Welcome to Design Detours, a series where creative people whose tastes we trust share their well-curated, design-minded travel itineraries.
As a first generation Canadian whose parents were refugees from Vietnam, architect Can Vu Bui has an affinity for Asian neighborhoods in Western cities. "They have always been a fascinating city phenomenon to me," says the principal at Office of Things (a New York-, Chicago-, and Charlottesville-based studio whose work we love). In 2011, Vu Bui spent a summer in Paris working on a research project about the program of Les Grands Ensembles as part of his studies at Yale. Vu Bui examined the intersection of modern housing and the large migration of diasporas to France; it was how he got to know Les Olympiades, a residential district in the 13th arrondissement on the right bank, known as a hub of Chinese and Vietnamese diasporas.
Not only was Vu Bui drawn to the area’s Brutalist-style buildings—a series of towers clad in staggered, corrugated-concrete panels filled with housing and commercial malls with local shops and bars—he also felt a personal connection to the community, too. "On a personal note, [I wanted] to process the different Vietnamese diasporas around the world," he says. "Nearly every time I've been back to Paris I stop there."
Vu Bui’s most recent return to Les Olympiades was in 2022, when he, his wife, Lane (also principal at Office of Things’ New York office), and their young child tagged on a few extra days in Paris after attending a friend’s wedding in Toulouse. Here, Vu Bui shares some of his favorite things to do in the area, including eating pho and people-watching at a French Vietnamese bistro and taking a ceramics class at a converted studio.
Day 1: Walk through Les Olympiades and eat pho at a local institution
We decided to stay at the vacant apartment of a friend who is doing a PhD in Brussels. We went to Phở Banh Cuon 14m, a Vietnamese institution on their block, before we headed out for the day—not only because we have a two-year-old, but also because pho is traditionally served for breakfast or lunch. The pho stock is classic, complex, and rich and smells of anise, clove, and cinnamon, with charred gingers and onions. The restaurant has a prominent corner location with outdoor seating that stretches the street and is covered by a long, green awning. I love it there because it’s both very Vietnamese and French and is great for people-watching. The furniture is not posh; there are practical, wood-topped painted metal stools with no backs, like you might find at a traditional French bistro on the street. The staff were friendly and spoke a mix of French and Vietnamese.
Day 2: View art at an architectural landmark and feast on a French- and Chinese-inspired meal
On the border of the 13th and 14th districts is the Fondation Cartier, a marvelous glass building by French architect Jean Nouvel with contemporary art exhibitions. From the street, it appears as a series of shimmering glass layers, like a jewel box nested inside a verdant garden that spills onto the street. Nouvel did a great trick here: the glass walls reflect and mirror the trees and sky, further obscuring the building enclosure. It feels like you’re walking into a forest. The exhibitions give space to challenging topics by well-known, international artists. We saw a show by Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, an Aboriginal artist whose large canvas paintings—very bold, colorful, and evocative—were mesmerizing. The canvases were set against the steel-and-glass walls of the building, which showed the forested nature.
For dinner, we headed to L’Hommage (French for ‘tribute’), a French-Chinese restaurant that’s an homage to the owner’s roots as a chef in China. If you didn’t look out for the discreet, glass facade on Avenue de Choisy, you’d probably miss it among the traditional Asian restaurants and markets, also with simple glass exteriors and inconspicuous signs. There’s a diverse mix of young adults, but also an older Asian clientele in their 40 and 50s who perhaps grew up in the neighborhood. The menu changes somewhat frequently, but our most memorable dishes were roasted cauliflower on a bed of nori, and for dessert, a creamed orange blossom with dates and caramel foam—high on technique. The interior is modern and refined with a slightly Nordic aesthetic. It’s an airy, white space with burgundy booths; varying textures of woods, leathers, and polished concrete tables; and accents of deep red and blue. Original iron columns, which are stripped raw, divide the space and serve as a reminder of its original Parisian roots.
Day 3: Tour other Brutalist-style housing complexes and a ceramics studio in Ivry-Sur-Seine
We eventually went south of the 13th district toward Ivry-Sur-Seine to see another building from Les Grands Ensembles: Les Étoiles, a social housing complex built between 1969 and 1975 by French architects Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet with sharp, zigzagging angles that rise and fall like a topographical landscape. Les Étoiles shares a similar concrete material palette and building logic with Les Oympiades: retail and community spaces fill the ground levels, made of concrete cast to form this really rough corrugated or corduroy-like texture. In the summer, the latter are overflowing with greenery. Some of the terraces are public, while others are private, so navigating them can be tricky. The lower level is open and the first two tiers of terraces were accessible when we visited. There are courtyards on the ground and second levels, which are public.
Next, we went to visit a former tractor factory a few streets over that’s now a working artist studio with classes. (On special weekends or holidays, the space often holds open parties.) Ceramicists Marion Bocquet-Appel and Nina Forlani of Unique Multiple showed us around. They come from backgrounds as sculptors, but the work they make in this studio—all handmade collections with different color palettes—is largely home decor and lifestyle. They gave us a tour of their studio (which has a working gantry crane!) and we took our daughter to a ceramics class, where she got to work with clay and see how earthenware and ceramics are made and fired. We looked at what they hadn’t sent off to stockists around Paris and bought a few large earthenware plates from their Camo Collection—earthy reddish with abstract shapes and stripes—for our home.
To eat, we went back to Les Olympiades and got a banh mi at Thieng Heng, a small shop with a street-facing window that reveals the bakery. Nearby, there’s also an independent bookstore called Librarie Jonas with really well-curated sections by the staff, with a particular emphasis on kids and young adults books and graphic novels. My toddler loved it.
Day 4: Visit a Le Corbusier masterpiece
We ventured southwest toward the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris campus to see a pair of Le Corbusier buildings that mark the beginning and end of the Swiss-French architect’s work with high-rise concrete housing. It was a nice bookend to the trip, seeing some of the finest examples of this Brutalist typology, which fundamentally paved the way for complexes like Les Olympiades.
Our last stop before returning home to New York was Les 4 Soupes, a 40-year-old soup restaurant still owned by the same family, now operated by the founders’ children. Our friend whose apartment we stayed in has been eating there for almost 30 years. The interior underwent a revamp and is slightly more trendy-looking now, perhaps too much so, but the food is still solid. Their pho ga (chicken pho) is light with a clear broth and very few condiments, just as it should be.
Top Illustration: Photos courtesy of Can Vu Bui
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