it. She also makes it clear that many of the troubles that plague the neighborhood—deteriorating infrastructure, inadequate services, increasing inequality—stem from perceived betrayal by the state, which has replaced its original communal ethos with increasing individualism and marketization, thus disenfranchising its most vulnerable citizens, predominantly women. Architecture’s failures from that perspective appear to be the product not so much of imperfect design but of a wider socioeconomic dynamic.

This point should be familiar to readers in the United States, where the withdrawal of state support signaled the demise of affordable mass housing (Pruitt-Igoe being only the most iconic case of the process). However, Quang Trung offers a story of vastly different outcomes from those in the U.S., pointing to a great deal of specificity needed in assessing the outcomes of any architectural endeavor. In that respect, Building Socialism makes multiple important contributions to architectural scholarship. It shines a light on a place that rarely features in Western architectural histories, in turn raising numerous questions about modern architecture in general—its universalizing promises of utopian progress, its perceived failures, and its hitherto-unexplored paths of dissemination.

Vladimir Kulić is an architectural historian and associate professor at Iowa State University. His most recent books are the exhibition catalog Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 (2018) and Second World Postmodernisms: Architecture and Society under Late Socialism (2019).