As someone who is interested in architecture and “coolness,” I decided to spend some time this summer looking at the Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập) in Saigon, as this is a structure that was clearly built to be cool.
Many tourists visit this site every day, and there is an explanation about the symbolism about this building that is interesting.
But that’s not what makes this building cool. What makes it cool are elements that cannot be easily explained.
Like the main staircase.
That main staircase is insanely cool. It is simple. It is modern. It is cool.
The private theater. . . incredibly cool! Look at those doors!!
The entertainment room. . . astonishingly cool!! There is a mahjong table on the left, and just imagine the kind of interactions and conversations that could take place at that circular sofa in the middle of the room. Then just outside this room are a billiard table and a piano. . . more fun, more coolness.
What is particularly cool about all of this though is that it is all open to the outside. Vietnam is in the tropics. There is no need to worry about being cold. So all of the rooms can be opened to the outside to let the natural breezes pass through.
Take this rooftop terrace for instance. Think of how amazing it would be to enjoy a glass of wine with a foreign dignitary here. Any foreign visitor to this palace would be totally charmed by the setting, the view, and the style of this building.
As for the style of this building, another element about this palace that I find fascinating is in its effort to be “Asian.”
There was obviously a clear awareness that Vietnam is part of “Asia.” And there is a celebration of that fact.
There is a painting, for instance, of the “founder of Vietnam” (Việt-Nam quốc tổ), the first Hùng king, and he is shown with a writing brush in his hand, having just written the characters for “Văn Lang,” the first (supposed) Việt kingdom.
Such a painting does two things at the same time: 1) it points to a distinct world in Vietnam, and 2) it points to shared connections with a larger world of literate (Sinitic) culture (i.c., the writing brush and the character “văn”).
Then there are images like this one from the Tale of Kiều that “modernize” imagery about Vietnamese tradition.
Even details as small as the banisters impress me. These banisters are exactly the same as the banisters that one finds in buildings constructed in Hawaii at the same time.
In the 1960s, there was a “tropical coolness” in the world of architecture. That trend affected places as far apart as Saigon and Honolulu.
But the result was the same. The structures built at that time were cool. . . very, very cool.