Vietnam’s most vibrant architecture practices

Vietnam’s architecture scene is steadily catching up to Asian powerhouses China and Thailand—and the world is watching

Dynamic cities like Danang are proving to be rich canvases on which Vietnamese design practices can display their skills. TBone Lee/Shutterstock

When Fong Chan Zeuthen, the founder of Kaze Interior Design Studio, first moved from Denmark to Vietnam 16 years ago, the country’s design scene lagged behind other Asian powerhouses. Much of the noteworthy architecture in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was the work of international firms, while Vietnamese design often negatively connoted mass production.

“I had recently graduated as an architecture student,” recalls Zeuthen. “Being out here in Vietnam, in a country that had grown so fast and was still so hungry, I grew accustomed to seeing people take a lot of shortcuts. It was always a battle of quality versus quantity.”

While Vietnam still cannot match Thailand or China for architectural firms, these days the nation is rapidly catching up and the world is beginning to take note. Surging international investment, sustained economic growth, and an ever-mounting interest in the tourism and hospitality industries mean more money pouring into the country.

“Vietnam has become a leading light in terms of emerging economies, with an expanding middle class, growing industrial sector, and a rapidly expanding hospitality sector,” says Andrew R. Frost, founder and director of Darkhorse Architecture. “For architects, this means there are many more exciting projects to be involved in. The cities and coastlines are transforming before our eyes.”

For Frost, such opportunities signal both the potential for substantial growth for existing Vietnamese architecture firms, and growing competition in the future as companies continue raising the bar. “Many of the world’s leading architects are seeing these opportunities and want to be a part of them,” says Frost. “As a result, design standards are rising as Vietnam plays host to a growing number of international design firms bringing their own expertise.”

Thus far, Frost and his team have been more than able to meet the challenges. Within three years, the firm increased from two employees to 47—exponential growth he attributes to Vietnam’s booming market and to incorporating global design concepts and ideas. “Darkhorse aims to develop and grow our team in Vietnam through constantly evolving our understanding of influences and techniques with a global perspective,” Frost says. “What makes us unique is the skill of our team, all of whom have extensive international experience and appreciation of the emerging Vietnamese market.”

Vietnam has become a leading light in terms of emerging economies. For architects, this means there are many more exciting projects to be involved in. The cities and coastlines are transforming before our eyes

Innovation and strict adherence to international standards of quality are also key to Kaze Interior Design Studio’s success. Zeuthen possesses an obsessive attention to detail and a finely-honed appreciation for how small elements of a design that might initially seem inconsequential can drastically impact the whole either positively or negatively. Although it has been years since she left Denmark, her aesthetic ideals still bear a strong Scandinavian influence. Each piece of furniture, no matter how mundane, needs to exhibit clean bold lines and exceptional craftsmanship. She favours subtlety and tasteful minimalism over the ostentatious styles in vogue when she came to Vietnam.

Her Nordic sensibilities extend to her workforce and how she structures her company. “I have a very Danish, democratic approach to the way I work. Coming from a more hierarchical way of working, I’m actually employing a flatter platform because I believe everybody in my company can contribute,” Zeuthen says. “What I’ve been trying to do through the years is to empower my team. We need to have a hierarchy at the end of the day, but I let them make a lot of decisions, which is rare in Vietnam.”

The result is a far greater diversity of ideas than one might find in a firm in which the principle architect is solely responsible for all decisions. While everything bearing Kaze Interior Design Studio’s mark has her stamp of approval, such projects also often showcases a greater degree of creativity than one mind could provide.

More: Meet the American architect changing China’s cities

At the end of the day, for both Zeuthen and Frost, designing a successful project lies in open communication, both among employees and with clients. “What ultimately matters is the ability to communicate what makes a design special and unique. If you can’t share your ideas and capture your client’s imagination, then you aren’t the right consultant,” Frost says. “I’ve worked in architecture offices since 1986. All of my experiences have served as training for the next opportunities. Being able to listen and communicate helps a lot.”

That willingness to listen and learn, as well as a constant drive to create new and innovative works across the luxury property and hospitality sectors, has helped shift Vietnam’s growing design scene into the global spotlight. Whatever these pioneering firms do next, the world will be watching.

Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, Kaze Interior Design Studio

In order to elevate and modernise the existing Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, the firm gave the five-star property a full facelift, from the hotel reception to the lobby, down to its Viet Kitchen restaurant and Rbar. The latter was especially important, as the hotel hoped to make this on-trend watering hole offering locally brewed craft beer into a hip place where the city’s residents would gather. Because the team wanted to capture the fragmentation of this fast-paced metropolis, they incorporated a dynamic geometric motif with eye-popping visual shifts between the floor, walls, and ceiling. The walls appear to almost reach out to visitors, inviting them to explore further, while the reflective ceiling adds an intriguing element of spatial complexity

Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint Hotel, Kaze Interior Design Studio

Historically speaking, much of the fabric of urban life in Vietnam takes place on the street, and yet traditional luxury hotels have often sought to avoid engagement with the city by shielding guests from the outside world. When envisioning the reception area to this stylish hotel, the architects wanted to create a space that would invite pedestrians in off the sidewalks. Drawing on Scandinavian sidewalk cafe culture, the firm created a spacious reception area directly linked to a cafe connected to the outdoors. The result is a warm, welcoming interior that pulls inspiration from the idea of an arboreal oasis in the heart of the city.

Novaland Madison Apartment, Kaze Interior Design Studio

Classically luxe yet effortlessly modern, these sumptuously decorated apartments merge elements of Scandinavian minimalism with a few judiciously applied touches of opulence. Bright pops of colour and metallics give the interiors a vibrant feel, while plush materials like fine hardwood and marble add to the ambiance. Although the apartments are far from petite, Kaze Interior Design Studio still made a point of using space as efficiently as possible. Simple touches, like tucking a daybed into the wall, free up plenty of room. The result is a design that looks and feels uncluttered, ideal for owners who entertain.

Amari Nha Trang, Darkhorse Architecture

The primary challenge of this project was creating a design that would not only live up to, but also enhance its striking natural setting. Situated on 20 hectares of steep hillside that drops 80 metres down to a rocky stretch of coastline, the Amari Nha Trang needed to be truly eye-catching. Darkhorse Architecture ensured that the centrally located reception area would feature jaw-dropping views of the hillside. Creating a masterplan of this scope and scale required working carefully with the developer and producing meticulously detailed 3-D renderings through every step of the process.

Premier Villa Halong Bay Facilities, Darkhorse Architecture

The iconic limestone karsts of Halong Bay make for a breathtaking backdrop to this sprawling 30-hectare series of resort villas, which is slated for completion in 2019. When brought in to build upon an existing masterplan, Darkhorse Architecture streamlined and condensed the plan for the resort’s facilities, making for compact, centralised space that keeps the focus on that spectacular setting. A layered composition of external pool terraces accentuates the natural surroundings. Meanwhile, the interiors rely heavily on natural stone and other materials that embody the spirit of this natural wonder.

VietCapital Center, Darkhorse Architecture

With a cutting-edge architectural design by New York-based firm SOM and an innovative interior architecture and design executed by Darkhorse Architecture, this mixed-used tower is guaranteed to be a prestige point in Ho Chi Minh City upon completion. The top 10 floors will house just 35 luxury residences. In keeping with the property’s high profile, the firm spared no expense with imported timbers, metals, and stones to add warmth to this scintillating glass tower. The property exudes the feel of a high-end hotel, but with additional comforts such as separate kitchens for cooking and for entertaining. Clean geometric forms lend a touch of modern minimalism, while enormous windows flood the rooms with light.

This article originally appeared in Issue No. 151 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine