Rebel Architecture

Greening the city

Vo Trong Nghia attempts to return greenery to Vietnam’s choking cities and design affordable homes for poor communities.

Filmmaker: Nick Ahlmark

Award-winning architect Vo Trong Nghia is on a mission to transform Vietnam’s attitudes towards architecture and urban spaces through his environmentally sustainable buildings. 

“Population explosion is a big problem in all Asian countries, especially when these countries have a tropical climate. But these countries don’t have the knowledge to create architecture that suits their climate,” he says.

As Vietnam makes a mad dash for growth and development, Nghia is defending the need for open spaces, trying to bring scatterings of greenery to the concrete, glass and steel that dominate the cityscapes. His buildings incorporate plants and trees, and include design elements such as natural air flow ventilation in the place of costly and environmentally damaging air conditioning.

This film follows Nghia as he tries to find support for his vision to create a vertical farming city; and at the same time to implement low-cost housing solutions for those left behind by Vietnam’s economic boom.

“Green architecture helps people live harmoniously with nature and elevates human life by embracing the powers of the sun, wind and water into living space. If the current way of thinking does not change, sooner or later citizens will actually live in concrete jungles. For a modern architect, the most important mission is to bring green spaces back to the earth.”


By Nick Ahlmark

When I set out to make this film I was adamant that I wanted to capture the entire process for one of Vo Trong Nghia’s projects, from research and development to design to construction through to completion. I soon realised that with a shooting schedule of just two weeks this was going to be near impossible, when you consider most construction projects will take at the very least six months, not including research and design.

I quizzed Nghia and his team about possible ‘live’ projects that could form the backbone of the documentary’s narrative. We looked at filming the construction of his incredible ‘Farming Kindergarten’ just outside of Ho Chi Minh City but the client refused us access. We were all set to film construction of a bank in Danang – which has trees sprouting from its facade – but the project was put on hold.

After much back and forth and immense stress on my part, Nghia mentioned he was working on a prototype for a ‘Low Cost House’ AKA ‘S-House2’ that would provide an affordable solution for low-income families in the Mekong Delta. It is a small construction and as such it was only going to take two weeks to build, which slotted in nicely with my limited shooting schedule. Better yet, Nghia would be heading down to the delta to meet local families and look at their housing conditions as part of his research and preparation, so for the purposes of our film it ticked all the right boxes as the research phase was something I wanted to include in the documentary.

At first I was a tad disappointed we could not film a larger construction with a bigger ‘wow’ factor, but looking back on it, the challenge of building a family home in the most remote reaches of the Mekong, on a budget of just $3,000 – $4,000, really made this project unique and tested Nghia in ways other buildings would not have. Also, because this is a prototype building funded internally by Nghia’s company, it meant Nghia did not have to deal with any tricky clients who could have delayed construction and slowed things down. So construction went ahead smoothly without any hold-ups, which in turn meant our filming schedule would not get held up either.

Capturing the building work on location in the Mekong was a gruelling process however and included seven days of getting up at 5am, followed by a three-hour car journey from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta and finally a 15-minute motor bike ride on dirt tracks along the river banks to get to the construction site. On location, the temperatures hovered around a very humid 36 Celsius and then at the end of the day’s shooting there was another three-hour trip back to the city.

The logistics of getting the film crew and our equipment to the Mekong was difficult and these same issues affected Nghia and his team. The ‘Low Cost House’ is comprised of lots of small units that can be transported by boat, specifically because the majority of the people who will eventually live in these houses can only be reached by boat along the myriad of canals and rivers that criss-cross the delta. It was great to see Nghia problem solving on the job, dealing with the Mekong’s unique challenges.

When all was said and done and the house was finished, I sort of fell in love with it a little bit. For $4,000 it is really very special. Nghia was pretty happy too – he said he is going to buy a plot of land and build four of these houses for him and his family to live in. He said he just needs to convince his wife first. I hope she agrees.