Saving the Saigon Tax Trade Centre’s Mosaic Staircase – “A Priceless Work of Art”

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

This article was published previously in Saigoneer.

Six months after the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee’s promise that both internal and architectural and design features of the old Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be preserved and incorporated into the new tower block which will replace it, question marks still hang over the future of its great mosaic staircase.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

The announcement last summer that the Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be demolished and replaced by a 43-storey tower block was greeted with dismay by conservationists, who responded with a high-profile campaign which attracted nearly 3,500 signatures to an online petition.

The city authorities listened to the voice of the people. On 21 January 2015, Mr Hứa Ngọc Thuận, Deputy Chairman of the Hồ Chí Minh City People’s Committee, announced in an interview with Thanh Niên newspaper that, in accordance with a recommendation from the City’s Directorate of Planning and Architecture, some interior and exterior design features of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre would be preserved and incorporated into the design of the new 43-storey commercial complex scheduled for construction on the former Tax Trade Centre site.

The interior features to be preserved included “the main lobby and atrium covering at least two storeys from the ground floor to the first floor; the original bronze handrails, balustrades and other decorative features; the mosaic staircase floor; and the cast bronze roosters and spheres mounted on the landings.”

The Grands Magasins Charner (GMC)

Meanwhile, the exterior features of the building to be preserved included “the old Saigon Tax Trade Centre signs, the canopies along the sidewalks, and some of the architectural lines of the original facade, particularly that on the corner of Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Huệ boulevards.”

In particular, it was suggested that the new façade should be designed “in the form of the original Grands Magasins Charner architecture of 1924, in order to accord with that of other valuable architectural and historical buildings in the same area, such as the People’s Committee headquarters building, the Opera House, Bến Thành Market … in order to conserve and retain memories of old Saigon and its valuable cultural history for future generations of Saigon’s urban residents.”

In addition to the above, it was envisaged that the design consultants might also suggest other features of the original structure for preservation, with a view to enhancing the historical, aesthetic and architectural value of the new building.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

Mr Thuận explained that the work would be overseen by the Hồ Chí Minh City Department of Planning and Architecture in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Sports, the Department of Construction, the Development Research Institute, the Hồ Chí Minh City Architects’ Association and the building’s owner SATRA, “working with design consultants to research and incorporate solutions for conservation into the plan for the construction of the new property where the Tax Trade Centre is located.”

While recreating elements of the old Grands Magasins Charner façade should pose few problems for the design team, it’s understood that, in order to be incorporated into the new building, the entire mosaic staircase may first need to be removed, stored and then reinstated. If this is the case, it would be a highly specialised job demanding overseas conservation expertise.

In her article The Saigon Tax Trade Centre Mosaic Staircase: a Forgotten Moroccan Masterpiece, Đài Quan Sát Di Sản Saigon – Saigon Heritage Observatory member Ms Trần Thị Vĩnh Tường has shown that the Saigon Tax Trade Centre’s mosaic staircase is in fact a unique and priceless work of Moroccan zellij الزليج‎ which demands very careful treatment.

The mosaic staircase by Dona Đỗ Ngọc http://donadongoc.blogspot.com/

“It would have been unthinkable for this mosaic staircase simply to be demolished along with the rest of the building,” says Ms Vĩnh Tường. “The people of Saigon trust the People’s Committee to carry through with its promise to ensure that this great art work is preserved for future generations to appreciate, and the delicate and complex work of preservation can only be achieved with assistance from overseas conservation experts.”

Nearly a year after the demise of the Saigon Tax Trade Centre was announced, it seems the fate of this great work is still in the balance.

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and also conducts Saigon and Chợ Lớn Heritage Tours.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

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