Through the years, architecture and its layers have been spoken about over and over again. Be it about the social, economical or historical layers of what a building or a city holds, there is always something new or interesting one can pick up. 

Amongst all types of architectural layers of regions and topics, what comes to be more intriguing would be when layers of different cultures come to coexist in space. With that in mind, ‘Architectural Layers of Southeast Asia Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar’ by Carrie L. Cushman, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University published in 2017 fits well within the topic of scope. 

This on the ground first personalised article gives great insights into the historical buildings and styles of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Article in Focus: Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar - Sheet1
Carrie L. Cushman ©


Cushman’s analysis of Vietnam is lined up with an understanding of the historical events that the country has seen. Vietnam was ruled by China for nearly 1,000 years in the past which is mostly forgotten due to the more recent history of French colonialism, the communist revolution, and the war with America. Establishing this early presents a good grasp of what Vietnam’s historical architecture holds. 

Vietnam is modeled by the Nguyen Family that followed rules of the Qing Dynasty in China which erected mausoleums, temples, and the Imperial City. Such architecture is plastered with mosaics in Chinese script which is illegible to the majority of Vietnamese today. 

Following that, the French colonisation introduced neoclassicism which the Haussmannization of city streets tried to merge both the European and Indochinese style, and soon after modernism also entered the scenes of Vietnam. The Vietnam and Cambodia field seminar wraps and addresses many of these intertwined styles that add flair towards the architectural layers of that region. 

Cushman along with Professor Hahn and people that are involved in the field seminar visited many ancient historical spots in both countries. The few places they visited in Vietnam were The Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Cua Bac Church, Central Post Office, House of Le Phuoc Anh, The Mausoleum of Tu Duc, and Turtle Lake. All of which features an interplay of the dualities of the past and present, the ancient and the modern styles and the preservation and the restoration. 

Taking House of Le Phuoc Anh as an example, the house is a contemporary house that features modern materials like steel and glass that are used to create visual cues of importance whilst serving its main purpose of the suspended pathway that leads users to the studio. The house too was designed by a Vietnamese architect that was trained in France which explains the modern touch of the building. 

However, despite the use of modern materials, the house still fits well within the other buildings in Hanoi in terms of its vertical orientations, numerous sets of stairs, and layers that lead to a soothing rooftop garden. This means to say that the house is not jarringly contemporary instead it was designed to be an integration of modernity within a respected space post colonised.

Article in Focus: Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar - Sheet2
Homage to Anh’s architectural heritage ©Carrie L. Cushman 


Cambodia holds a slightly different take from Vietnam. With the UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Wat which stands to be the largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat adds a different layer to Cambodia, unlike the buildings that exist in Vietnam. In its materiality, Angkor Wat is layered with laterite, brick, sandstone, and stucco. 

Experiencing Angkor Wat too comes in layers of passageways and enclosures that are decorated with Sanskrit passages and carved reliefs. The relationship between perspective and movement within Angkor Wat was present as every time someone moves out and within the space, the scenery changes dynamically. 

Besides Angkor Wat, they too visited other spots in Cambodia one of which stood out would be Ta Prohm which was built in the late 12th/early 13th century. Ta Prohm gives off a unique feel mainly due to the 500 years old sponge trees that have found their way to coexist with Ta Prohm. The history with this also stems to be of greatness and wonder as the trees not only add to the romantic and exotic atmosphere of the site but it too holds the building together. 

The roots and the vines of the sponge trees have integrated themselves with the building and now act as a form of structure for Ta Prohm, without it the building would simply break apart. With that in mind, Ta Prohm emerges to give a rough idea of what many buildings have looked like in the past when French colonialism took place in the 19th century.

Article in Focus: Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar - Sheet3
Ta Prohm ©

Points to Take. 

Cushman’s personalised analysis on the few historical buildings in Vietnam and Cambodia adds to the understanding of the different architectural layers of a once colonised to now post colonised country. The storytelling and immersive feel of the article plucks a reader to experience the things she has seen. 

Furthermore, the injection of her other studies like the brief comparison of Japanese houses with Vietnam houses and how the new knowledge from the field seminar helps to broaden different research topics. Cushman’s interest in not putting an end to the information from the field seminar like further questioning “how countries without comparable sites appropriate these temples as “Asia’s ruins” through preservation work and financial support”. 

Acknowledging that labels such as the UNESCO status not only affect within the country’s borders but also the neighbouring countries opens up more questions as to what extent does the architectural layers of a country affect the ones around them?

All in all, architectural layers exist in every region of the world, the overlapping and intertwined buildings can help the present understand and study what and how architecture has grown and taken place throughout centuries. The study of architectural history is of great importance as it allows architects of the present and the future to be more informed in making decisions when designing in an area of cultural importance. 

Article in Focus: Architectural Layers of a Southeast Asian Region: Vietnam and Cambodia Field Seminar - Sheet4
Hanoi Train Street ©Thijs Degenkamp



Rethinking The Future (RTF) is a Global Platform for Architecture and Design. RTF through more than 100 countries around the world provides an interactive platform of highest standard acknowledging the projects among creative and influential industry professionals.