A Narrow Courtyard Joins a Unique Two-Family Home in Saigon

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By Emily Shapiro / Published by Dwell
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.

The city of Saigon inspired this creative and playful building, a response to the recent influx of Western-style spaces in the city center. The owners, two sisters and their families, wanted their home to be a tribute to tradition and a gathering place for their children, siblings, and extended family. The resulting space is a home open to the sounds and culture of the city outside, organized around comfort, nature, and shared activity.

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A patterned steel frame serves as a front wall to the street, allowing for light and noise to penetrate the interior. The owners were adamant about the importance of integrating the culture and traditions of Saigon into their home, hoping their children would grow up with a knowledge of and appreciation for the city.

By merging typical Saigon architectural and stylistic details, architect Toan Nghiem of a21 Studio created a space that brings family together. Stacking roof layers, open flowering balconies, and an alleyway that serves as a living room, dining room, and outdoor playground are all filled with colorful, rich materials. Inside, reclaimed and second-hand furniture lend history and spirit to the home. 

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Contrary to most contemporary, Western-style homes in Vietnam, Nghiem kept the private spaces small and the common spaces large. “I wanted the people living in the house [to] enjoy it with others,” he says. With six staircases, many of them collected from old houses and modified to fit this home, the two families are constantly traveling between bedrooms and common spaces.

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With so many small interior rooms and divisions between spaces, the addition of a net ceiling brings openness to the back alleyway, where the family often gathers to eat dinner. Not only does the net allow for ventilation and light, but it offers a place to play for the children, who love to climb and lounge above their parents.

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The common area, a long open alleyway on the ground floor, serves as a gathering place, dining room, and playground for the children. This is where family members interact, communicate, and build relationships, all while exposed to the changing seasons through the net ceiling, which is open to the sky.

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The family enjoys a shared meal in the ground floor alleyway, which serves as a gathering place, dining area, and playground. Native trees are planted on the ground floor as well as on balconies and in the steel frames, covering the home with plants and shifting the natural world inside.

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The alleyway extends into a full kitchen, where meals can be prepared right beside family gatherings. While the main frame of the home was built with the typical concrete, brick, and steel, the materials for the roof and floor tiles, as well as doors, windows, shelving and interior furnishings, were sourced primarily from demolished Saigon homes.

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A rare interior hallway space is made and furnished almost entirely with reclaimed materials. Materials for doors, windows, and the slatted wooden floor were collected from demolished Saigon homes and customized to fit the residence.

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Six staircases, many open to outside light, serve as pathways between the private interior spaces.

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Flowering balconies are common in Saigon, where residents can interact with the city outside. Here, a beautifully patterned steel frame contains a cantilevered internal balcony, which looks out over the outdoor dining area's net ceiling.

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The bedrooms are kept small, spare, and simple, in an effort to draw the family out of their bedrooms and into shared spaces. Furnishings, most of which were collected by the architect and owner, carry stories of their previous owners and impart a rich history to the space and its residents.

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