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Living in Laos

In August 2008 I moved with my family to Laos for a year. We wanted to give our children—and ourselves—a break from American, or Western culture, and experience something new and different. And different we found: in Vientiane, capital of Laos.

While there, what impressed me most as a photographer was how Vientiane is like a living museum of vernacular architecture that reflects its colonial history—the French, but also the American and Soviet. I also got the sense that the city was going to change tremendously over the next decade. Like in neighboring China, older buildings would get destroyed to make way for the ubiquitous glass towers. I wanted to photograph these buildings to keep a record of this history.

For a long time this building was the tallest building in Vientiane. I love the way it shoots straight up and out with those lines accentuating its verticality. That must have been quiet a terrace up on top in its heyday. It was probably built in the 1950s and housed the French Cultural Center back when the French were in control of the country. Apparently the members of the family who own it cannot come to any agreement and the building has been vacant for many years—except for one shop on the first floor.

When the French arrived in Vientiane in the late 1800s they found the ruins of a couple of temples and jungle everywhere. During French colonial rule, roughly the first half of the 20th Century, the city was built along the banks of the Mekong River. With the defeat of the French in Vietnam in the mid 1950’s and the region becoming strategically important to the Americans, Vientiane experienced a shift of tides. The influx of foreign aid through the USAID agency helped create a construction boom of sorts; administration buildings, schools and “villas” for the wealthy and foreigners. In the 60’s and 70’s, as Laos was drawn into the Vietnam war much of it’s countryside was bombed—Laos is known as the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the history of warfare. With the victory of the Pathet Lao (Land of Lao) in 1975, a communist political movement similar to the Viet Minh (and later Viet Cong) of Vietnam, all new construction ceased and one third of its population fled to exile. Being a new socialist country the Lao looked to the Soviet Union for aid. The 1980s brought new growth with the presence of some 1,500 Soviet technicians and advisors. As the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of the 1980’s, Laos began to reorient itself towards developing better relations with its southeast Asian neighbors as well as China.

This building is located in Ban Kuanluang Neua, the neighborhood where recent Chinese immigrants have settled, near the evening market of Thong Khan Kham. It's a bustling commercial center. To get this shot I literally had to set up the tripod inside a store selling machinery parts. I asked the young couple managing the store, in my barely passable Lao, if it was OK for me to set up the tripod. Their blank expression immediately told me they weren’t Lao. Officials estimate this village to be made up of two thirds foreign-born residents—mostly Chinese but also Vietnamese and Thai.
These colonial houses are around the old center of town. They were originally residential houses built between 1914 and 1930 for the French colonial officials and administrators. The French brought Vietnamese masons and carpenters since they were already trained to build French style houses. Most of these laborers settled in Ban Anou, the old Vietnamese “village” in Vientiane.

The urbanized area of Vientiane is spread over 148 villages. In Laos, the "village" (ban) is the smallest administrative, religious and political unit in both rural and urban areas. The spatial division into villages reflects political, administrative, and social reality. In Vientiane, each village has it’s own food shops, scooter repair garages, pharmacy, and food stalls. One does not need to leave the village except to buy big items or for emergencies. Often, in this urban space, there is no clear separation between private homes, businesses, pedestrians and vehicles. People navigate, play, shop, eat, and rest on the street—only the tourist area and the more recent and bigger avenues have sidewalks.

This building reminds me of a Constructivist structure plopped down on Lao soil. Back in the 80s, I am sure it symbolized socialist progress and brotherhood. Today, the Soviets are gone, and the building is falling apart and the trash is piling outside—an apt metaphor for most foreign aid to Laos (and most developing countries, for that matter.)To see more of Marc's photography, go to Marc Henrich Projects

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