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Thu Thiem Urban Area Competition
May 10th, 2009

Location: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Thu Thiem ICA
Principal in charge:
Robert Levit
Robert Levit and Rodolphe el-Khoury
Juan Wang, James Dixon, Mike Fung, Fenee Leung, Talal Rahmeh, Hoda Matar
Landscape Architects:
North Design Office
Alissa North and Peter North
Elnaz Rashidsanati, Kerri Harvey


The Thu Thiem Urban Area Competition asked for a pedestrian bridge to link the new development area of Ho Chi Minh City with the historic centre. The project includes the design of a central mall and crescent shaped park along the river bank. Our porject, “Vaulting Grounds,” has three main elements: a vaulted garden bridge, a river park and a landscaped mall. The three intermingle. In their overlap a new public realm is made.

In addition a covered market building at the north-eastern corner of the mall uses the vaulted forms of the garden bridge to shelter an element of daily commerce within the a language of public building.

The Garden Bridge: The pedestrian bridge from Thu Thiem peninsula to historic Ho Chi Minh city is an elevated landscape vaulting over water and land. Piers alternate from side to side and create undulating vaults below the bridge and a rich topography above. Each pier is a great earth-filled vase in which Royal Poinciana trees are planted. These colorful-shade-providing trees are set within bowl-shaped spaces over each pier. People may relax in the shade of these trees and look out over the river or the city and landscape of the new urban mall. During parade and festival days the bridge is a platform from which spectators may watch the days’ events. On Tet day the bridge will be an ideal environment from which to watch fireworks.

This bridge, topped by groups of trees, recalls the meshing of nature and architecture in the ruins of antiquity. The landscape overtaking monumental works of infrastructure and architecture have produced some of the most beautiful images of the city. This hanging garden of the bridge provides an alluring and alternative space to the city, as if from another time. The bridge creates rich environments both above and below. The walk between old and new city blends movement with sheltering environment doing away with simple distinctions between infrastructure and destination.

The Mall: The central mall for the new Thu Thiem peninsula is divided between two principal landscapes: to the south a grid of hop trees (arfeuillea arborescens) makes a cool Cartesian forest divided by a marching ground and, to the north, a terrain of water and small gamboling hills. In the gridded forest tall trees grow from a surface of red decomposed granite. A series of glazed cafes are set within the field of trees. Seating for these cafes spills into the shaded forest or into stone-paved clearings. Beneath the forest canopy circular areas of flowering plants create ornamental figures distinguished by species, palette, and scent. This grid of trees, ordered itself, provides an open but shaded and sheltered field in which varied forms of sociability can take place from formal to informal and from sedentary to strolling.

The earthen mounds on the north side of the mall rise out of a shimmering environment of pools. People may relax upon their slopes within a rich and varied environment that mixes, in unexpected ways, with the piers and vaults of the bridge passing overhead. As with the bridge, the rising landscape provides ideal vantage points to view the goings on in the park and from which to view public events.

These mounds dropping into the water pools are meant to summon familiar associations with Vietnam’s iconic Halong Bay landscape. Here, the picturesque arrangement of small scale hills invites people to gambol and linger in lush and sheltering public environment.

The two sides of the new Thu Thiem mall are different in character and provide alternative landscape worlds around a unifying clearing (the marching grounds) down the center of the mall. A continuous surface of decomposed granite draws these two sides together, inviting easy movement back and forth and a visually apparent unity amidst difference. Each side offers verdant shaded environments but according to their very different and complementary models of landscape conception. Open visibility prevails on the forest side, while more intimate and picturesque environments are provided on the other.

River Park: Along the river a long arcing sidewalk steps down to a riverine landscape that mixes social spaces of grass and stone paving with marshy river edges and islands accessible through small footbridges. The aquatic plants in this riverine landscape (including mangrove palm and spikerush) foster an ecological system that naturally cleanses water runoff and provides an improved natural habitat.

Babylonian willow line the riverside street and occurr as individual or small groups of trees on the river islands. These trees provide a characteristic and beautiful riverside landscape, their reoccurrence on the islands in the mall bind these two landscapes together.

Likewise,the rising forms of the islands along the river are similar to those in the pools within the mall. Their similarity suggests a single coherent topography that draws the more formal and urban environment of the mall together with the larger landscape of the river.

Market Building: A market building is proposed for the northeast corner of the mall. It uses the same system of vaults as the pedestrian bridge. Sheltered but open air, the market adds daily shopping rituals to the more leisurely and recreational aspects of the larger park environment. The similarity of the forms in bridge and market structures establishes a common language of public works. Citizens will recognize the image of their city and through such forms of consistency and repetition recognize forms of collective life together in Ho Chi Minh City (as Parisians could in Victor Horta’s subway stations of Paris).

Parking for 200 cars is incorporated beneath the western portion of the pools and mounds (this number may be doubled or trebled through additional levels below grade). A large oculus permits trees to grow up from the underground parking lot, sunlight to shine down to below and views up to the vaults of the bridge above. After leaving one’s car one will be oriented to the world outside, seeing the trees growing up from the parking lot floor and through the sunlit opening and discover that it is their where one may rise from below ground along a circular ramp up through this oculus and into the park above. An additional series of stairs and elevators will permit people to rise from other points in the parking lot to the park and city above. The experience of parking below ground is integrated into the experience of the park and redeemed from its more commonly unappealing and often disorienting circumstances underground.

Ecology and recreation: The pools of water that line the mall belong to two different systems: the western half is an ecological system the eastern half a recreational environment. To the west grey water run-off from surrounding urban surfaces and buildings is directed to the pools filled with plant materials that form a cleansing biotope combined with gravel filters. (Plants include Hairy Water Lily and Sacred Lotus – both capable of grey water remediation). The cleansed water is used to supply the clean water reflecting pools to the east. These are shallow and may be accessible to the public where wading and play amongst water jets can take place.

The largest single cover of the park will be decomposed granite or a similar fine gravel covering. This means that in combination with other porous covering of planting and stone pavers the mall and river park will contribute almost no impermeable surfaces to the new district in Thu Thiem. In fact, the park will be a large permeable surface releaving the city of future water run-off problems.

As mentioned, the riverine park marshes operate as remediating systems for ordinary run off and the river proper while providing improved river habitat for fish and birds.

The piers of the market building will be used to collect rain water and contribute to the fresh water needs of the market and surrounding park.

Plant Selection: All plant materials that have been chosen are either native to Vietnam or have been present for many years. Species have been chosen for their visual form as well as their performative role in remediation and habitat construction.

Structure: The bridge and market building are concrete vaulted structures. While apparently thick and heavy their curved surfaces are to work as thin shell structural systems in combination with heavier pier portions where necessary. The bridge surface is to be covered in stone pavers porous beneath tree canopies. The pattern of the pavers will reinforce the topographical aspect of the bridge’s surface revealing the flow of contour lines in a beautiful decorative patterns. The shape of these forms and their constituent elemens, while recalling a history of bridge and vault construction rely on current digital technologies in structural calculatons, and cad/cam linkages.