August 1, 2005
In Texas two brothers create a modern tribute to their Vietnamese roots, uniting three generations.
Houston had taken a heavy pounding from winds and rain the night before, but the Nguyen family complex handled it well. The sloping roofs of the two-story structure housing Chuong Nguyen, his wife, and daughter, and the L-shaped bungalow built for his parents had channeled the downpour into the pond in between and slowly drained it into the garden. Chuong’s daughter, Bao-Han, played peacefully in the glass-walled living room overlooking the pond and her grandparent’s house. Later her grandfather, Sau, pulled into the driveway across the pond and set his lawn chair by the water to read the newspaper and oversee a domestic tableau spanning three generations.
The complex’s most striking feature is its “ancestor” pavilion, inspired by an eleventh-century Vietnamese single-pillar pagoda that architects Chung and Chuong Nguyen (pronounced “Wen”) of MC2 gave a decidedly personal turn. Designed as a meeting place during traditional family celebrations, its banana-leaf roof recalls their childhood in Vietnam, where the brothers would often shelter themselves under banana trees during unpredictable rainstorms. Two wood bridges across the surrounding pond link the pavilion to the older brother’s living room and to the grandmother’s Vietnamese kitchen, placed outdoors to allow heat to be expended during her preparation of massive family feasts.
In the pavilion and the rest of the house, the Nguyen brothers merged vernacular and modern elements without compromising the functional role of a family shelter. They even corralled their two older brothers into the construction process so that the actual building of the structure would reaffirm the family’s sense of connection. “This is a family project, so I felt like we all should contribute something to it,” Chuong says. “The house took a little bit longer to do. In the beginning my other brothers weren’t too happy, but after a while they realized it’s kind of fun, and it had actually been a long time since we were together as a family. After about two days we began to make that connection again.”
“In Vietnam many generations live in the same house,” says Chung, the younger architect brother. “We’re at the stage now where my parents are getting older and cannot walk up stairs anymore. So the idea was to build a house for them and at the same time for my brother to take care of them, and also for my parents to help take care of their granddaughter while they’re still able. This cycle of generations taking care of each other is part of Vietnamese tradition.”
The fifth and sixth children of a South Vietnamese army officer, the Nguyen brothers were 12 and 13 during the fall of Saigon and just managed to get on a boat before North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city in 1975. They ended up in a refugee camp in Florida with their mother, while Sau remained confined in a Communist labor camp for the next 11 years. By the time he managed to escape and join them, they were finishing graduate degrees in architecture, Chung at Columbia and Chuong at Yale.
These were the waning days of Post-Modernism and the birth of computer-aided design. But while Chung spent the next two years working in the studios of Emilio Ambasz and Gino Valle, Chuong, who finished school a few years after his brother, took the extraordinary step of diving headfirst into construction. “It was frustrating for me in school because they always talked about theory and politics, but in reality that doesn’t go hand in hand with building at all,” Chuong says. “So I thought, Okay, it’s time for me to really get my hands dirty and try to understand how all of these things work.”
Chung soon joined him as a construction worker and later as a subcontractor framing houses. Gradually they started designing and building their own projects, merging their formalist and theory-driven education with the physical experience of construction. “When you design and build, you’re experimenting but you’re also the guinea pig,” Chung says. “When you’re the architect, somebody else is the guinea pig. It’s like you see on TV—people jump over cars, and it says ‘Don’t try this at home.’ It’s the same with architecture—just because you see it in magazines doesn’t mean you can do it.”
After a dozen years and with 30 residential buildings and single-family homes in Houston under their belts, MC2 had mostly left the building part to subcontractors, but the brothers decided to return to their design-build roots for a house that had the goal of functionally and symbolically embodying the family’s journey from Vietnam and its reunion in Texas. “In a sense the house is a self-portrait of me and my brother,” Chung says. “It’s a Texas house, but then there’s this Vietnamese element.”
An essential part of the balancing act between the two vernaculars is the attentiveness to regional climate. For instance, the metal-ribbon roofs of the two residential structures and the pagoda deflect sunlight and are tilted to funnel rainwater into the pond, which serves as a retaining pool to collect excess water and drain it into the garden. It’s a required amenity for larger lots in Houston to prevent storm drains from overloading, but in this case the brothers have adopted it as a personal gesture, using it to symbolize the ocean that separated the family and brought them together in Texas—to the point of installing seven overflow valves to represent the seven children who were born of their mother, Thu-Thuy, whose name means “autumn water” in Vietnamese. Even the lilies in the pond have a personal significance; instead of their leaves and flowers rising above the water like the lotus—a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment evoked by the single-pillar pagoda—lilies, like the family pavilion, rest on the surface of the water, prosaic and human.
But given its location the most impressive aspect of the complex is its use of shading devices. With an abundance of windows and Modernist openness, it would be easy to assume that the architects allowed form to take precedence and defaulted to the common tendency to rely on air-conditioning in lieu of a properly architectural solution. Yet despite all of its windows, the orientation of the complex mostly prevents direct sunlight from getting inside the houses. The two-story west-facing building, which has a row of small louvered windows, serves to shade the courtyard’s interior, and the roof overhangs provide additional shading. “A builder would never think of that,” Chung says. “But as an architect you’re supposed to think about it that way.”
In his landmark 1983 essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” Kenneth Frampton emphasized the importance of precisely these sorts of adjustments to the natural environment for contemporary architecture to avoid the pitfalls of a superficial eclecticism. “[Fenestration has] an innate capacity to inscribe architecture with the character of a region and hence to express the place in which a work is situated,” he wrote. “The main antagonist of rooted culture is the ubiquitous air-conditioner, applied in all times and in all places, irrespective of the local climatic conditions….” It was a message that Chung took to heart in Frampton’s class at Columbia, and it’s reflected in the Nguyen house’s merging of Vietnamese and Modern vernaculars.
The prefabricated trusses used for structural support are typical for Texas—though they are doubled and inverted in order to slant the roofs toward the pond—and the trusses are left exposed to highlight their tectonic integrity. The bland exterior siding of the complex enables it to blend unobtrusively with the neighborhood despite the idiosyncratic pagoda. This is largely shielded from passing cars by the two-story structure housing the older brother’s family and by his workshop, where most of the furniture was fabricated in a regional white oak.
Like any house in Texas worthy of the name, the Nguyen family complex comes equipped with a porch and a swing, and a steady breeze flows from the entrance’s wall, which works like a sail to catch wind. It’s the area where everyone naturally gravitates, the sound of water trickling in the background and a school of koi that the older brother is trying to train to swim in circles around the pagoda. Geography equals destiny, as the saying goes, and after the sun goes down the Nguyen family is probably as much Texan as Vietnamese. “At the end of the day,” Chung says, “you sit there, swing, catch the breeze, and talk to your family.”