“Mad” Hiệp

Sitting at A21gallery, on the table outside in the garden, having few cans of beer and some grubs are enough for long conversations. At the age of 40s, it’s been nearly 21 years since Hiep started working in the architecture industry. 

That afternoon, talking about the past 10 years…

What is your usual day like? 

I don’t know, hardly the same each day, there’s always surprises. 

Many people call you ‘Mad’ Hiep, what do you think about that? 


I don’t exactly remember, perhaps they called me like so since we were in school. I think it’s quite fashionable, quite a name to say. 

You don’t hang out and only are in contact with a few people, what’s your reason? 

I’m probably not good at communication. 

You call yourself “playboy”, why so? 

Because I always think about playing. Playing here is not hanging out, when working or doing something I don’t particularly think about in a serious way.

Architect Nguyen Hoa Hiep at a21gallery

How long have you been living in Saigon?

I moved to Saigon in 1996 after passing the exam to The University of Architecture. I felt like it and enjoyed being here the most, compared to other places. 

How much time a day do you spend for family and yourself? 

I spend the whole day for my family and myself, this is why I locate our office at home. 

You buy books almost on a usual basis without worrying about their prices. What is this habit?

I’ve loved reading since I was small. At night or when I just lay there thinking, I take out some books to read, or even when I have something stuck in my mind, cannot stand them, I read also. About after 2000, student life, I put all my money buying books on Amazon, I bought any book I liked, and didn’t care much about price.

Architect Nguyen Hoa Hiep

Interviewer
Tran Trung Hieu

Photographer
Trieu Chien

Time
October 2019

In your 21, you started going to work and generally were absent in class. During that time, most of your designs were not approved to be built, was it true that your design is not-very-practical? What did you think about it then? 

I could bluff that no one understood my designs, but now, thinking back, they were not good enough for real. My drawing last year, or even last month, was not good enough for now. Should it’d been good enough, I would have remembered them all. Luckily, none of them were built. I still keep my drawing note back then, it was beautiful to me, but now, it is too ordinary. It’s nothing compared to my recents. So there’s surely nothing to use in my designs back then. 

After the establishment of A21studio, is the work of your office always favourable? 

Many people came and asked me to draw their places, work seems to be not very favourable in terms of money. Because when I decide to draw for them, not so often we sign contracts or ask for a deposit. I just keep drawing until it meets what they want. Certainly, not that kind of just come and talk for the deal, sign the contract, receive the deposit then I start to draw. Until now, I haven’t changed my way of doing it. So, compared to when my office was newly established ‘till now, we’ve had many opportunities but they were all not easy at all. 

10 years in practice, has anything changed in you or not?

I’m not as harsh as I was before, probably because I am not as good as I thought. Before, when something went wrong, I was usually pissed, my employees were the victims of my anger. But now thinking back, I was not good enough to fix things right, I wasn’t patient enough to do it. 

Oh, the thing that hasn’t changed is my body. (smile)

In the past, you only drew few projects, mostly for friends and people close to you. Now the workload of A21studio has significantly increased annually and you accepted them all. Why is there this change?
​​I want to see how far I can push myself to see how I would draw in the next step. The more projects come to me, the more I want to draw. Besides, there’s some other reasons. In the past, people must have been curious so they came to ask me for a favour because I didn’t have any construction to prove, and I was so rude to refuse them, to see who really needed me. However now, some investors who truly understand, they adore me so they act nicely, I have no chance to deny their offers.

As we have seen, A21studio has 2 important phrases throughout your working journey, before and after 2014, each phrase was around 5 years. Is this transition vitally required after the successful year of 2014 or is there other reason? 

I don’t think 2014 was any success because all my clients didn’t know anything about whether I won any awards or had any achievements. Award, if I had, is just a recognition at that moment but the journey of practising my profession is a long run. I rarely have that definition of taking a moment to think back about my award or my awarded work. I generally quickly forget about them because it’s unnecessary to mind about them too much. 

Why do you use ‘waste’ in architecture? 

There are 3 reasons. 

One is that I dislike using new stuff. To each thing, I ask myself whether it is necessary to use or not because architects tend to use material based on habits and to be dominated by economists. I think usually I don’t need them; or I will try to find things that have been stopped producing if I do. The second one is that old stuff and waste that I use are all selective for this reason: in the old days, the production and resources were well-qualified so that they must have been much better than now. Thirdly, after being used for a while, old things and waste are commonly utterly beautiful.

You must earn a lot with your current workload?

I don’t care much about now, I do a lot, many people keep rushing me to take their money but I don’t want to, just that I’m sick of all kinds of deals, economic contracts or tied-up terms. All just because of their safety, their comfort. If I take that money they will have their peace of mind that I will design for them, instead of, together, caring about my thoughts on the designs. 

I value, more and more, what I come up with. Many projects have been successfully, beautifully done, exactly what I wanted, but people don’t use them very correctly or well. After a while, they sell it or make it different from what I aimed for it to be. I live with what I have, no need for a block of money to confide myself in life. I try to receive money from clients the slower the better, even though they push me to take the money in order to take control of what I want for the construction. In the last minute, If I couldn’t control the situation, I could just quit everything without regret. I care less about how much I earn, signing contracts is likely a formal execution, even the investors do hand me the money, I use most of it in finding and buying some best things for their constructions and, most of the time, they have no idea about that. I want to take off all the bondage because when building a construction, both I and the clients have to invest in it so it will be good. 

Thinking about it, when I have a design, the clients also have to pour in money and money to buy land and to build, they hand me the opportunity to experiment with things that I come up with. They invest in me to do crazy things, they pay for my games, so more often than not I don’t want to take their money. I even thought that If I were rich enough, I should have paid them more because they had come and given me the chance to display what I thought. 

To be in that position, I often think less about money and focus on doing something my best so that both I and my investors have the chance to earn money, to do something good together. That is also my reason for not working with many investors because there’s not many people that are patient and understand me in this. This story is nothing special so I rarely share, by this occasion I would say just for once.

Mentioning about ‘Mad’ Hiep now, after 10 years A21studio has done numerous projects in Vietnam. Not very few investors wanted you to design for them, I know that someone even makes you promise to design for them. How would you react to that “wish that Hiep would design for me”? 

I often write down every project in my notes and when the number is still many, I usually remind myself and people in the office not to accept more new ones. I try to limit my contact with people and refuse their offer right at the beginning because I’m afraid they could take me to a nice area, a design request that makes me think and when I come up with something cool, I tend to say Yes to them. 

I neither feel proud of nor think much about the definition above because people rumour around, many people even think that I am overly arrogant, they hope I could design for them so I can fit what I want during drawing, they have no right to interfere or debate what I do. This is absolutely false. An idea without critical thinking or contact is not good. I, more than anyone, expect the client to debate and take part in; the construction will not be right if there’s no argument. Some people say I apply things on others and I am preservative, not listening to anyone. I truly don’t mind much what they think about me. Many investors, whom I drew a house for, told me that what I drew was really really beautiful enough, I should just stop fixing it so that they could start building it but I kept on drawing, I drew until I felt good enough to start building it. Those things to me are not preservative; if I could continue my thought, I could carry on.

I have met and known many of your investors, the major parts of their lives have changed since they have you designed their houses, even housing or hotel projects. Do you have anything to say about your investors?

I always design for my clients as designing for myself. I am glad for them if people have changed positively but I cannot make them better. We should stay awake, sometimes what we hear is just a one-way thought about beautiful things. I have heard more than one dispute about my design. I hope that the percentage of people affected positively from me will gradually increases but they should stay awake, should avoid compliments and 

A21studio never updates recruitments, why? 

I never want a21studio to be an office nor a company, I think this is a group of mixed people, each one has their own style and we all work together, just like a music band. From the very beginning I have already disliked an office that gathers excellent candidates so we have to look for other geniuses… Here, who wants to come around, hang, talk and feel fitted can work together. 

What are you looking for in architecture?

In 2009, I established a21studio, Mr.Minh – owner of M11 House – asked me what my 5-year-plan was. I said that after 5 years I wanted the world to know about a21studio. After that, I thought about my up-coming 5 years. I wanted to close down my office so that no one would know about it. The reason for that wasn’t because I was bored of that, I felt simply that this office was just a place where people came and asked us to design for them. I wanted to close it in order to do some detailed little things like the 365 door-handlers exhibition before, or the 36 old chairs for children. Last year I still had that intention but now I have to try to complete some bigger matters to set a finish for them. What I am looking for in this industry comes slowly. I do it because I like it, then, during the journey, I can find something for myself. I just go, whatever I find I pick them home. 

A21gallery is the house you are living in, what are the differences of this house design’s architectural elements and freedom with other constructions you have done?
I live in this house daily, having it built, thinking that it’s the most beautiful one but I can still see many mistakes. Freedom comes from us, from our mind. This house or other houses just display my perspective in a period, I still see countless mistakes whenever looking at them. This is the first construction that I used mostly waste and here we have a new arrogant living.

When designing this house, what was the thing that made you think about the most? 

Bawa in Sri Lanka or Le Baragan in Mexico, both, have a housing project which has become a heritage site, a tourist destination and has grown in value over time. I think about this house from the same point of view. When designing, I wanted the house to become a heritage site afterwards, like a must-visit place when people arrive in Saigon.

This house was mostly built from waste, how come you had that much waste to build it? 

It’s a whole process of many years collecting waste. I can see all kinds of use when I find something in good condition or nice. In 2018, the 365 door-handlers exhibition, I spotted out more than 300 items to use as door-handlers. Perhaps my eyes have been doing a good job that I could find many cool stuffs. 

If one day you no longer live here, what will you use it for? 

Well, I told the person who gave me the land to build this house that I would return to them both the land and the house but they don’t want to because they cannot control it. Perhaps I should just leave it there. 

Thank you Mr. Hiep!

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