Award-winning architect Vo Trong Nghia is passionate about incorporating nature back into architecture and bringing more greenery into dense cities. After studying in Japan, Nghia returned to Vietnam to establish his own architecture firm. To connect with nature, his team of architects and designers spend two hours each day in meditation. He is currently exhibiting his work Green Ladder in Australia.
Watch Vo Trong Nghia discussing his work at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney ABC: Corey Hague
As a child, what did you dream of doing?
“As a child, I dreamed of becoming an architect — in order to be rich. I was in a small village in Quang Binh province in Vietnam and I heard that architects are rich. Unfortunately, I now know that being an architect doesn’t make you rich.
I also wanted to be an architect because typhoons would destroy the local school every year. I wanted to learn how to build the school and make it a strong permanent building that wouldn’t collapse.”
What did you learn about architecture, whilst studying in Japan?
“The most important thing I learnt there was how they deal with nature — how to harmonise with nature.
When I went outside of Tokyo, there were areas full of forests. Even though Japan is a really developed country, they preserve nature really well. I think this should be applied to some other Asian countries who cut down their forests.
In Japan, they surround themselves with nature. There are some regulations that support the building of schools in rural areas using timber.”
Why did you decide to return to Vietnam?
"If I stayed [in Japan], nothing would change. There are a lot of good architects there already.
When I go back to Vietnam, it's more helpful. I can do something with the Vietnamese architects to build up the architecture community in Vietnam."
What were some of the difficulties you encountered when you started your firm in Vietnam in 2006?
“During the first five or six years, it was really hard for me to convince people to build my designs, which were a bit different but not difficult. I had to do a lot designs for free in order to get people to make my designs. This struggle went on for a really long time.”
What are the important challenges that you’re trying to address with architecture? And what are your priorities?
“I think the most important challenge — not only in Vietnam but also in South-East Asia — is to balance nature and the development of the city, and help human beings connect with nature. Those are our most important priorities, when we create our architectural designs.
Nowadays, human beings are disconnected from nature. That is why it’s easy to be stressed, easy to misunderstand one another and easy to have conflicts. That is why war happens around the world: it is because human beings are disconnected from nature. If you love nature, you will love the people around you.
Architects should create designs that make human beings more connected with nature. That will help you to have a peaceful society and peaceful world — rather than through political and economic development.”
What were some of your goals for the exhibition Green Ladder at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney and State Library of Queensland Forecourt in Brisbane?
“It need to be shipped from Vietnam and assembled in Brisbane and Sydney
We were thinking about how to use traditional elements to solve urban problems — a lack of greenery and the disconnection of human beings from nature. That was our message in Green Ladder.”
How did it feel to see your work exhibited in Australia?
“This was the first time I showed my work in Australia. It’s an honour and I’m really happy to have this project in Australia.
Vietnam and Australia are quite close to each (by direct flight) and the weather is almost the same. We can apply the same language of design in Australia and in Vietnam. I hope to one day do some work in Australia.”
How does practising meditation help you with the creative process?
“I started meditation four or five years ago, it has change my life a lot.
Normally, people can only concentrate for short periods — like five or ten seconds — and then you’re easily distracted. If you do meditation, you can concentrate for longer — like one minute, two minutes, three minutes. You become super happy and your thinking improves.”
Why does your firm dedicate two hours — one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon — daily to meditation?
“If you do meditation, your mind and your heart and your body are connected to nature. It helps keeps you calm and helps you solve every problem in an easier way. In my team, people are happier and have more concentration. After practicing meditation, they can be more loving towards nature, have good relationships with each other and our clients, and they can also create a lot of good buildings.”
Imagine that you had the chance to host a barbeque — anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) — who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?
“My friend from Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Dr Gene Sherman AM [Chairman and Executive Director]. And maybe some Vietnamese students or people working here. In the meditation tradition, everyone is equal and the same.
I’m a vegetarian, so I would have vegetables, mushroom and tofu.
It’d be in the Zen garden of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. It’s a really peaceful and calm place to have a barbeque.”
What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?
"You need to learn meditation — in order to be calm, fresh and happy. If you start when you’re 15, you can then do more and more."