Writer Joshua Zukas looks at the Hanoi architects who, in a bid to design more energy-efficient buildings and craft a native urban aesthetic, are reviving a method popular half a century ago.

Looking at Hanoi’s aspirations for the future is like examining the mistakes of its counterparts in the present. Rather than forge a new cityscape and avoid the mishaps of Bangkok and Manila, Hanoi seems set to emulate these traffic-clogged, glass-obsessed and heat-choked dystopias. But some local architects reject a future dominated by concrete and glass. Keen to design more energy-efficient buildings and craft a native urban aesthetic, they are revisiting a method that was popular half a century ago: mashrabiya façades.

Modern mashrabiya façades, named after the perforated exterior walls used in the Islamic world, shelter buildings from the sun and rain while inviting in the breeze and natural light. These façades are especially effective when combined with a generous buffer zone between them and the building proper. Hanoi experiences intense heat and furious rainstorms, so architects have begun crafting eye-catching mashrabiya façades out of native materials, including brick, pottery, tiles and even tropical plants to protect and beautify buildings.

Writer Joshua Zukas.

Using materials in this way is new, but the method is not. After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the government reorganized society according to communist ideology. Just as the new socioeconomic system was modelled on the Soviet planned economy but adjusted for Vietnam, architects borrowed ideas from their comrades in Moscow and adapted them for a tropical climate. The result was imposing monolithic buildings to manifest the might of the state, but also concrete mashrabiya façades that could contend with the local climate. A notable example is the central hall of the Hanoi Railway Station, which had to be entirely rebuilt after American bombing.

The natural cooling effect of these perforated façades was a welcome departure from the flamboyant and impractical colonial veneers that came before them, but sceptics associated the feature with an opaque and authoritarian government. This was particularly true as mashrabiya façades adorned buildings that housed murky state-owned enterprises, such as the Nhan Dan (People) newspaper printing house. What did ‘the voice of the party, state and people of Vietnam’ have to hide?

Hanoi-based Farming Architects crafted Koi Café with a scalloped façade made of roof tiles to resemble the scales of the koi carp that inhabit the ponds within.

Vietnam abandoned its planned economy and pursued a capitalist system in the late 1980s. Land value would now be determined by the market instead of the state, so façades and their accompanying buffer zones were determined a waste of valuable space. Furthermore, their natural cooling effects were no longer necessary due to the increasing affordability of air-conditioning. Besides, Vietnam was entering a new era of openness, transparency and modernity, and Hanoi wanted to flaunt this with glass skyscrapers. Little thought was given to how quickly naked glass buildings heat up in a tropical climate.

Doan Thanh Ha of H&P Architects is demonstrating that there is a better way to build. In a suburb of Hanoi, he cloaked his Brick Cave with a perforated brick façade that reduces inside temperatures by up to 5°C. This echoes the work of Ho Chi Minh City-based firm Tropical Space, which uses punctured brick walls for natural ventilation. In the same suburb as his Brick Cave, Doan built Ngoi, a cafe and communal space with an interior wall made of glass protected by a honeycomb façade made of roof tiles. He believes that the façade reduces the heat from direct sunlight by up to a third and that Ngoi can serve as a model for more energy-efficient glass buildings in the future. Hanoi-based Farming Architects crafted Koi Café with a scalloped façade, also made of roof tiles, to resemble the scales of the koi carp that inhabit the ponds within.

Vo Trong Nghia of VTN Architects experimented with a mashrabiya façade in Bat Trang, a centuries-old pottery village on the outskirts of Hanoi, by wrapping a house in punctured ceramic bricks.Photos: Hiroyuki Oki

Vo Trong Nghia of VTN Architects experimented with a mashrabiya façade in Bat Trang, a centuries-old pottery village on the outskirts of Hanoi, by wrapping a house in punctured ceramic bricks. The façade doesn’t just cushion the house from the elements, but also celebrates the village’s artisanal heritage. Vo is best known for his use of natural materials, such as bamboo and tropical plants, which he’s also started to employ in his façades. He encased his headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City in tropical ferns, pandan plants, mango trees and lime bushes.

If bucolic façades are implemented on a large enough scale, they can do more than reduce energy bills

In a suburb of Hanoi, Doan Thanh Ha of H&P Architects cloaked his Brick Cave with a perforated brick façade that reduces inside temperatures by up to 5°C. Photos: Nguyen Tien Thanh

Bucolic façades such as these are growing in popularity in Vietnam, and it’s only a matter of time before they start germinating in other Vietnamese cities, including Hanoi. This can only be a good thing, says Vo, who imagines a greener future for Vietnamese cities. If bucolic façades are implemented on a large enough scale, they can do more than reduce energy bills; they can also serve as vertical vegetable farms, absorb rainwater and reduce flooding.

Zukas is a Hanoi-based writer covering travel, culture, architecture and innovation in Vietnam. He is a regular contributor for CNN Create and Ink Global, and an intermittent contributor for publications such as The Economist, BBC News and Wallpaper. His column will feature in our May/Jun 2021 issue, Frame 140.