Hahn on Schwenkel, 'Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam'

Christina Schwenkel. Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020. Illustrations. xviii + 403 pp. $30.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1106-4; $114.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1001-2. 

Reviewed by Hazel Hahn (Seattle University)
Published on H-Urban (January, 2022)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57184

Hahn on Schwenkel

Christina Schwenkel’s Building Socialism is a remarkably illuminating transnational and interdisciplinary study of socialist nation building, examined through the lenses of internationalism, urban planning and architecture, and an ethnography of a mass housing estate. The book is divided into three parts: part 1, “Ruination,” on the US air war that destroyed the northern Vietnamese city of Vinh; part 2, “Reconstruction,” on the planning and reconstruction of Vinh through a Vietnamese-East German cooperation, in particular the planning and construction of the Quang Trung housing estate; and part 3, “Obsolescence,” on the degradation of Quang Trung and the ongoing project of redevelopment. The book’s scope is ambitious, yet the author very much succeeds in presenting a cohesive, theoretically rich work of in-depth investigation. Based on meticulous archival research in Vietnam and Germany in addition to ethnographic fieldwork, including interviews with Vietnamese and German planners and architects and the residents of Quang Trung, Building Socialism is a richly nuanced, often-enthralling page turner highlighting human resilience.

The introduction emphasizes the heterogenous, fragmented nature of the perspectives of the planners, builders, authorities, and residents of Quang Trung. Schwenkel argues that Quang Trung was planned and built as part of a model socialist city after wartime devastation, promising a radically new utopian future, but that decay began immediately upon completion, withdrawing the promise of the dreamed future, resulting in variegated, “coexisting affects and temporalities” (p. 2). In the first chapter, on the US aerial bombing of Vinh, Schwenkel notes that the extent of trauma suffered by the Vietnamese during the US-Vietnam War has been erased in both the US media and much of scholarship. The numbers cited alone—for example, more than 4,700 air strikes between 1964 and 1973 that left a bomb crater about every thirty meters—reveal the scale of devastation. Schwenkel argues that fascination with visual military technologies and achievement, in conjunction with frustration at failed missions, led toward irrational “overkill” (p. 39). Chapter 2 covers defensive actions in Vinh in response to the air war, such as the construction of underground trenches and shelters—built by residents, including children—and evacuation procedures, as well as the mass evacuation of nearly two-thirds of Vinh’s population to the countryside. Schwenkel shows that the bombing destroyed schools, hospitals, houses, pagodas, and commercial areas, and provides compelling insights drawn from the photography archive in Vinh, which preserved records highlighting human suffering more than material destruction. She argues that the photographs “subvert the technical (and techno-fanatical) logics of optical warfare,” erasing human presence through its distanced aerial “total vision” (pp. 60, 62). Chapter 3 is on a little-known period of internationalism in northern Vietnam during the French and American wars (1945-75), tracing the formation of “sympathetic solidarities” with paternalistic undertones in GDR (German Democratic Republic/East Germany) for DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam/North Vietnam) alongside growing opposition to the war around the world (p. 79). In GDR, Schwenkel demonstrates, solidarity actions, framed as a duty to support independence movements, drove East Germans, with memories of wartime traumas, to urgent action, such as donations.

Chapter 4 covers the flourishing of internationalism in DRV and GDR, both motivated by national interests and ambitions on the global stage, and the project to rebuild Vinh, which garnered particular attention due to Vinh’s association with Ho Chi Minh. East Germans, Schwenkel reveals, had material and financial interests in joining the project. The Vietnamese, Schwenkel notes, were ambivalent in interacting with Germans, while Germans, aware of the history of foreign domination in Vietnam, sought to be sensitive toward their hosts. Chapter 5 analyzes the planning of Vinh as a new socialist city, an urban and industrial regional center to serve as a model for the rest of the country. Schwenkel argues that the visionary and revolutionary potential of building a bright future appealed to planners and officials anticipating the end of the war. Both East German and Vietnamese planners emphasized to Schwenkel the cooperative nature of the design process, but she notes that Vietnamese planners disapproved of GDR planners’ proposal of a monumental city center and that GDR planners’ “green city” conceptions, combined with “elements of tropical modernism,” veered toward the experimental and were shaped by Orientalist imaginaries (p. 148). Another problem was that the vehicles and equipment shipped from GDR were used, some broken; Schwenkel points out that GDR firms’ recycling of obsolete technology helped their own modernization while publicly partaking in the building of socialism in Vietnam. Chapter 6, on the construction of Quang Trung, is one of the most riveting, in its analysis of the gap between aspiration and reality. GDR promoted prefabrication in Vietnam, yet Quang Trung’s blocks were built in brick with concrete façade; some of the blocks were not “efficient, high-tech, concrete panel buildings whatsoever, but labor-intensive, conventional structures” (p. 172). Quang Trung, envisioned to house fifteen thousand and to include schools, daycare centers, a trade center, a cinema, and a hotel, would only be partly completed. Highlighted is the ecological rationalism of the plan, using meteorological data that allowed for efficient use of light and wind. Beneath the appearance of standardization, Schwenkel reveals, were numerous variables in the design of apartments, alongside gender and occupational stratification.

Chapter 7 covers the state agenda and discourse of civilizing, for creating socialist beings through the reform of daily conducts and habits. Schwenkel notes that housing regulations, in particular for the disposal of trash, were routinely ignored and that rural migrant workers were particularly criticized for disorderly conduct. The noncompliance of residents, Schwenkel argues, reveals their dissatisfaction regarding the conditions of the dense, urban mass housing. Chapter 8 provides a compelling and evocative account of structural and infrastructural problems that began to appear even as Quang Trung was being completed, and breakdown leading to dangerous living conditions and “unplanned obsolescence” to the distress of the tenants forced to come up with collective and individual solutions (p. 238). Tenants criticized the state, seen as corrupt, for infrastructure neglect and failure to maintain buildings. Yet Schwenkel also reveals the limitations of East German engineering, responsible for designing a water and sanitation system; upper floors were deprived of water for lack of enough pressure, and when water finally became available to all floors by the mid-1990s, the ongoing decay of buildings caused widespread leaks, which intensified breakdown. Chapter 9 analyzes apartment modifications at Quang Trung—doorways, back balconies, and walk-out basements—as subversive practices that deviate from socialist planning policy and housing regulations. Schwenkel reveals that illegal additions of increasingly larger structures were tolerated with the payment of a fine after construction, and basements were transformed into commercial spaces, such as factories, shops, and even parking. Chapter 10 is on the most controversial topic for Quang Trung residents: privatization and redevelopment. While the state presented privatization as benevolent, Schwenkel demonstrates, many tenants were angry that, having paid rent for thirty years, they had to buy their apartments and then pay again upon resettlement. The chapter includes riveting accounts of residents becoming housing activists against privatization, debates over renovation or redevelopment, and the decision of the mostly female tenants of a block to reject the financial terms of redevelopment. Schwenkel notes a generational divide, between younger newcomers preferring redevelopment and older residents attached to their community and memories, objecting to living in a high-rise lacking, among other things, green spaces that are plentiful at Quang Trung.

One element surprisingly missing from the book is any mention of the widespread presence of modernist buildings in Ho Chi Minh City, most of which were built prior to the construction of Quang Trung, in the 1945-75 period. In contextualizing the redevelopment of Vinh and the planning of Quang Trung, Schwenkel refers to cases of socialist planning and also the origins of modernist planning by Le Corbusier and CIAM (International Congresses of Modern Architecture), as well as planning under capitalist regimes in Brasilia, Jakarta, and the Philippines, yet not Ho Chi Minh City, or Phnom Penh, where “New Khmer” modernist architecture flourished.[1] It seems that for the Vietnamese architects from the Design Institute of Hanoi and East German planners, Saigon’s modernist architecture was not a reference either through lack of knowledge particularly due to wartime conditions or unwillingness to acknowledge, but this needs to be explicitly stated. Schwenkel shows that Vinh was publicized as a model socialist city with “modernist mass housing” that was “bold and unprecedented in its scale and form” and that the onset of the construction of Quang Trung in 1974 symbolized, for officials, “the dawn of technological modernity” (pp. 2, 165). The claim to the radicalness of the modernist form was accurate for a northern Vietnamese city but not when also considering southern Vietnam. Mel Schenck’s Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture: Mid-Century Vernacular Modernism (2020) documents a number of “massive replacement housing projects” in Ho Chi Minh City designed by Vietnamese architects in modernist style, built following the influx of a million people after 1954, as well as subsequent to the Tet Offensive of 1968.[2] Further, Quang Trung shares with the housing estates of Ho Chi Minh City such features as shared front corridors and brise-soleil (sun-blocking) elements—as can be seen on the cover of Building Socialism. Residents of the housing complexes in Ho Chi Minh City like the sociability afforded by the front corridors and markets, as do Quang Trung’s tenants.[3] The emergence of collective, high-density housing as a solution to the housing crisis in North Vietnam from 1970 onward, as noted by Schwenkel, clearly had a parallel precedent in South Vietnam under different ideologies. While Schwenkel cannot be faulted for not being aware of a book published in 2020, the same year as Building Socialism, simply noting the preeminent presence of modernist architecture in Ho Chi Minh City would have helped to further contextualize the view—publicized by DRV’s and GDR’s officials—that East Germany was bringing modernity to Vietnam.

Building Socialism is a captivating, imaginative, and significant contribution in anthropology, Vietnamese history, urban history, and history of urban planning. It is suitable for assigning in both graduate and upper-division undergraduate courses. Situating a story of a mass housing estate alongside wartime devastation, socialist internationalism, and Vietnam’s integration into the global network of cooperation, the book casts light on a genuine albeit flawed sense of solidarity, manifested in an immense collective endeavor aimed at achieving a dream of urban futurity. The book offers fascinating insights on temporalities, as well as lucid analyses of gendered labor, showing that images juxtaposing technology and working Vietnamese women were based on the reality of women being largely responsible for the labor of filling craters, grading land, and constructing Quang Trung itself, just as women had maintained roads and detonated bombs during aerial warfare. Schwenkel demonstrates that as the utopian dream turns out to be elusive, tenants of Quang Trung continue to actively imagine their futures.


[1]. Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins, Building Cambodia: "New Khmer Architecture" 1953-1970 (Bangkok: Key Publisher, 2006).

[2]. Mel Schenck, Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture: Mid-Century Vernacular Modernism (Helena, MT: Architecture Vietnam Books, 2020), 225.

[3]. Schenck, Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture, 240.

Citation: Hazel Hahn. Review of Schwenkel, Christina, Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57184

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