This is ironic but true.

The city planning by French architect Ernest Hébrard in 1923 was severely strict, forcing all private and public villas to obey to his architectural design. He planned Da Lat to bear a homogeneous face in construction and the result was ‘bankruptcy’.

Thanks to the failure of the plan, a boom of villa constructions of diversified designs appeared in Da Lat – now the capital city of Lam Dong Province in the Central Highlands.

Even though it was a total loss, that did not mean it was useless.

A boom of villas in Da Lat

The global economic recession in the 1920s badly affected the budget France poured in Indochina and the city planning in Da Lat could not avoid the impact.

Hébrard planned some available models of villas and no new models were approved for building in Da Lat. The models were forwarded to real estate companies in the city and construction cost for each villa model was listed for clients to select.

This was not an issue of exclusiveness in business but arbitration in city management. Hébrard wanted to build an ‘absolutely harmonious Da Lat’.

The homogeneous requirement by Hébrard created a conflict in the interests of local and European residents in Da Lat, or Dalatois.

French critics judged that the Da Lat City planning by Hébrard was even more perfect than the famous summer capital Shimla of India built by the British or Buitenzorg City in Indonesia by the Dutch. Buitenzorg is known as Kota Bogor in Indonesian.

Despite the ‘perfect plan’, it was merely a failure due to it being impractical. No owner in Da Lat wanted to build his house in the same model as all the others.

In 1930, the plan by Hébrard was delayed, giving the space for a boom of villas constructed in diversified European models. It was the diversification in architecture and models that helped Da Lat become famous.

Owning a villa in Da Lat became a ‘fashionable trend’ of the rich then.

Da Lat had almost 400 private villas in 1938 and doubled the number by 1943.

In addition, the presence of the new class of rich Vietnamese in Da Lat almost neutralized the discrimination in the city planning of the city.

In the 1930s, people could sit in private cars and travel for six hours from Saigon (the former name of Ho Chi Minh City) to Da Lat.

Saigon had 68 cars in 1914 and 3,000 cars in 1923. For every 1,000 cars, 500 belonged to Europeans, 256 to Vietnamese, and the remaining for Indians, Cambodians and Laotians.

The hallmark of a new architect

After the loss of city planning by Hébrard, another French architect Louis-Georges Pineau followed with his work in 1932.

Intending to build Da Lat as a city of convalescence for the French expeditionary army, Pineau also planned it as a recreational city with balanced facilities for work, relaxing and circulation so that residents could spend their time enjoying the functions in the most efficient way.

Pineau took a great interest in protecting the natural landscape of Da Lat, expanding the surface of Xuan Huong Lake as it is now, developing many flower parks, as well as building sanctuaries.

Da Lat in the eyes of Pineau was the image of heaven, so it ought to protect herds of deer grazing in the grassy area near the Da Lat Palace Hotel, and in the forests of pine trees.

However, World War 2 broke out and the French expeditionary army began shrinking in the presence of Japanese troops in Indochina. It urged the French to strengthen Da Lat to meet the demands of the French gathering in the city.

It was even added to the fact that local ‘Annamites’ (a reference to Vietnamese then) copied different architectural designs to make their own in an unprompted construction trend, causing the face of Da Lat to become more untidy.

Then, Da Lat was in need of new city planning to restore its elegant architecture. French architect Jacques Lagisquet was assigned the job, mainly to strengthen the previous design by Hébrard in 1923 which was earlier delayed for its strictness.

This is why the design by Hébrard was called a loss but was not useless.

Tuoi Tre News - August 10, 2014