RMIT Vietnam lecturer Andrew Stiff is exploring the dense, vibrant hems (alleys) of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 4, a traditionally isolated area that many local residents know little about.
“I come from a family of architects, and I’m married to an architect, so I’ve always had a fascination with cities, structure, environment and spatial environments,” he explained.
After looking at different areas of Ho Chi Minh City, Mr Stiff decided to focus his research on District 4 which is located next to the city’s central business area but also notorious for its history of criminal activity. Today, no longer a mafia hub, the district is home to some of the city’s most popular street food spots, in addition to a rapidly growing stretch of luxury high-rise apartment buildings. However, years of isolation have allowed the district to retain many of its old buildings and narrow alleys.
“I chose District 4 because its geography is quite specific,” he shared.
“It’s almost an island, and what I noticed when we were walking around is that people that live there tend to work there; it operates internally.”
This stands in contrast to other districts, where most people travel from the hems they live in to business centres like downtown District 1. “It appears the majority of people in District 4 seem to both work and live there,” Mr Stiff added.
The lecturer cites Bernard Tschumi, the French-Swiss architect, as an influence on his research. Tschumi argued that architectural space is defined by event, movement and space, and this trifecta has formed the foundation of Mr Stiff’s understanding of the medium.
As a result, his study of District 4 involves far more than simply walking around and taking in daily life in busy hems.
“The practice is a record, I see these as being a documentation of the spaces,” Mr Stiff said.
“I’ve created a series of visual lenses with which to explore these spaces, such as extracted colour, looking at extreme details, zooming into something or reconstructing time as a three-dimensional object so you can explore where these things comes from.”
These visual lenses also include augmented reality (AR) technology, which allows visitors to the exhibition to see scenes from the streets of District 4 depicted in a room at RMIT.
“This takes it beyond just being a visual documentary, because you can go on YouTube or Flickr and see a million pictures or videos of District 4,” Mr Stiff said.
“The idea was to try and make something which would explore event, space and movement as a set of drivers for the space.”
In the course of this research, he also discovered that many HCMC natives have little knowledge of that corner of the city.
“I’ve taken students to District 4 and it’s really interesting to see their responses,” Mr Stiff explained.
“Some of the students live right next to it and have never been there in their life, only just going through it to get to District 1 [the central business district].”
He went on: “In a way it might be easier as a foreigner since everything looks different. I think the fact that foreigners see this builds some confidence in the locals that the world around them isn’t run-down and out of date. It’s actually still highly relevant and very important as a cultural space.”
Mr Stiff’s research is now part of an ongoing exhibition hosted at the University called ‘Sign of the Times’. The work forms the basis of his PhD.
Story: Michael Tatarski