This article is part of a new series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.
As city dwellers seek to soften the expanding urban jungle around them, architects are working harder to incorporate greenery and natural materials. But nobody is doing it quite like Vo Trong Nghia.
His firm, Vo Trong Nghia Architects, based in Ho Chi Minh City, infuses its work with lushly planted walls, hanging vines, structure-piercing trees, weathered stones and sunken landscapes. It also incorporates traditional Vietnamese building techniques, like complex bamboo trusses, perforated blocks, cooling water systems, shaded terraces and thatched roofs. Mr. Nghia’s firm also is expanding into prefab housing, urban farms, green towers, parks and urban plans around Asia.
All these efforts are infused with a resolute vision: the creation of architecture that merges nature, local vernacular and — through modern materials and methods — contemporary design. Mr. Nghia sees such work as a way not only to refine the urban environment, but also to provide a sense of peace in the world.
“I wanted to create a new language of architecture in our country.»
Still the leader of his firm — albeit remotely — Mr. Nghia, 43, who has been practicing meditation since 2012, has spent the last two years at the Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Center, a Buddhist monastery in the forests of Myanmar. He participates in calls and discusses work, but only for short periods of time. For now, his plan is to return to Vietnam early next year. His entire staff meditates at least two hours a day, and they need to adhere to strict moral precepts, refraining from, among other things, drinking alcohol, smoking or lying.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
What would you like people to know about your work?
First, I would like people to know about our focus on meditation and guiding precepts. If you can meditate for several hours, everything becomes clear. You can become a superman compared to your former self. Architecture becomes easy. We don’t focus on working very long, but on cleaning our minds and cleaning our hearts. That’s why our firm works so well.
From a design point of view, we focus on connecting people to nature. We try to make a small mark on the city. In Vietnam our cities have so few parks and so little nature. People are being taken away from the moment, and away from nature. That’s why we have conflict everywhere [in the world]. Without nature around us we become crazy. So we try to wrap nature around our lives
Who or what inspired you to go into your field?
First, I love trees. When I see a tree I really focus on its leaves, and on how much soil and sunlight it needs. I grew up in a small village in Vietnam’s Quang Binh province. It was super hot, and we had no electricity. I very quickly learned the importance of trees in our environment.
My village was very near the border [of North and South Vietnam]. There was constant war, and bombs, and many people died. My family, like the others in our village, was very poor. I thought if I were to become an architect, I could become rich. Later, I learned that wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter because I loved architecture very much. Because there had been so much war, we were not able to develop a modern tradition of architecture in Vietnam. I wanted to help provide this. And I wanted to create a kind of architecture that harmonized with nature, that did not need air-conditioning, that employed simple and cheap materials. I wanted to create a new language of architecture in our country.
“If you can meditate for several hours, everything becomes clear.”
Where did you study?
I studied architecture for 10 years in Japan. I studied undergraduate at the Nagoya Institute of Technology, and I received my masters from the University of Tokyo. I learned about being honest in design and honest in life. I learned about structure, air flow, wood structure, concrete and design for a tropical climate. When I came back to Vietnam, I saw how lacking our cities were in greenery, and in architecture.
What obstacles do you face in your field?
An architect’s job is always challenging. But the biggest challenge for us is to harmonize super high density with nature, and to make architecture that lasts. People talk about making sustainable architecture, but they make things that only last a few years. What is sustainable about that? Nowadays people want to build fast, fast, fast. We don’t want to make garbage. We tell developers that we want to make architecture that will last 100 years, and I feel they don’t listen. To make a building last, it needs to be built right, in terms of structure and details. It’s not about a higher price, it’s about using the right materials in the right ways.
“We want trees, and all-natural materials, to interact with the building.”
Can you talk more about your focus on natural materials?
We use bamboo, timber, rammed earth, stone and more. We use trees, and not as decoration but as an essential element of architecture. Some people build a building and put trees on top. We want trees, and all-natural materials, to interact with the building. To limit water and flooding. To filter the sun. To filter sounds. To improve high-density living. On top of that we try to recycle water, use solar panels. We try to merge natural energy and natural materials.
How do you plan to change your field?
We want to use vernacular and modern design together to help solve the problems of high-density cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Vernacular design really harmonizes with nature. It was already there before electricity. It knew how to deal with really hot weather, for instance. Nowadays with higher populations, higher density and less land, this vernacular cannot be applied 100 percent. So we’ve started to develop a new type of architecture to harmonize with these new conditions, and with people’s modern lifestyles. I’ve tried to make architecture become a mini-park for the city. And we’ve learned from local vernacular how to use simple materials and techniques.
In our office we have air-conditioning, but we don’t use it. We have greenery all around us, irrigated through a rainwater harvesting system. A water system cools the air. But we built it for very cheap. It’s filled with beautiful, simple details.
We’re bringing this approach to a much larger scale. Every master plan we’ve done is filled with parks or gardens. We’ve also established a fund to help people throughout the country plant more trees: in schools, on roads and in the countryside. Our architecture and master plans are not enough, and we want to reintroduce the natural world as widely as possible.
“We don’t focus on working very long, but on cleaning our minds and cleaning our hearts.”
How do you define success?
Enlightenment. If I become a very famous architect, it’s meaningless compared to enlightenment.
How has meditation impacted your design practice?
If you achieve deep concentration, you will feel super peaceful, and the concept of design will become very easy. I don’t take much time to think about a concept. It’s not focus — it’s super focus. I can concentrate for three hours continuously. With an empty mind like that, if you want to develop a concept it comes very easily. Instead of thinking about the concept I just meditate and then it can take only five or 10 minutes to find a concept.