A renovation project becomes the excuse for a journey to discover Vietnamese food culture

Hanoi, the capital, to the north; Ho Chi Minh City to the south, the center of production; Hôi An, the ancient city of silk lanterns, at the center. With its specific characteristics Vietnam, a country of 90 million people, long and narrow like Italy, remains a very strong source of inspiration in the creative career of Massimiliano Locatelli.

“There is always something to learn from the dialogue with this culture, and its brilliant way of finding innovative design solutions, although the language is very difficult: any phrase can be spoken with seven different tones, and the accent changes the meaning,” says the Italian architect, recently commissioned to create a large épicerie inside a villa from the French colonial period, in the second half of the 1800s, in the center of Ho Chi Minh City.

A sartorial project that has later generated the Lanterna lamp in irregular molded glass and turned brass, which after the West Lake series of tables and the Cai Ban marble stools has entered the portfolio of Massimiliano Locatelli Editions.

One thing leads to another... what happened this time?

Massimiliano Locatelli: "At first we had only the intuition of Didier and the tenacity of Van, my sociable clients. He is French, and was the assistant of Catherine Deneuve, in Ho Chi Minh City during the 1990s, for the shooting of the film Indochine.

He fell in love with the local culture, to the point of wanting to start an import/export business, bringing food from France to Vietnam. He wanted to find a place that could become a cult location for high-quality products, not just French but also European; a place to offer a good breakfast in a sort of boulangerie; to supply excellent products, but also foods prepared on a daily basis on site; a place where cooking classes would be accompanied by seating, around a large oriental dining table".

"Le Bon Marché, the big épicerie of Paris, was his reference point. Which was not at all banal, in this context. She is Vietnamese, with the pragmatic spirit of wives in this culture, which has made the story possible, developing the business in an extraordinary way. Today there is not one restaurant serving European cuisine in the whole country, from north to south, that does not have a wine, a cheese, an olive oil imported by them, Parmesan cheese, Norwegian salmon, baguettes and croissants.

And there’s more. Aware of the tasty and also healthy goodness of Vietnamese cuisine, Van began to export it from Vietnam to the rest of the world, bringing out the unique character of certain ingredients: the pepper, for example, or the fish sauce, the traditional liquid that becomes an aromatic broth to season foods, without using oil or salt.

She also found the ideal location: a villa from the period of French colonization, surrounded by very precious land, because it has no height limits for construction. A house that is close to the Mekong River, but also to schools of American and Anglo-Saxon culture".

Exactly where is it?

Massimiliano Locatelli: "In Ho Chi Minh 7/Seven, the equivalent of an arrondissement in Paris, an affluent, growing district familiar to the foreigners who have come here over the last 20 years, including many Americans, Australians and Englishmen, who have formed a sort of community. The opening of a versatile space offering multiple culinary approaches was a strategic move in this zone".

What has been your interpretation of this context of transformation in space-time terms, where the tradition meets the contemporary, through contamination?

Massimiliano Locatelli: "Perhaps I have a nostalgic approach towards the cultural heritage of places, but I have chosen to refurbish the villa, enveloping it by grafting on a new character. We have renovated it by respecting its identity and its original décor, such as the moldings around the windows.

But we have also updated it, using stucco with black lime from the nearby river, which allows the enclosure to breathe, protecting it from dampness. The interiors have been completely revised, placing a French boulangerie on the ground level; the upper floor has become a club for friends, for dinners or private parties.

The entire lot was then built with an L-shaped structure, bordering the villa and forming a U with an unexpected courtyard-garden at the center, where weather permitting it is possible to have breakfast or lunch. The new part has been designed to host the épicerie on the ground floor, a place to shop for products or meals prepared inside the facility. Above, there are the kitchens and the chefs at work, with a zone of offices higher up.

On the external sides – back and to the right – the L-shaped building presents itself as a closed block, while the part on the garden is open, marked by a series of windows protected by metal sunscreens, suggesting the functions of the buildings".

What type of materials have you used for the ‘skin,’ and why?

Massimiliano Locatelli: "Only one, almost at zero cost.

It is the electro-welded screen usually used on worksites to reinforce slabs. Skilled hands have shaped it into a sort of irregular patchwork, on the entire façade.

It has become an iridescent surface that cuts the sunlight and guarantees a certain amount of privacy, while protecting the interiors from direct glare. We then enhanced it with two types of finishing: one in a warmer bronze color, in the kitchen zone, and one that is more metallic, cooler, made with steel, in the épicerie and office zones".

How does the narrative of the internal spaces unfold?

Massimiliano Locatelli: "Inspiration came from the story of the Désert de Retz, a garden outside Paris developed by a French nobleman, from 1774 to 1789, as a garden of dreams, a place of memory, a symbol of the encounter between different cultures.

I thought its representation could be perfect to explain an intercultural journey from France to Vietnam. So we took the original watercolor drawings of the Egyptian pyramid, the Chinese pagoda, the Turkish curtains and many other subjects... which we interpreted to make coverings on all the walls of the boulangerie. Printed at the site. Instead, for the walls of the two new warm/cool wings, at Bac Kan I relied on skilled craftsmen who work with terracotta, for which this northern city is known, to make an opus incertum mosaic, using local techniques.

Imagine a very large slab of terracotta placed on the ground, cut in an irregular way, with numbered tiles for the arrangement of the pieces, fired, glazed and then set in position following the preset order, where the scenes are also taken from the Désert de Retz. The tiles are very washable, in a natural beige color, and feature painting in tones of burnt sanguine terracotta in the warm part, and white burnt azure for the cool part".

So this trip around the world in Vietnam is not just an exploration of food, but also of local know-how...

Massimiliano Locatelli: "Definitely. Even more. To set the tone of the coverings of the display fixtures and furnishings in steel inside the épicerie, I have recovered an old local technique: that of weaving strips of recycled plastic to make work bags, utilized by everyone here, with fascinating multicolored patterns.

A design based on necessity, where sustainability wasn’t planned. Brilliant! Our strips are tied onto wooden frames, with blue tones on one side and terracotta tones on the other.

Then there is the light, the enchanting element that ‘ignites’ the narrative…

For this, we recalled the traditional lanterns in silk and bamboo fiber of Hôi An, the ancient city of lanterns. A somewhat forgotten object. Reinterpreted, it has become a distinctive feature, the fil rouge running through all the spaces.

I had one made by the master glassmakers of Murano, with the technique of irregular poured glass: 16 overlaid portions, which can have different colors, held together with a ‘spider’ above and below, in turned brass.

The prototype was marvelous but too expensive in relation to the quantity of lamps we needed. So my Vietnamese helpers found an intelligent alternative: replicating the lantern with a mold into which to pour plexiglass, by hand. The result: big savings on costs, but with an effect of softness that remains perceptible in the air".