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Architect Tram-Anh Nguyen founded Impermanent Devices in 2014, interested in addressing the fourth (and often overlooked) dimension of architecture—time. The collaborative research platform is inspired by the Buddhist concept that all things are subject to change. Focusing on elements of temporality, mutability, materiality, aesthetics, Nguyen recently finished a project in Ibiza and is working on a cinema in the center of Hanoi.
Whitewall spoke with Nguyen, who before founding Impermanent Devices, worked at major firms like Philippe Rizzotti Architects, SANAA Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa, and Rafael Vinoly Architects.
WHITEWALL: Initially, what attracted you to the field of architecture?
TRAM-ANH NGUYEN: I was first attracted to architecture and design at a very early age. My first attraction came from my interest in Legos and the infinite possibilities of assembly. Growing up, I wanted to become a visual artist, a photographer, a fashion designer but gradually went back to my original interest and pursued my studies in Architecture in Paris and Tokyo.
Architecture was the obvious choice for me because it opens all possibilities for creation. Architecture is everywhere, it’s a device to create relationships.
WW: Since 2014, you have been developing Impermanent Devices, an interdisciplinary design research platform. What compelled you initially to explore the concept of impermanence? Is there a contemporary issue you primarily wanted to address?
TAN: The platform’s name, “Impermanent Devices,” was born in 2014 in the context of an eponymous and theoretical urban planning project for the Peripherique, a major urban ring road in Paris. In French, it was “Dispositifs de L’Impermanence.”
The project was based on an anticipated urban planning proposal that involved local authorities, the surrounding inhabitants, and the design team, together to reactivate the underused spaces along the ring road which segregates the inner city from the outer suburbs in Paris. A series of structures were proposed to create usable spaces of connectivity and community at points along the road which otherwise created a plane of separation.
I first discovered the concept of impermanence during my time living in Tokyo where I was immersed in the Japanese ephemeral sensibility of design, and most of all the “mono no aware” ( 物の哀れ) concept. I had participated in a reconstruction design workshop to rebuild Otsuchi town in 2012, a year after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami where we had the opportunity to engage with the victims and local authorities to discuss their vision for the future of the town.
Impermanence was then the key concept for me to start the interdisciplinary design research platform. Within the field of architecture and urban planning, I want to emphasize the dimension of time, which could be understand as the fourth dimension of architecture that is usually underestimated.
WW: How was the Buddhist idea of “anitya” a source of inspiration?
TAN: Impermanence is originally coming from anitya in Sanskrit, one of the essential doctrines of Buddhist teachings considering as a part of three marks of existence. It’s translated to mean “the belief of all things, without exception, is subject to change.” Within the Buddhist understanding of time and cyclicality, it is the idea that all things have a renewable life-span.
WW: Impermanence and architecture seem like disparate ideas—how do you connect them?
TAN: At first glance, impermanence and architecture do seem like disparate ideas, but, they are actually interconnected. The common point of impermanence and architecture is the place of the human. The belief in the impermanence of things is reflected through an ephemeral character, the change of seasons, the sun that replaces the rain, as well as the human lifecycle. In other words, we are part of the same ecosystem that is in constant change.
Architecture is part of the same ecosystem. It’s a human invention of an imitate nature. With the modern technology of today, the question is, how do architects create a living environment with the awareness of the constant change of our ecosystem? Life is always evolving and changing, and the responsibility of architects is to shape an environment that foster relationships which are adaptable to future change.
WW: How do the proposed projects of Impermanent Devices engage with community?
TAN: We believe in a collaborative design and research process that focuses on a human-centric approach. Each project, regardless of scale, program, or context, is carefully studied through extensive site, demographics, socio-economic, cultural, and environmental analysis that responds to local community needs. Through an understanding of the local identity of each project, each proposal is conceived with the awareness to be adaptable and transformable, while engaging the users to participate in the construction process.
WW: Can you tell us about the concept behind the multi-purpose cinema and events space you’re currently working on in the center of Hanoi?
TAN: The multi-purpose cinema is the third project of Impermanent Devices to explore architecture through the lens of impermanence, and will be our first built project. I have developed the concept through extensive research on local resources and cultural aspects, in a collaborative process with a member of Superpose, a virtual collective of architects that I co-founded in 2015, a material/color designer previously worked at Adidas, and other local consultants.
The client wished to renovate the existing building and transform it into their first flagship cinema with a contemporary design language, whilst maintain the local identity. While articulating the role of the building in a dense urban area, our design decision was to reinterpret the artisanal technique of bamboo weaving based on a hexagonal geometry. We see the idea of the cinema as an ephemeral art form, translated to the façade. The hexagon structure, similar to a honeycomb, is a flexible and efficient structure, which we decided to use as the base system and pattern. The proposal wishes to give the flagship cinema a design element that is both iconic and functional.
WW: What elements of temporality, mutability, materiality, aesthetics will be applied there?
TAN: In regards to temporality: the building is located in a touristic and a historic district in the center of Hanoi, and also a start point of a busy pedestrian street during the weekend. Instead of proposing conventional cinema programs, we are designing for the future users. We were then redefined the cinematic experience through maximizing the usage of the building during the day, night time, and seasonally.
For materiality, several considerations made us propose a lightweight structure: first, it is easy to install, and fast to install. It can be prefabricated off-site, reducing the amount of work and time needed on site. Then, it also helps to save resources, as it is more environmentally friendly. Instead of setting up a more solid structure to change the appearance of the existing building, we propose to “blur” the existing façade in an intelligent way with the least amount of elements necessary.
For mutability, we brought a new identity to the building and the brand. The building is conceived of as a cinema but also a culture venue with temporary exhibition space and a rooftop bar that is adaptable to host pop up events. The multipurpose façade is used for artistic lighting installations and projections at night, and a sun shading device during day time. The façade structure transforms into accent interior design element ranging from partition, furniture, fabric, to product design. We believe that the same system can also be assembled and dismantled for different purposes when the building is no longer a cinema.
In terms of aesthetics, it all starts with the idea of the new façade as a screen—a screen toward and for the city, a screen against the sun heating up the existing glass façade. Therefore, the metaphor of the screen can be taken both literally and in a figurative sense. A screen for projections of text, movie scenes, mapping installation, a new screen tries to bring a part of the emotional experience of the cinema to the outside, to the façade. The multiple layers of metallic mesh and the pattern of the structure filter and blur light, creating a depth, just like the cinema does with the movie screen. The blurred façade creates curiosity with people walking by. Like a good movie trailer, it creates a promise without giving too much away at first glance.