Once home to misery, now a place for humanity

The site where the General Sciences Library of Ho Chi Minh City now stands wasn’t always a place of learning and hope

The main entrance to the General Sciences Library of Ho Chi Minh City

When a 17 year old, born Le Van Trong, went to the guillotine on the 21st November 1931 at the Maison Centrale de Saigon, the moments leading up to his impending death must’ve been horrific. The teenager had been sentenced to death for shooting dead a French police officer during a rally celebrating the anniversary of the Yen Bai uprising just nine months earlier. The uprising had been an attempt to overthrow the ruling French colonial regime the previous year.

On this day, the young activist would’ve been roused by the unlocking of the cage door to his dank death row cell, then poked and prodded to his knees. His cangue, a crude and barbaric, yet extremely effective torture device, would’ve weighed down his gaunt and listless body so much so that his captors would’ve had to lift him to his feet. After which, he would’ve been dragged out into the courtyard of the prison, past his diseased inmates slumped and manacled to the damp stone floor, to meet his executioner.

History would eventually tell that the young man executed that day, most likely barefoot, filthy, and barely a thread covering his emaciated frame, was in fact Ly Tu Trong, a founding member of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and who would posthumously have a street running by the site of his execution named in his honour.

“History would eventually tell that the young man executed that day…was in fact Ly Tu Trong, a founding member of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union…”

The manner in which Ly Tu Trong was held captive and later executed is a bleak reminder of what happened to dissenters under French rule in Vietnam. The last moments of his life offer a window into the squalid conditions of the notorious Maison Centrale de Saigon. It was the perfect incubator for deadly epidemics that frequently tore through the prison population.

Before his demise and his subsequent dumping in an unmarked graveyard on the premises of what is now Ly Thi Rieng Park, Ly Tu Trong is alleged to have proclaimed, “I act for revolutionary purposes. I am still not mature, but I have enough knowledge to realise the way of youths is only the revolutionary way.”

A new beginning

In 1968, the Maison Centrale was demolished after inmates were finally transferred to the newer Chi Hoa prison in District 10, which was completed in 1953. Today, the building on the site of Ly Tu Trong’s execution couldn’t be further from the horror conjured by the stories and images of Maison Centrale.

The General Sciences Library of Ho Chi Minh City, designed by local architects Nguyen Huu Thien and Bui Quang Hanh, is a fine example of Modernist architecture that evokes peace and harmony on a site that once knew only misery and death.

Opened to the public in 1971, the experience of the General Sciences Library starts at the front entrance on Ly Tu Trong street where atop the two gate posts sit large lanterns that seem inspired by the ones you’d typically see in Japanese gardens and pathways leading up to Buddhist temples. The less vigilant may inadvertently miss this as the eye is easily drawn to the more conspicuous white motifs that scale the entire front facing wall of the building which includes calligraphy that curiously appear to resemble the Chinese characters for happiness. It seems a lot of effort has gone into willing over this place to be one of goodness after its sad and sorry past. It is paradoxically quite Zen.

The lanterns are part of an understated perimeter fence made up of concrete sections that could easily represent elongated versions of old Vietnamese coins standing on their ends. Whatever the symbolism, the fence is typical of the utilitarian nature of Modernist design that takes into account the climate and a building’s purpose.

The bridge that leads to ‘enlightenment’

While the fence boldly delineates the boundaries of the library on most sides of the library’s grounds (some sections were removed post-1975), it allows air to move through it akin to a large ventilator helping the site to breathe. Perhaps more importantly, however, unlike the purpose of most other fences, it doesn’t tell the curious voyeur to keep out, but rather, it invites them to take a peek to see what’s inside.

The building has long enamoured local architects Hoanh Tran and Archie Pizzini of HTA+Pizzini Architects. According to them, emerging from an era where much was, and still is, prefabricated, the library not only represents design where every piece comes together to form part of the same vision, it goes beyond, meaning that although it’s inspired by a global Modernist period of architecture, they say it’s uniquely Vietnamese.

“This building is more than just a Modernist era building. It’s localisation of Modernism”, says Hoanh. “True Modernism in the West was characterised by what was also called International Style in what was supposed to be a global style, and supposed to be mass-produced and industrial. But when it came to Vietnam, it became a handmade thing and that’s what’s unique about this place.”

“This building is more than just a Modernist era building. It’s localisation of Modernism.” — Hoanh Tran, architect

Archie echoes Hoanh’s assessment. “The amazing lanterns, for example. They’re an Asian element interpreted through a Western lense then reinterpreted through this Vietnamese Modernist architecture.”

Form and function

Thanks to their expertise, Hoanh and Archie are able to articulate the acute contrast between form and function of the Maison Centrale and the General Sciences Library.

Archie says the library has a “nice civic feel” to it, where obviously the prison before it wasn’t designed to be inviting in any way. He stresses the importance of civic buildings in offering an “uplifting gift to the community” and something that promotes “a collective worth to its citizens.”

“This has its place in the culture,” he says. “It’s a repository of knowledge. You’re in a place that holds the promise of humanity.”

“This has its place in the culture…It’s a repository of knowledge. You’re in a place that holds the promise of humanity.” — Archie Pizzini, architect

And what he says makes sense. It’s not until Archie points it out that you realise the phases you go through upon leaving the chaos of the street to arriving inside the library foyer where you’re greeted by an astonishingly beautiful terrazzo-style staircase winding its way up to the second floor. This arrival in itself is enough to help anyone for more than just a fleeting moment forget their worries in the world. It’s hard not to stop and just gaze at it for a while.

The stairway to the main library in the foyer of the General Sciences Library of Ho Chi Minh City

Archie stresses that this feeling the building engenders isn’t merely by chance, but that it’s all part of a well-thought out plan by the designers. Once visitors pass through the front gate, they’re directed along a short path leading towards the steps of the front entrance which actually form part of a “bridge” over a narrow water feature filled with koi and water lilies running the length of the front of the building. It acts as a metaphor for the path to enlightenment.

“In the foyer, you’ve ended up in a very special place,” says Archie. “You’ve transitioned and transitioned into another realm. There’s a sense of steps of arrival that helps you separate from being on the street and then suddenly you’re in a special place.”

Looking on

Bac Nguyen, who was director of the library from 2000–2007, agrees that the library has played its role.

“It’s been a focal point for the community who have craved education and it’s still a place where people can come not only for information, but for the experience as well,” she says.

“It’s been a focal point for the community who have craved education and it’s still a place where people can come not only for information, but for the experience as well.” — Bac Nguyen, retired librarian

Bac says that while she worked at the library, she was never distracted by the knowledge that the site had once been the place of hundreds, possibly thousands, of executions. Rather, she had been more concerned by the encroachment of small businesses on nearby Nguyen Trung Truc that she says have a deleterious effect on the aesthetics of the site.

“They aren’t part of the original area of the library,” she says. “Where those businesses now stand, it used to be a beautifully landscaped garden.”

Nevertheless, it hasn’t prevented young Vietnamese like Dat, Hieu and Yen from coming to the library up to five times a week to study and enjoy the quiet.

“The design is very beautiful, it’s spacious and has a fresh atmosphere,” says Yen, a 23 year old accountancy student from Thu Duc.

While Yen and her friends had known little of the site’s notorious past, and that a national treasure had his life ended here, their optimism for the future is infectious as they outline their hopes and dreams in the presence of a bust of Ly Tu Trong looking on; a man whose own hopes and dreams hadn’t been too dissimilar almost a century ago.

“We hope for peace and good health and that our leaders continue to listen to us,” says Yen. “And I hope this building remains.”

  • An edited version of this story was published in the October 2016 edition of Word Vietnam. More of my stuff can be found at eqme.net
  • Photos by Bao Zoan