Putting communal houses in the picture

Doi Thoai Voi Dinh Lang (Dialogue with Communal Houses) is an art exhibition by curator/ art critic Bui Thi Thanh Mai, in which the artists lament the disappearance of communal houses, emphasising the need to protect old buildings and, more broadly, preserve tradition.

Participating in the exhibition, painter/ art critic/ photographer Nguyen The Son has left a lasting impression with his project “I am looking for the communal house”, which features photos of communal houses were hidden away among modern buildings in Ha Noi.

The exhibition will run at the Viet Art Centre, 42 Yet Kieu Street, until October 4.

Inner Sanctum: What motivated you to participate in the project “Dialogue with Communal Houses”?

I found the project very interesting, and I was able to approach it from many different angles. Life experience and different point of view lead to creativity. The project offered opportunities to learn more about the history of not only communal houses, but also the whole nation’s history.

This is also a totally new subject that I have never looked at before, so I was eager to experience a new challenge.

Inner Sanctum: Why were communal houses in Ha Noi chosen instead of buildings in other provinces?

My project focuses on communal houses located in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, because there are different styles of architecture that are gathered from around the country there. The communal houses in the Old Quarter were built by the farmers and craftsmen who moved to the city to work, and they had to adjust to the new land in the big city. Many of the houses are replicas of countryside housing, that have been transferred to the city, so they’re not that old.

A project concerning urban and environmental changes is a continuous concept that I have been working on for the last ten years.

Inner Sanctum: What experience have you gained from the project?

I learnt that it is necessary to live and experience the environment to understand the inner movements and spirits of each issue. The process of implementing the project has changed my way of thinking. I think only reality can teach us what we need to do.

Inner Sanctum: Have you completed your project?

The project is on pause at the moment, but it has an open structure, so it might change and new ideas could originate from it.

I have received invitations to other communal houses in Ha Noi, like the one on Thuy Khue Street. I’m pleased that my photos aroused this much interest, and I’d like to go and explore more of what the city has to offer, but whether the project continues or stops depends on what reality advises me to do.

Inner Sanctum: What messages do you want to convey through your project?

We need to respect and understand the past as well as the core values of national history. Understanding the past is part of understanding our own values and obligations.

Factuality sometimes needs to be approached from different directions. With my project, I expect people to cast a skeptical but positive look on issues that we tend to take for granted, from which we can gain a better awareness about life.

Inner Sanctum: Were your photos taken using the same camera, or did you use different models, and which one do you think best delivers your message?

All of them were taken with the same body, but I used different lenses depending on the angles. I used a specialised lens so that all the images were straight.

The photo of the communal house on Hang Quat Street stands out the most for me. The body of the house has been removed and replaced by a tall hotel, so only the façade remains. It is a painful image that shows how some of our communal houses are disappearing.

Inner Sanctum: In your opinion, what is the future of these communal houses, because many having already been turned into luxurious hotels and restaurants?

Their fate depends on the awareness of local people and the authorities. We cannot blame their demise on the wars. Their destruction is upsetting for many people. The painful truth is that many communal houses in urban areas have been encroached upon, because they were part of the community and converted into schools, infirmaries and workshops during the wars without any fuss. Now that we are reaching a market economy, their prime locations are being exploited.

Those important cultural heritages that demonstrate the lively vitality of a city might disappear in the near future if they are not tightly supervised by a society that has a good sense of awareness and responsibility. — VNS

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