The new look of a 100-year-old French villa, the result of nearly a year of work by local authorities and experts from the Ile-de-France Region, has been the talk of the town among locals in the past few days.
The French architectural villa located at 49 Tran Hung Dao and 46 Hang Bai in Hang Bai Ward, Hoan Kiem District, covers an area of over 990 m2 and was built in the early 20th century.
It is a remarkable piece of architecture that is still of great value today. The restoration project of this villa began in April 2022, marking one of the city’s first initiatives for villa restoration with international cooperation, for which seven more in the city's inner city of Hoan Kiem are set to follow the same path this year.
After a year of implementation, the restoration work is in its final stage. However, the project has faced some criticism from the public due to the bright lime paint used, which is perceived as too garish for a 100-year-old building.
Nguyen Huy Hung, 24, is less impressed with the villa’s appearance. “In my personal opinion, the modified version is not as visually appealing as the original. The color scheme seems too dark, and traditionally, French architecture tends to use lighter colors, such as yellow and white. I believe that replacing the red color with white would enhance its beauty.”
Le Ngoc Thang, 62, who has passed the villa on his way to work for the past 30 years, approves of the villa's new color scheme. “I think the current color scheme resembles the original one from 30 years ago when the building was not significantly damaged. Although the color may have been lighter in the past, the current hue is true to the villa's distinctive characteristics,” Thang said.
Architect Tran Huy Anh explained that experts have thoroughly researched the restoration plan for the heritage site and the choice of color. “Red and yellow were the typical colors of Hanoi in the 70s, and the selection of the color was not just an architectural decision but also a reflection of the building practices of the time,” he said.
Anh went on to say that heritage is not merely an architectural work but also represents the building style of a particular era. “We should adopt a tolerant attitude towards heritage and avoid making subjective judgments. If someone criticizes the color, they need to state the standards they are using. If we look at Hanoi from a subjective and habitual perspective, we may overlook the historical significance of the building. If the restoration work is scientific, let the scientists and conservationists do their job, as they have the expertise to justify their solutions," Anh stressed.
This approach will allow us to expand our knowledge and gain a better understanding of the past”.
Emmanuel Cerise, the representative of the Ile-de-France Region in Vietnam and the director of the Ile-de-France Regional International Cooperation Agency in Vietnam, who is a professional expert supporting the villa restoration project, has explained the restoration principles of this work. Since the villa was privately owned, and there are almost no records available about it, the restoration team has not been able to find any archival documents related to the villa. Therefore, to assess the current state of the villa, experts have relied on research and conducted surveys of construction materials to identify the characteristics of the building.
While examining the villa's exterior mortar layers, Cerise revealed that the team was fortunate to discover the original mortar layer with the same color palette as it was almost a century ago. Although the color layer has undergone some changes, the team relied on old photographs, including Hanoi's first color photo, to apply for the project's replication.
He went on to discuss recent trends in the restoration of old French villas, adding that some projects opt for pale colors to demonstrate the building's age, but this approach is not a good way to preserve the building. He argued that the team must respect its original characteristics to preserve the villa properly.
"While the color palette of the villa may be slightly adjusted shortly, the team will respect the original color of the building," said Emmanuel Cerise.
The French expert also spoke about the use of a color scheme with yellow and red lines, which mimic brick lines. He noted that this technique had been employed in many French works in Hanoi, such as the Trung Vuong school project, which previously had the same lime color, but was slightly altered during the conservation project. Additionally, some documentary photos in the "Hanoi - Beginning of a Western City in Southeast Asia" exhibition show works with similar color schemes.
Pham Tuan Long, Chairman of the Hoan Kiem District People's Committee, confirmed the conservation principles of the restoration project. He explained that the original lime color was discovered during the renovation process, and in line with the principle of conservation, the restoration work was completed using a mixture of sand, lime, and cement mortar. The current color of the villa is also based on lime, ensuring material uniformity.
Apart from the lime color, public opinion has also questioned the VND14 billion (US$600,000) investment cost for restoring the French villa.
The Hoan Kiem District People's Committee clarified that the investment amount for the restoration project was sourced from the District's budget. Moreover, the French side has covered all expenses for their experts involved in the assessment and repair process over the past year.
Long explained that the VND14 billion was only for the project's restoration, and the interior work cost is still being calculated. He also mentioned that this funding was approved within the allowable limit.
“Once completed, the villa is expected to become a cultural exchange center for Hanoi's Old Quarter, promoting the historical and cultural values of the area. It will serve as a meeting place for scholars, researchers, and visitors to learn about the heritage values of the district's cultural, historical, and architectural landmarks,” Long said.
Vice Chairman of the Vietnam Association for Urban Planning and Development Dao Ngoc Nghiem suggested the necessity for Hanoi to restore these villas, saying that they are a symbol of integration, Hanoi's traditional culture, and a sign of the city's development process.
“In the restoration project of Villa 49 Tran Hung Dao, Hanoi has invited domestic experts, foreign experts, and NGOs to participate, showing a great determination to preserve and create Hanoi's own identity. This honors the past and preserves it for future generations,” Nghiem said.
Deputy Director of the Hanoi Construction Department Mac Dinh Minh said that in June 2022, Hanoi announced a list of 1,216 villas to be preserved through careful examination and evaluation.
Minh added that these villas had been divided into three groups based on the regulation on management and use of old villas built before 1954 in the city. There are 222 villas in Group 1, 356 in Group 2, and 638 in Group 3.
The villas were also classified according to their form of ownership and management. Of the 1,216 villas, the state owns 367, 732 are under mixed ownership (state and households), and 117 are privately owned.
These buildings are mostly located in central districts such as Ba Dinh, Hoan Kiem, Hai Ba Trung, Tay Ho, and Dong Da and were built more than 100 years ago.
Minh stressed that all villas (including those owned by the State, organizations, households, and individuals) on the preservation list cannot be demolished without justifiable reasons, according to the city's regulation on the management and use of historical villas built before 1954.
The city has also established specific guidelines for the renovation, demolition, and reconstruction of these villas according to certain principles.
The reality of the use and management of the villas has proven challenging, despite efforts to maintain and manage them. Many houses have undergone unauthorized additions, and many tenants have encroached on common areas such as courtyards and gardens, causing structural damage.
A lack of management records or updates on alterations, demolitions, renovations, and reconstructions is due to the many forms of ownership of the villas, which include agencies, companies, and individuals.
In addition, determining responsibility and obligation for maintenance, renovation, and repair is challenging due to multiple ownership and use, Minh continued.
In addition, the financial sources for renovating, improving, and preserving French villas are not provided for in public investment regulations, auctions, and tenders. Instead, there is only a mechanism to beautify and promote the value of the villas.
Long from the Hoan Kiem District People's Committee noted that managing and preserving villas under mixed and private ownership poses significant difficulties for conservation.
He also pointed out that the distribution of common areas in certain houses is convoluted, with public and private areas intertwined, making it difficult to prove unified ownership. In addition, it isn't easy to agree on repair and conservation work because each household living in a villa has unique economic circumstances. As a result, Long said, progress in restoring and preserving these homes has slowed recently.
Despite these challenges, the authorities of the districts where the villas are located have put a lot of work into preserving these priceless buildings. In addition to the villa at 49 Tran Hung Dao - 46 Hang Bai, Long said the district has renovated and protected the architectural gems at 68 Ly Thuong Kiet and 2 Trang Thi.
Ba Dinh District, where most of the Group 1 villas are located, has completed the renovation of a number of them, including those at 68 Nguyen Thai Hoc, 180 Quan Thanh, and 101 Quan Thanh. Currently, the district is working on getting approval to renovate the villas at 97 Quan Thanh and 83 Quan Thanh.
To achieve the goals set by the Hanoi Party Committee's Program No. 03-CTr/TU on Urban Renovation and Economic Development in 2021-2025, the City People's Committee has issued two plans, including a comprehensive survey and evaluation of all 1,216 villas and several other architectural works. The evaluation results will determine the level of deterioration and risk and develop solutions and plans for the restoration and preservation of these historic buildings.
The study of 24 Group 1 and Group 2 villas, which are not for sale and have considerable historical, cultural, and architectural significance, as well as eight state-owned architectural works, has received special attention from the city. These structures are currently used as corporate headquarters, regional offices, or embassies. The evaluation and restoration process is expected to be completed by September 30.
To assess the safety and structural integrity of the villas and architectural works, a thorough inspection will be conducted using specialized techniques and equipment. The survey results will be used to determine the best course of action, which may include maintenance, restoration, reinforcement, or other interventions.
The Municipal People's Committee has also drawn up a plan to complete the creation of a database, scan documents, and install management software for each of the 1,216 villas by June 2025. In addition, the 222 villas in Group 1 will be 3D digitized.
Architect Dao Ngoc Nghiem suggested that this is a necessary solution and that priority should be given to Group 1 villas that are still relatively intact and have undergone scientific research and preliminary examination.
In addition, during the renovation and conservation process, it is important to promote the values of these works and create favorable conditions for their owners while also exploring the potential for exploiting them for tourism and other services.
Nghiem emphasized the need to preserve the soul of the villas, not just their material elements, by organizing people's lives in them.
The plans include specific tasks with fixed completion dates, and it is hoped that they will soon lead to greater efforts to renovate, beautify, and preserve the architectural value of old villa works in Hanoi, he stressed.
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