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Lighting Vietnam Design Week – Awakening Traditions

Hosted by the Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Arts in collaboration with organisations in Vietnam’s three major cities, Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Design Week (VNDW) is a program created to honour excellent Vietnamese products and designers. Starting in 2020, VNDW focuses on showcasing a myriad of social and cultural concepts in Communication Design, Living Design, Decor & Object Design, Clothing Design and Public Design. 

Every year, VNDW takes on a unique theme as a focus for its participants. In 2020, VNDW introduced the theme “Rebirth”, where participants are required to make the most of available resources and limit wasting of materials and supplies. This year’s theme, “Awakening Tradition”, is also a form of rebirth from a cultural perspective. It requires the incorporation of traditional elements into contemporary products with high applicability. 

It would be fair to say that Vietnam’s creative industry is still in the early stages of development. We are still seeing conflicts surrounding the issues of adapting to foreign learning and the preservation of traditional values. Therefore, VNDW came to be a platform for public discourse. It is a common playground for designers of various disciplines and a point of interaction where we explore the balance between the public and private and the old versus the new. 

This year, HMLArchitecture is the lead architect and designer for the VNDW exhibition housed inside the prestigious Temple of Literature, a cultural and historical symbol of Vietnam. With this one of a kind architectural space, it is a challenge yet an exciting opportunity as HMLArchitecture is tasked with creating a contemporary exhibition space for our audience while preserving the current confinements of the heritage structure. 

About The Temple of Literature – Cultural significance

Temple of Literature, also known as Van Mieu Quoc Tu Giam, is one of the top historical attractions in Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam. It was built about 1000 years ago to be dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars and is also considered the first university in Vietnam. The temple represents ancient Vietnamese architecture and the nation’s dedication to education. 

With the central theme of Awakening Traditions, VNDW was hosted within the Thai Hoc Hall of the Temple of Literature. This place is the perfect venue to house VNDW because of its cultural significance and relevance to Vietnamese history. When we hear the word “traditions”, we often think of things that belong to the past. While there are some truths to this, we also have to remember that tradition isn’t a fixed time or place; it is continuous, adaptable and interconnected with the people participating and experiencing said traditions. With this mindset, our goal, as the architect, was to design a space that can convey the evolving nature of identity, diversity, and all the environments that influence how we define the role of traditions in contemporary society. 

Turning Thai Hoc Hall into an exhibition space 

One of the highlights of VNDW is the Designed by Vietnam competition, where designers create innovative works and practical products inspired by cultural traditions and folk knowledge. Our founding belief is that when future generations use products with traditional elements, the tradition is continued and maintained. That is the way to the sustainable development of culture. 

During VNDW, Designed by Vietnam contest winners’ works are introduced and presented to the public through an exhibition space in the Thai Hoc Hall. 

With multi-tiered roofs, beautifully designed archways, and large wooden columns, the structure of Thai Hoc Hall is perpetual of Confucian architecture. With natural materials like wood, stone and red tiles, every colour and textile within this space are curated to convey the balance between the five elements, Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. The hall is flooded with natural light during the daytime, thanks to its large gate structure. At dawn and into the night, lamps in the shapes of lanterns come to light, completing the archaic and relic surrounding.  

During the construction of the VNDW exhibition, it was a mission for HMLArchitecture to preserve as much of the original structure as possible, which means creating an installation that’s entirely independent of the existing wooden columns and trusses. They came up with a plan to display the competition-winning works and their design thesis by printing the artworks on transparent plexiglass panels. Each panel would be perfectly tailored to the work and is suspended from the ceiling by a steel structure entirely separated from the trusses.  

In Asian artistry, the spirit of artworks or designs is shaped by the interaction between the audience and the artist’s intent. Under that premise, art no longer has boundaries between high and low, good and bad, as it simply reflects a never-ending dialogue between the people/things involved. From their brief, HMLArchitecture decided that the approach with plexiglass would be ideal as its transparent nature represents a juncture between the contemporary and the traditional. As the audience explores artworks designed by young artists, they can also see through the panels reflecting the historical interior setting of Thai Hoc Hall. 

Lighting a National Heritage

After figuring out the basis of the design, the remaining challenge is figuring out the lighting solution. As they try to tread away from the lantern-shaped lighting scheme, HMLArchitecture wanted to add an element of modernity into the exhibition. It was a matter of finding a suitable illumination method that did not compete with the natural light source during the day. Yet, at night, it should perfectly illuminate the exhibition without the need to install fixed light fixtures and impact the original historical structure. 

As a result, they mounted LED linear lights onto the edge of each plexiglass panel. The linear lights are mounted vertically or horizontally along the panels depending on the artwork. The light sources from linear lights are soft and gentle as they create an even wash of light that travels through the glass, perfectly bringing attention to the works. As a final touch, the designers used sandpaper to texturise and create circular patterns on the glass surface on every partition. From afar and without the lights, these patterns are barely noticeable. However, as the panels light up, they become more apparent, creating a dynamic and intriguing visual effect. The exhibition space is not routed and guided; therefore, each visitor will have the opportunity to find the work that resonates with their idea of tradition. 

Through a significant event like VNDW, designers and creators had the opportunity to explore what traditions mean to them and what it takes to maintain and enhance traditions through design. A thorough understanding of culture will create a solid foundation for young creators, helping them distinguish between misleading cultural appropriation and proper practices that enrich and enhance tradition. As Vietnam’s design industry progresses, we hope that young designers will continue to create works inspired by our culture and hold a sense of respect and responsibility to continue our long-standing values. 

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