map of Huế
© Phi Yen Nguyen

PhD - Impromptu Conservation. Huế’s Heritage Urban Landscape and Its Other Histories

September 2019 to September 2023

By : Phi Yen Nguyen
Beginning of the dissertation : 09.2019
Scheduled end of the dissertation: 09.2023
Co-direction: Javier Fernandez Contreras (HEAD – Genève), Elena Cogato Lanza (EPFL)


The history of settlement and administration of Huế, Vietnam’s former capital and the seat of the Nguyễn, the country’s last imperial family, is one of conflicts and instability. The constant shift from one order to another has disrupted its territory, resulting in a fabric that reflects the city’s still existing collisions among political, social, cultural, economic, and ecological forces, especially the contest  between urban development and heritage conservation. Contrary to this layered history, Huế has gone to great ends to reduce its identity to a city of royal heritage, having seven recognized by UNESCO since 1993, five of which belonging to the Nguyễn dynasty. These are the focus of numerous preservation efforts, while others, largely the vernacular in the villages which formed Hue’s early urbanity, receive much less attention and oftentimes succumbing to demolition or decay. Besides, seeing Huế as a unique heritage city with tremendous potential for foreign investment and mass tourism, Thừa Thiên - Huế  has, since 1996, fought to rid of its provincial status to become a municipality (city under the direct jurisdiction of the central government) with Huế being the center, yet, without success. One main reason is its failure to satisfy Vietnam’s town-country ratio criterion: the majority of its territory is rural and mountainous area.

This dissertation stems from the intersection of the above-mentioned observations.

Situated within the postcolonial city discourse, Huế presents a complex case which encompasses both a settler colonization condition (pre-French occupation) and an indirect one (as a French protectorate). The city’s urban landscape manifests the delicate mediation among multiple stakeholders: indigenous people, local settlers, Vietnamese imperial power, and French colonial rule. Heritage lies at the locus of these power struggles. Heritage, though imbued with political agenda and manipulated within dominant narratives and identity (re)construction, also has the potential to reveal marginalized stories.

I propose to interrogate Huế and its surroundings alongside the Heritage Urban Landscape framework, however, not as a mere subject of top-down retrospective heritage protection and management but rather an on-going bottom-up project and process of inhabitation and Impromptu Conservation where neither heritage nor nature are reduced to an aggregation of discrete sites or places. This conceptualization embodies the centuries-long efforts of Huế’s vulnerable communities to overcome loss, uncertainty, to survive multiple challenges, from natural catastrophes to wars, and safeguard their culture against oblivion, despite their omission from mainstream history and the dispossession of their ‘heritage.’ Contrary to the manipulation and exploitation of nature performed by the different regimes, Huế’s latent landscape demonstrates its people’s mode of settling embedded within the topography and their unprogrammed preservation strategies over multiple scales and temporalities within an entanglement between human and nature, tangible and intangible.

On the one hand, this recognition could refute: (1) Huế’s cliché identity as a city of royal heritage; (2) Its forged division into specialized zones, fundamentally paradoxical to its position as a unique heritage city; (3) The artificial criteria of high density and urban-rural ratio. On the other hand, exploring the hidden codes inherent in Huê’s urban dynamics could testify to the evolution of culture while drawing resilience and adaptability lessons from local traditions, where nature provides more than just resources for material production and heritage represents more than historical and economic significance. Heritage conservation could be integrated into contemporary urban management and ameliorate the deficiency of official master plans superimposed over the city. To a larger extend, the studies could offer a more nuanced and intricate understanding of as well as alternative practices and attitudes towards the upkeep and development of the city within an ecological integrity, especially for those once colonized in the Global South. It then contribute to new ways of defining heritage and the city.


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