Urban bliss

Gardens in the sky and dynamic spaces make this urban house in Ho Chi Minh City an exciting, richly layered family experience. Architect Shunri Nishizawa discusses reinventing the typical row house to create stunning social spaces and celebrate nature in the city.

Nishizawa Architects townhouse shade from large park trees

Nishizawa Architects townhouse dining room connects with street

Location: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Architects: NISHIZAWAARCHITECTS. Photos: Hiroyuki Oki.

‘The perceived quality of life in buildings should come from geometry and how that geometry connects to human beings.’ This was our starting point for a new type of residence that would respond to the client’s wish for a greater spiritual connection between family members. We sought to define a new way of living within the iconic row house – a multi-storey urban house common in old and new parts of the city – using volume, views, materials and textures in novel ways.

The traditional row house has a central staircase/corridor and separate, enclosed cellular rooms. Our design opens this static spatial division, beginning with a composition of defined ‘cubes’ (the private rooms) linked together with generous family common areas. Boundaries fade within the block by employing double-height spaces, internal views, vertical view shafts, and by bringing in plants and views of the outdoors. A continuous-circulation path reinforces this further by threading its way up through the house like a ribbon, connecting private with common spaces, tightening the relationship between family members.

With these conceptual and physical cues, we gently lead the family to experiment with a new dynamic in which they pass through the common spaces and communicate with each other before each approaches his or her own private nest. Gradually, ‘floating’ private rooms, such as the library, guest room and children’s spaces, come into view from the winding staircase. From the entrance to the roof terrace, the staircase enables the occupants to enjoy a non-stop adventure, discovering different rooms, places and spaces within the tall house volume.

We have formed filters and gradients throughout the house to create connections while maintaining privacy: between the street and garden, between the common and private spaces – both vertically and horizontally. The dining room looks over the street from level one, the main bedroom from level four. Screened by timber louvres, a child’s bedroom overlooks the double-height dining space, a library the double-height living room. On the fourth floor, the main bedroom is connected to a common space via a central garden landscaped with indigenous plants and lit from above. And on the top floor, utilities are arranged off a rooftop garden – an open terrace for the family to enjoy the night-life in this new urban area.

The architecture shows a keen observation of context through a dialogue with the adjacent landscape. Large openings along the southern wall allow the residents to enjoy the spectacular scenery of enormous park trees, and watch the seasons change through the year. And importantly for this tropical city, the building harmonises with the sun, light and air. The main elevation is mostly screened with wooden louvres to filter and absorb the sun’s heat before it enters the house; the rotating door system of the dining room forms a skin-like partition separating the house from the street. When all these doors are opened, nature is invited to flow inside and is welcomed as part of the house.

Beside our hunger to design a primitive but essential architecture for living – where spaces under shade can have natural cross-ventilation, where people can hide from the harsh radiant heat of the sun, but still enjoy the beauty of greenery – we also wanted to craft textures and materials that would enrich the quality of living.

Inspired by plants growing near the site, we developed a leaf pattern into a decorative and functional element. The external wooden panels, which are arranged in checkerboard pattern over the concrete (expressing the main concept of stacking and shifting volumes) are beautifully and individually detailed with the leaf motif. Featuring on fixed panels and movable louvres, they create wonderful light patterns in the interior spaces.

The exposed concrete floor continues this interaction with nature through a ‘carpet’ of leaf-patterned terrazzo. Further, we designed furniture pieces with the same motif as another way to enrich the interior design. This develops a visual balance between the contemporary architectural style and traditional Vietnamese furniture owned by the family; the brutal exposed concrete contrasts with a meticulous detail in furnishings and screens to create a heightened aesthetic and a quiet confidence.

This project is our first attempt to find a contemporary living manner in the row house typology, in which we have focused on enriching the spiritual value of family connections within the house. We strongly believe that the architecture offers an interpretation of a fresh new lifestyle for young families in the modern tropical city, as well as maintaining the unique regional character. In another way, it could be described as the intersection of modern and natural life made perfectly compatible.

Nishizawa Architects townhouse close to nature in ground floor living

Nishizawa Architects townhouse children's floor

Nishizawa Architects townhouse double height main floor

* A creative reinvention of the row house typology.
* Innovative new ways of making spatial divisions vertically and horizontally.
* Creating a contemporary architectural language suited to the tropical climate.
* Bespoke details that give the house a unique personality.

Born in 1980, Shunri Nishizawa graduated from The University of Tokyo with a Masters Degree in Architecture. After working for Tadao Ando, he moved to Vietnam in 2009 to design a number of projects in collaboration with Vo Trong Nghia and Daisuke Sanuki. In 2015, he established NISHIZAWAARCHITECTS. Major projects include Binh Thanh House, Binh Duong School, Katzden Factory, and the Thong House featured here. He won the Vietnam National Architecture Prize and ARCASIA Award in 2015.

Nishizawa Architects