Hanoi, which celebrated its millennial anniversary just a few months ago, is a palimpsest of cultures and buildings growing off the banks of the Red River, a flood-prone filament that unspools from the mountains of southern China down to the Gulf of Tonkin. It is a city of ancient, wedding-cake pagodas set on haze-shrouded lakes, of looming stone citadels, of tree-lined French colonial boulevards, and of rice farmers tending paddies in conical straw hats. From the right angle and at the right moment, it is almost impossibly picturesque.
Those angles and moments, however, have become increasingly hard to find as Vietnam’s communist government has fitfully liberalized its economy and entered the global marketplace. Hanoi’s streets are now choked by motorized traffic and plagued by the shoddy overbuilding endemic of the developing world. On any given corner, you might see a hornet’s nest of jury-rigged electrical cables, a practically untraceable network of siphoned energy. Walk into a newly constructed building and you’re likely to find a family cooking over an open charcoal fire.
“There aren’t a lot of places you’re going to go in the world where the pure volume of concrete will double in a matter of 15 years,” says James Spencer, a professor of urban planning at the University of Hawaii who specializes in Vietnamese public policy. “Unless planners can meet the demands of that population, the city is heading for some very big environmental problems.”
New York architect L. Bradford Perkins, FAIA, says, “You have to look past an awful lot of chaos to see what’s beautiful about Hanoi, but it’s there. It hasn’t been lost.” His firm, Perkins Eastman, is leading a consortium overseen by Vietnam’s Ministry of Construction that has developed a master plan (shown above) to see Hanoi through to 2050. Sitting behind a broad desk stacked with books and papers on a recent afternoon, he ruminated on the city’s great potential. “They can maintain its character without rushing into the 21st century and losing it the way so many other Asian cities have.”
On the subject of urban planning and development in Asia, Perkins is indisputably expert: It is a field that has interested his family for three generations. His grandfather, the Chicago architect Dwight H. Perkins, FAIA, designed a pair of handsome university campuses in China, in the cities of Jinan and Nanjing, under Sun Yat-sen. (Previously, he had worked as a top deputy at Burnham and Root.) His father, Lawrence B. Perkins, FAIA, was founding principal of Perkins + Will, which is now a frequent competitor with Perkins Eastman on international projects. His brother, the political economist Dwight Perkins, was until recently the director of Harvard University’s Asia Center and has in the past served as a development consultant to the Vietnamese government.
“I vetted everything with my brother,” Perkins says. His expertise was useful, and his contacts and credibility within the Vietnamese government, Perkins believes, helped Perkins Eastman (in collaboration with the Korean firms Posco E&C and Jina Architects, the Vietnamese Institute of Architecture, Urban and Rural Planning, and the Hanoi Urban Planning Institute) win the job over RTKL Associates and a joint bid from Arata Isozaki and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Certainly, though, Perkins knows the Asian ropes in his own right—he has made 105 trips there (more than 20 of them to Vietnam), and quite literally wrote the book on foreign architectural practice: His primer, International Practice for Architects, was published in 2007. In it he writes, “Vietnam has the potential to be a real market for North American design services.”
The extent to which that potential has been realized has surprised even Perkins, given the troubled history between Vietnam and the United States. “It’s amazing how warmly we’re treated,” he says. The relative youth of the Vietnamese population of 89.6 million accounts for this to some degree; a significant majority is under the age of 35 and therefore has no memory of the war. Hanoi itself came through the war largely intact. The country’s historic tensions with its Asian neighbors, in particular Japan and South Korea, play to the favor of American firms.
It is Vietnam’s youthful and rapidly expanding population that is placing such enormous pressure on its urban centers. Hanoi, the national capital, is at present a city of 6.5 million, but demographers project that number to rise by some 40 percent in the coming decades. To account for the city’s growth, the new master plan will push development out to five satellite cities separated from the historic core by a greenbelt of parks, lakes, and land reserved for agriculture. “Our plan was built around sustainability,” Perkins says. “We’re trying to get Hanoi to recognize they have this wonderful one-time opportunity to do something the Chinese have not done, which is to protect one of the great architectural zones, which runs through the center of the city.”
This new vision is dependent on a radical overhaul of the city’s infrastructure. “The existing system cannot keep up with the pace of the population growth of the city, especially in the ancient quarter,” says Do Dinh Duc, director of Hanoi Architectural University. Essential services such as power and sewage treatment are woefully inadequate even for Hanoi’s current population, never mind what it will be in 10 or 20 years. Residents, for instance, depend on some 10,000 illegal wells for potable water. The new plan would answer that demand with a pair of water-treatment plants. Also among the items the plan calls for: a new light-rail system, a new regional road network, a new international airport, and a vastly improved flood-management system.
If it all sounds enormously ambitious, that’s because it is. “Daniel Burnham’s ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood’? That’s really only possible in a place like Vietnam,” Perkins says. “As a planner, that makes it quite enjoyable. The government has the ability to make big plans. And they really believe that planning matters, and they take it very seriously.”
Indeed, the plan has the strong backing of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the head of government in a one-party state without a free press. This does not mean, however, that it has been or will remain free of opposition. “When you get there, you realize how hard it is to control anything,” says Paul Buckhurst, a principal at Perkins Eastman who spent 34 weeks in Hanoi during the planning process.
“It’s fairly common for low-income people to protest in front of local authority offices,” Spencer, of the University of Hawaii, says. In the past year alone, some 200 building projects in Hanoi have been halted due to public opposition. “It’s not a system where the state can just do anything.”
Thus far, the new master plan has been fairly well received, according to Perkins, pointing to an 87 percent positive response to an anonymously conducted survey. “In the presentations, people could stand up, and did,” he says. “There was a good deal of pushback.”
The success or failure of the plan will in large measure reside in the team’s continuing ability to satisfy local community groups, many of which are faced with relocation or other significant changes to their traditions and habits. “It’s one thing to define a vision, and another to realize it,” Spencer says. “The vision and the plan can be great technically, but unless you have widespread buy-in and a lot of goodies for people who are existing stakeholders, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Preservation is a particularly challenging issue, and one that has left the team, on occasion, at odds with members of the Vietnamese government. In a rapidly modernizing city with such a mixed architectural heritage—historic Vietnamese, French, and Soviet structures in varying states of distress—there are persistent questions as to what is worth saving. “Every act of preservation is a reinterpretation of what Vietnamese history is,” Spencer says.
If all follows according to plan, by 2050, Hanoi will have emerged as a city on par with London, New York, Moscow, and Tokyo. The path for that growth is now set, but it is only a path. “One of the wonderful things about Hanoi, and one of the reasons it has a chance to be a great world capital, is that it’s just beginning its development,” Perkins says. That, of course, is both its burden and its opportunity.