Green steel: An interview with architect Vo Trong Nghia

Often referred to as ‘the bamboo architect,’ Vo Trong Nghia is a Vietnamese architect and a champion of sustainability. Having founded his firm not long ago in 2006, Vo Trong Nghia Architects is the recipient of several awards such as that of the World Architecture Festival (2014), ARCASIA Building of the Year (2012) and many others.

I had a chance to chat with him while he was in Dhaka recently for Bengal Institute’s ‘Now! Next’ symposiums. Despite his renown, I found him extremely down-to-earth, passionately discussing his philosophy while maintaining a continuous smile.

What do you think about Dhaka?

Really high density like in Vietnam, and a lot of people in the city. Also it has the same problems, like lack of greenery and overpopulation. With the development of the economy, you will be facing urbanism problems, architecture problems, and also societal problems like mentality illness or inactive children.

What was it like growing up in Vietnam? What are the influences of Vietnam in your architecture?

I was in a small village in the centre of Vietnam with a lot of nature around. I like that life, surrounded by nature, with a lot of greenery, farms, cows, and forests. Then you feel happy. Even though we didn’t have electricity back then, it was more relaxed. In more developed places, people have to work hard, and deal with a lot of stressful things.

How did you decide to become an architect?

I thought, if I become an architect, I will be rich. But I was wrong. To be an architect, you have to love architecture, then work unlimited hours, but the payment is not very big.

Was there anything more than the wanting to become rich?

Now, I find that architecture and an architect can make human beings more connected to nature, like when I was a child.

You have called bamboo the green steel for the 21st century. Could you elaborate on that?

Yes, I think it is. For example, in Bangladesh you have a lot of bamboo. A bamboo structure is light, so it is really good for the soft foundation you have in Bangladesh. You can make restaurants, cafés, and schools with bamboo, I think it’s the best material for Bangladesh, especially for rural areas.

We do have a lot of bamboo, but in Bangladesh, people don’t consider it a long term material.

It depends on the treatment. If you give it good treatment, it can have a long life. For example, if you submerge it into the river three to four months then smoke it to black, then it can be used like timber. It lasts 30 to 50 years, like timber.

How do you smoke the bamboo black?

With the outer cover of the rice, the husk. We burn that, and then use that smoke for the process.

If we want to change people’s minds about bamboo, how can we convince them that it can be cost-effective or beautiful?

You don’t have to convince them too much. You just start to build some small things, and they start to like that very quickly. For example, you have a lot of clients for restaurants or cafes, you just build it with bamboo and later they will like that.

Since you’ve worked with bamboo in Vietnam for a long time, has the price changed because it’s becoming more popular?

No, not like that, but one time they cut down all bamboo forests for rubber plantations, which led to a fall in the number of available bamboo. But now the rubber plantations have been taken down and they have started to plant bamboo again.

I read that your thesis at the University of Tokyo was on passive ventilation. How important is that in your design approach?

That’s the most important thing to deal with in tropical climates. Because we use the shadow system of the trees, and play with the sunlight and air ventilation for cooling, we can create really perfect natural air-conditioning.

In Bangladesh, many clients want mechanical ventilation and air-conditioning. How do you convince your clients in Vietnam to accept passive cooling?

They can turn on the air-conditioning, and can also open the windows for natural ventilation. Once they get used to the natural ventilation, they become more comfortable with it and then never turn on the air-conditioning.

Of the many buildings you have seen around the world, which is your favourite?

I like the Prada building in Tokyo by Herzog De Meuron, and also the library building by Louis Kahn in the US.

Are there are any similarities between his library project and our national parliament?

Yes. That’s what brought me here to Dhaka, to see the Louis Khan building.

Of all your projects, which is your favourite?

My team and I spend a lot of energy on each project, so it’s hard to say which one is the best of us. Every one of them is very close to me.

Who funds your low-cost housing project, S1, which cost approximately $4000?

We do it by ourselves. I think this really fits with Bangladesh because of your soft foundation. The S1 house will be really good for low-income people. It’s a really high standard quality and design, but it is also low cost. I think architects usually focus on rich people and tend to forget like 60% of the population. That’s why we wish to offer them good things, good products, but at a low cost. I think the market in Bangladesh is big for that. People can buy the frame for around $1500, and can have the base structure for an entire house without any maintenance for 50 years.

In Aljazeera’s series ‘Rebel Architecture,’ they showed your work, and in it there was a scene where you present a design for a green housing project. It looked like you were having a very stressful meeting to convince the client.

Luckily its successful now. They sold all 2,550 of the houses within 6 months.

What would you like to see in Bangladesh in terms of architecture?

I think this place is facing the same problem as Vietnam, with a big population in a small area. We need to do the same thing to bring back greenery to the city. I work with the government in Vietnam, but it’s very hard to convince them to change the law. But here, if you work with the government and convince them about ensuring that every house or building has a green roof, then the situation can change for the better in just 3 to 5 years.

Since governments are hard to convince, is this something you think should come from the private sector?

To change the law is very difficult. We aim our projects with the intention of increasing the greenery of the city, but what’s more important is that the government release the regulation to push everybody to do it.

There is a concern about globalisation, and designs are now often starting to look all the same. The same building from Dubai is being put up in Tokyo and there is no connection to the context or the culture. What should young architects do to protect themselves from that, or how can they change it?

They need to clean up their minds. For example, Dhaka has the context of high density, the weather, and the materials here. If they know that very well, they will know how to deal with it.

Do you think globalisation is a problem?

No. That is the trend. We either follow it or we don’t. It depends on you. With globalisation you can learn things very fast. We can look up anything on the internet, but we also need to learn to be at the place, to know the weather, to know the culture, to know relevant details, and then you translate it all in the work you do.

What advice would you give to a young architect like me?

[Laughs] I think you should work with your heart, body and soul.

This article originally appeared in the Dhaka Tribune (

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