Up to now, with closed eyes I discern out a footpath that leads to the sea, I see the last light of sunset carving a village’s silhouette in skyline. I feel hot sand under my naked feet on a summer day. There are two ways to the sea in my mind. One is a mental real path and another is a real road, one is the footpath that takes us hours to go to the sea thirty years ago, another is the road where I ride a moped every day. Both of the ways to the sea exist in my imagination, the first one is alive, vivid, and persistent like Marcel Proust’s memory.
The path starts from the intersection with the North-South railroad. That rail causes human and animal deaths every year. However, for kids, most of the time the rairoad brings good memory such as catching fishes along ditches in monsoon season. The path also starts with evidence about the past war: an M113 armored personnel carrier and later added a corpse of HU 1A Huey helicopter from Chu Lai (July) base lie nearby. Needless to say these artifacts become our toys for years. Crossing the railroad, we hit a dirt path lead to a pagoda. Every time we pass the pagoda we stop at a marble stele to read engraved words “Buddha is an embodiment of mercifulness, mindfulness, and courage” to the best of my knowledge I guess it is something likes a motto.
Picture 1: The footpath leading to the sea
The path continues with a slight slope down to a small village facing a beautiful rice field, the path is often wet and muddy after rain and is always filled with cow feces, sometimes we walk over bamboo prickle which make us really cautious for the next move. Of course, like all Vietnamese villages, after the village is a bamboo row marks our way out of a paddy. Usually, the field is covered with rice-green, or sometimes in harvest days, with golden color. A simple bridge near the middle of the paddy made of stainless steel beam about twenty-centimeter wide spans over an irrigational ditch challenge farmers with their bicycles, but creates no problem for kids like us. Sometimes we jump to the ditch to catch small fresh-water fishes- most of the time unsuccessful. Out to the middle of the field, on the left side is the magnificent Haivan Mountain (the Ocean Cloud Mountain) with height more than one thousand and five hundred feet walling around the city and its surrounding area. Then we must pass a small family graveyard before approaching a Coast Border Post, I still remember faces of Chinese fishermen who are detained by our coast guards while ghost of border war with China still floating in the air. Those fishermen do not look like prisoners. They sit in plank beds and converse with soldiers while we peek through a main door. Strangely enough, they look like fathers or brothers who visit their own relatives. Before our sight catching the sea, we must pass another small village filled with sound and scent of a typical fishing village in the Central part of Vietnam- dog barking, a whirling smoke, and stink of fish. The sandy village looks straight to east to another tiny hundred-meter wide rice field. It seems famers have to fight with barren land piece by piece to get this field. After a small hill, the sea opens its generous arms to us. Nothing can be compared to the color of blue sea under the tropical sun!
One thing I am sure that the color of the sea is unchanged since that time, except that everything has been changed. Now it takes me just less than five minutes to traverse from the railroad to the sea. Of course, it is such stupid if one tries to go all the way on this sixty-meter-wide street under the sun without any shades of trees. Several new settlements mushroom on the site of the old path. Our dear planners have subdivided the place into identical lots. The paddies are being bulldozed with promise that after four or five months there is nothing left. All the lots are very much the same: four to five-meter wide by fifteen to twenty-meter depth. Houses are the same, poor and middle class people build one to three-story row houses with the same design: a living room in front, a kitchen in the back part, and sleeping rooms on second or third floors. Rich people who can purchase two or more lots build garages in front of their houses trying to imitate what they see on TV.
Picture 2 &3 : Now the footpath was replaced by a new subdivision
Since there is no more footpath, there is no more rice field and no wind blowing through casuarinas. Urbanization and foreign investment join hand in hand to wipe out my footpath. They receive efficient support from our architects and planners. For these Modernist architects, the world is an empty space, a tabula rasa, where they parachute buildings and roads without worrying about characteristics of the land or a mutual relationship with existing environment. This can be traced back to influences of a leader of Modernism, such as Le Corbusier in ‘Plan Voisin’, when he proposed to bulldoze most of central part of Paris and to replace by sixty-story buildings in a cruciform shape. Unfortunately, our planners destroy the landscape of multilayer and multiple views of spaces soaked with meanings. They take away dozens of beautiful and natural views along the path, and they turned intimate spaces of rice field into a huge barrack of thousand houses. Farmers’ houses, gardens, and rice fields built through generations is replaced with a planning action at one time and a building action at another time. Any sophisticated structure must become minimal in architects’ drawings. That process of robbing place is nothing but the devolution of human environment, turning place into space. No doubt that this devolution leads to the lost of place characters which can be found in Norberg-Schulz’s term, a losing of identity. Because place is synonymous with identity in term of understanding and experience (1983). From that identity of place, he proposes to use the notion of genius loci (spirit of place) which sheds light to the case of my path. Genius loci includes orientation and identification which is the way a man possesses an “existential foothold’ through the act of dwelling. Through existential act of ‘dwelling,’ a person is secure of being-in-the-world (10). Norberg-Schulz also makes clear that characters of place or a process of making identification is the process of becoming ‘friend’ with specific environment (21). Norberg-Schulz implements concept of orientation developed by Kevin Lynch in ‘The Image of The City’, Lynch denotes basic spatial structures as ‘node’ likes bamboo row or the Coast Guard Post, ‘path’ likes route I go to the sea, and ‘district’ likes the rice fields (1960). These concepts match nicely with Norberg-Schulz ‘genius loci’.
Based on a phenomenological approach, but addressing issue of place from a different way, Alexander Christopher and his colleague introduce a new language of architecture through an anthology of 253 patterns by investigating building cultures all over the world. Each pattern is a social and spatial setting in which people acquire intrinsic feeling with natural and man-made environment. Most of them reflect the essence of the everyday life in the way a person interacts with his or her physical environment. For example, in Pattern 105, Positive Outdoor Space, authors reject the notion that outdoor space is a ‘left over’ and they propose building outdoor space with appropriate degree of closure such as building hedges and trellised walks to make it become positive (1977). Needless to say, that kind of space is used to exist along my path to the sea and now totally wiping out in the new settlements.
While Norberg-Schulz represents the richness and significant of place through genius loci, Alexander does not stop with the library of his pattern languages. In a magnum opus “The Nature of Order’, the four-volume set of books, he emphasizes a holistic approach through the concept of wholeness and the living nature of physical world. The world is generated into various structures with different levels of life (2004). In other words, to bring a spatial structure into life means to bring back space to place and to return meaning to place. Second notion is the wholeness that contains centers needed to be preserved and improved at any time in the building process (2004). Significantly, Alexander not only stops with deliberating about space and place but he proposes an ambition agenda to fix the ravaged world passed to us from Modernism.
I want to extend the discussion about sense of place in architecture in analyzing our language. In Vietnamese, place has three ways to translate. Place: nơi, chỗ, chốn (Vietnamese-English Dictionary,1996). The first concept nơi means a specific location and neutral in meaning. For example in written in my passport: nơi cấp (place of issue), it is often lack of emotional attachment or personal feeling. The same with chỗ. But with chốn we can see the projection of emotion and intense of intimacy. There is no surprise that chốn is often used in poetry and literature, but when it is used in everyday life, it often means strong emotion, for example, a mother can ask her son: Mày ở chốn nào thế? (Where are you from?)- presenting states of irritation about her son’s last night absence. Another example, ‘chốn’ has melancholy expression in the famous song ‘Eternal Zone’, likes ‘chẳng biết nơi nao là chốn quê nhà’ (If I know where is my homeland). In my view, this word may be seen as the spirit of place in traditional world of Vietnamese people. This hidden spirit in poetry and folklore makes our language becomes a valuable asset. Like the way Cibecue people often attach place to their wisdom: smoothness of mind, resilience of mind, and steadiness of mind all of them have the spatial prefix. Place is a ground for the awareness (in case of Cibecue language) and emotion (in case of Vietnamese language) (Basso, 1996 and Dictionary, 1996). Can we say that such languages preserve guides to spirit of place? Probably we can dig in to find invaluable lessons for the sustainable development of our world.
To end of this essay, I would like to mention that a phenomenological approach is important to perceive and respect a place. Modernist architects and planners have created sterilized landscape and have wiped out the characters of the land. Those characters are sense of place that we need to preserve. With the understanding of ‘genius loci’ as orientation and identification of place, and the concepts of wholeness and living structure by Alexander Christopher, and latent jewels inside our languages, we are much better aware of the land we live. From the window of my room, I can ‘sight’ of sense of place because, to rephrase Basso’s word, being my own place is always much better than to being from nowhere.
1) Alexander, C et al. 1977. A Pattern of Language: Town-Building-Contruction. New York. Oxford University Press.
2) Alexander, C. 2004. The Nature of Order: An Essy on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe. Berkeley, CA: The Center for Environmental Structure.
3) Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom sits in place. In: Feld, S. & Basso. (ed) Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
4) Lynch, K. 1960. The Image of the City. Boston MIT Press.
5) Norberg-Schulz, C. 1983. Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. Rizzoli: New York.
6) Vietnamese- English Dictionary. Volume I, II. 1996. US. Department of Commerce. Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technnical Information. . Washington, D.C.
 Eternal zone (Một cõi đi về)- A famous song by Trinh Cong Son.