Le Square Épicier Fin is a Vietnamese-French Mash-Up of a Marketplace by Locatelli Partners
At first glance, the French Colonial buildings in Vietnam appear typically European: ornate balconies, porthole windows, wooden shutters. Yet further inspection reveals such concessions to the tropical climate as wide eaves and steeply pitched roofs and detailing that references local temples. The architecture is an East-West medley that’s distinctly Vietnamese. It’s also a reminder of the persistent, if subtle, influence of the 70-year French occupation, which is visible everywhere from the thriving café scene to bánh mì sandwiches. This cultural interplay became the guiding principle behind Le Square Épicier Fin, a marketplace in Ho Chi Minh City by Locatelli Partners.
When Didier Lachize and his wife bought a late 19th-century French Colonial villa in the metropolis, they were determined to save it. Many prewar buildings have been destroyed in recent years, due to lax preservation laws and Vietnam’s booming real estate market, plus this one also came with an adjoining 1-acre lot. A French-Vietnamese couple who run a food-import business, the Lachizes imagined opening a gourmet grocery store on the site, one inspired by La Grande Épicerie at the Bon Marché in Paris, and reached out to architect Massimiliano Locatelli to explore how to preserve the 7,530-square-foot villa as well as develop the empty lot.
Based in Milan, Locatelli Partners is best known for hometown projects like Lia Rumma, a contemporary art gallery, and furniture showroom Nilufar Depot. But Locatelli has also been working in Vietnam for the last decade, since Runway, a fashion retailer with boutiques throughout the country, became a client. He’s fascinated with the contrast between the buzzing modern Vietnam and remnants of its French period, and his Runway stores playfully juxtapose that past and present. In one, for example, plaster legs poke out of the walls of a Colonial building. Locatelli, who had already designed an office and two homes for the Lachizes, suggested that their market evoke a similar dialogue between different eras. “I would not copy or enlarge the villa,” Locatelli recalls suggesting. “Let’s build something contemporary next to the Colonial architecture instead.” He and his clients settled on an L-shape industrial-style building to surround the villa, moving and replanting existing palm trees to create an inner garden.
The new building encompasses 30,000 square feet clad in blackened iron and an external steel screen. The three-story, street-facing portion, containing a ground-level grocery-store with co-working space and a wine-tasting bar above, is framed in silver-finished mesh. The other end of the L, housing a warm food area, bistro, and takeout stalls, plus kitchens and storage, gets gold.
For the existing villa, Locatelli and his team opened up its interior to house a bakery and a café downstairs and a housewares showroom upstairs. They then painted its brick-and-concrete facade matte black to heighten its contrast with the new building.
A cultural exchange is always at play. Take the café’s verdant wallpaper. It depicts Le Désert de Retz, an 18th-century folly garden near Paris. “It was designed by an aristocratic Frenchman to give people a promenade of different countries,” Locatelli explains of its Roman temple ruins, Egyptian pyramid, and Chinese house pavilions. “It seemed like a good fit for a French guy who wants Vietnamese people to dream through the food experience.”
Le Désert de Retz appears again on the walls of the gold-and-silver building, but in the form of cracked terra-cotta tile. Locatelli enlisted artisans in Bat Trang, a traditional ceramics village near Hanoi, for the ambitious endeavor. “It was a year and a half long project for them,” he says. They lay slabs of clay on the floor, painted them with images of the garden, then cut them into irregular shapes and fired them, before fitting the pieces back together. “You can see the imperfections of the terra-cotta,” Locatelli says. “They represent the soul of this country, its handwork.”
Locatelli even admires the craftsmanship in Vietnam’s fashion knockoffs. “Pocketbooks look like woven leather from Bottega Veneta,” he says. “It’s exactly the same weaving but done with recycled plastic string.” At Le Square Épicier Fin, Locatelli covered cabinets and refrigerator doors with the same plastic weaving. Similarly, in the grocery store, Vietnamese lanterns are made of semitransparent cast acrylic, rather than the traditional silk or paper. The firm had a blown-glass prototype made in Venice, but it was too expensive on a scale of 200. So Locatelli sent the glass lantern to Vietnam to be reproduced in acrylic. “They’re all handmade in Vietnam,” Locatelli marvels, as was much of the project’s blackened-iron furniture.
The architect admits that local contractors are not always up to Italian standards. “Sometimes we have to drive them to bring them in the direction we want.” They may not know what terrazzo flooring is, for instance, but once they learn how to make one, they master it. “You have to adjust yourself to the habits of the place, you have to be flexible,” Locatelli says. Here, the result is a cosmopolitan market where cultures and traditions refract off one another in the produce aisles.
Project Team: Davide Agrati; Jacopo Solari; Beatrice Chiapponi; Alberto Germani; Clara Donati: Locatelli Partners. Voltaire Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. Lam Hong Architecture Design Co.: Structural Engineer. Xay Dung Full House: Civil Engineer.