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  • Isabella Paola-Rose Etna

Spotlight 02: Kim Vo Duy

Spotlight aims to promote recent student and graduate work in Design. We recently caught up with recent graduate Kim Vo Duy to chat about his design approach and his Independent Thesis Project, “Impossibilium Thermarum” for the Master of Architecture at The Melbourne School of Design. Kim completed his Thesis Project in July 2019 under the supervision of Scott Woods, Academic Fellow at the MSD.

Kim started his architectural studies at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture, rooted in the tradition of the Beaux-Arts and Bauhaus education. At the MSD, he has been exploring the formal and historical relationship between architecture and the city. He is currently the Senior Studio Tutor for the B.Des Subject “Foundation of Design: Representation” and a Studio Leader for MSD Master of Architecture “Studio 8: the Home, the Monument, the Museum”.

Image: The iconic San Marco Basin, 2018, provided by Kim Vo Duy.

Isabella Etna (IE): You have a strong stance on the interpretation of work, could you tell us more about this?

Kim Vo Duy (KV): Every work is an interpretation. There’s always room for interpretation, I would claim some of the best work I’ve done has allowed other people to interpret it. Particularly good architects and theorists do this. This is what Scott (Woods) and I have been doing working on a (Aldo) Rossi Studio. One of the things about Rossi is that his writing is supposed to be scientific and rigorous, but at the same time it is nuanced and open for interpretation. It’s true that his intention was to make it systematic in a way, but it’s not an easy idea and can’t be translated into a formula. Along the way of producing he turned something scientific into something poetic. 

IE: So would you claim that you are a “Rossi disciple”?

KV: I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that I am a Rossi disciple, I am more aligned with Pier Vittorio Aureli who is a contemporary architectural theorist currently teaching at the Architectural Association in London. He’s quite controversial among his peers. I actually started my thesis by looking at Aureli’s work, he wrote a book called “The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture”, which is basically his manifesto where he outlines his views on architecture’s relationship to the city. It was actually the starting point of my Independent Thesis. There was a chapter that talked about the opposition between Piranesi and Noli; Noli produced the first Cadastral Map of Rome in the 18th C, and ten years later Piranesi produced a plan of Camp Mesio in Rome where it was completely based in the realm of “imaginary architecture”. Aureli claimed that the Noli placed more importance on urbanism over architecture, whereas Piranesi did otherwise. That’s where I started, but to get to that point it took a couple of weeks of research. 

IE: How did you get onto Aureli, were you always interested in his writing or was it on your trip to Italy in July 2018 that you discovered his works?

KV: I actually approached Scott about doing a thesis on the basis of what I did in the Venice Travelling Studio; where I dealt with the idea of the ‘Venetian ritual’ especially the one that created the “ponto” (bridge). The focus was on the Festa del Redentore where a temporary bridge has been constructed for worshippers to cross the Giudecca canal to arrive at a church. It’s been happening every year since 1575. So my project was playing into the ephemerality of a temporary mass gathering event, versus something that is also a formal and serious ritual. Apart from my previous project, it was very clear what I would be doing, in terms of having a clear brief from the outset. We had a conversation about Ritual v the Non Ritual; it's almost comparable to the idea of ritual vs. sincerity. Ritual was more important in the past and central to everyday life, life was mediated by ritual. Whereas sincerity is a modern obsession that we hold with much more regard nowadays than in the past. So in a lot of ways architecture in the past was all about organising rituals. Now we have stripped those aspects out of architecture and filled it with content.

IE: Your Independent Thesis project is called “Impossibilium Thermarum” and is set in Rome, another Italian city that departs from the site of your Venice Studio Project (in Venice). Was it your interest in Ritual that drew you to pursuing the Roman Bathhouse ?

KV: The Roman Bathhouse actually came towards the end of the process. I would say that along the whole journey of my thesis, it was a rollercoaster ride because I started with something and moved to something else and so on. Somehow the ideas were all connected. One of the interesting things about the Roman Bathhouse is when you go you have to take off your clothes, and then there are several water temperature controlled rooms you move through: the warm room, the hot room and the cold room. Even though it’s not a religious activity, it’s still a ritual. The Roman Bathhouse dictates the users to behave in a certain way, circulate a certain way, move at certain times and the architecture is formalised around that.

IE: What implications does your project have on Rome?

KV: This is another controversial thing, and something that some of the critiques during my presentation got annoyed about, was that my project didn’t set out to solve anything. I would say it’s set in more of contemporary conditions, the context is contemporary Rome. It’s an expression of the whole idea of ancient Roman Decadence. My position on doing an independent thesis, that you have to create a solution to an issue is problematic. There is the weird condition that you have to seek out a problem or problematise something. My project is an attempt to understand Rome in its physical context, and cultural history, and to apply an Aurelian reading on to that too.

IE: You employed language from ancient Roman and their methods of representation in a project that looks to the conditions and context of contemporary Rome; some (like me) would argue that this is quite a bold gesture. What was your intention behind this?

KV: I remember the conversation I had about this question (the formal relationship) with Scott. My answer is that it is already derived from something that already exists. The idea was to create an “absolute architecture” in Aurelian terms”. My architecture is based on the evolution of the Roman Bathhouse, Thermae. It’s based on the idea of pushing that to the scale of the city. To put it into terms my project explores “What is Rome as a Bathhouse?” The choice of some of these elements are coming from that position. There is something interesting from some of the particular language because it equates decadence to progress. There’s a sense of history and decay. There’s a lot of interplay between that in the way I adopted the language. When I watched films like La Dolce Vita or La Grand Bellezza, they are modern interpretations of Roman Decadence. Even though you see modern Rome, it’s not that interesting, these films hark back to the ancient image of Rome. The contemporary appears ephemeral, which is something I tried to emulate in my project playing with modern elements. 

IE: You suggested that your project wasn’t accessible by the critiques (in your final presentation). How did you intend for the project to be received?

KV: I would say that even though the critics were not positive about it, it was still a success. After the presentation half of the critics actually wanted to tear me apart, while the others wanted to jump in and try to defend me. In a way, if you got a total approval it means that you did something acceptable. I wanted to make everyone feel on edge. Of course there is a reversal of that too, if everyone hates it, that is problematic. If there is a split opinion, I think that’s the best response I could hope for. Some can see something interesting, but the others feel very uncomfortable. Some critiques, who were systematic, loved the background research and so did some formalists. I won't name names, but the historians on my panel absolutely hated my project because I reformulated the idea and claimed that “decadence” is the central point of architecture whereas some claim it’s more than that. One interesting comment I received was that my project wasn’t political enough, but I’m not entirely sure how to respond to that. The idea of the political that they were hoping for is something that can be ‘clear cut’, whereas if you read Aureli’s “absolute architecture” it’s a completely different approach to the ‘political’. He sees complete urbanisation as the function of the totality of capitalism rolling out across the whole city. So, his idea of urbanisation is capitalism itself. Urbanisation as a system of extension not about design. It also is a system to control the material aspect of the city, human material like labour, infrastructure and so on. It’s not about human habitable space, but the redistribution of space for economics. His position on “absolute architecture” is that it is something that separates itself from the city, but it is an architecture derived from the city, but opposed to the city and the process of urbanisation.

IE: Aureli was a student at the IUAV, and I have a feeling he would have been a student of the Venetian architectural critic and historian Manfredo Tafuri. Did you also look into Tafuri? When you were talking about his position on the city it seemed similar to Tafuri’s ideology….

KV: I read at a conversation between Aureli and Peter Eisenman, where Aureli talked about how he was a student of Tafuri in his final years at the IUAV in the early 90s, before his passing. His position is derived from Tafuri, but he isn’t as pessimistic as Tafuri who said something along the lines of architecture is a tool of capitalism and there’s no way out. Tafurian thinking is based on looking at how architecture fits into structure and power, and he takes Rossi as a way to seek a solution out of that. One of his earliest writings is a book on the Italian Movement called the ‘Autonomy movement’ and it’s not a book on architecture but about Italian politics. How Italian politics transferred into Italian architecture and it’s result is Aldo Rossi and ArchiZOOM. So it’s interesting that a lot of Rossi’s buildings are about phenomenology, and historic or poetic form. Aureli argued that Rossi’s architecture is intended to be political. This was the point where I realised that Rossi addressed ‘the political’ at the core of his projects. One of the traps a lot of us have fallen into recently, architecture as a discipline there is a lot of uncertainty, one movement is those who embrace the market, another is those who divert architecture to other disciplines (activism or sustainability) which isn’t actually architecture. This approach pushes the responsibility to consultants who measure sustainability for example with tools, and the approach forgets about architecture at its core which is about history and how architecture can reframe our lives. So these positions address the idea of ‘the political’ at the surface level. Aureli wrote about Rossi, in the sense that if you don’t address ‘the political’ at the core of your project the project’s flaws will always point back to it. For example one of the things I learnt in practice is that a lot of architecture practices like to claim that they are sustainable, and market themselves as ethical practices. Those firms are symptomatic of the situation that brought us here in the first place. They’re sustaining that idea in the market, it’s a marketing ploy. It’s not entirely true that they don’t believe in it, they do believe in it, but the scary thing is they continually face issues and setbacks because of the existing system. It is interesting that Rossi realised that. When he wrote “Architecture and the City” he tried to convey this idea, and in a scientific and systematic way. This is problematic though. The same goes for Aureli; it’s all very clear where you can see how he analysed the case studies and how he got to that position. It’s not however clear how to apply that method.

IE: We understand that your models have caused quite a fuss and are the envy of many students at the MSD. In particular I refer to the incident where one of your models went missing from the Summer Exhibition in 2018...It’s clear that you put a lot of pride and take a lot of care when creating your models, and that they play an important role in communicating your ideas through your work. How did you intend for your models to be received through your thesis project and did they operate in the way you intended?

KV: The process in the thesis is never linear as you know Bella. I wasn’t thinking about doing any models at all, while at around Week 10 Scott was focussing on the final production. He reminded me that my artefact for Venice had a really good effect…. but it was after I had already formalised my idea (for my presentation). The thing about model making for me is that I was never comfortable with making models. I remember when I first came to the MSD I didn’t even know how to use a laser cutter.

IE: I think it’s clear in your work, that despite the fact that arguably there is equal access to design tools for all students at the MSD, we all go about using them differently and develop a unique style. This is something I see in your models, a unique style based on your implementation of the tools for your design intent, and they’re always beautiful.

KD: There’s a lot of trial and error in the model making process, and the final products are usually a miracle.

IE: In 2018 July we understand that you participated in the Travelling M.Arch Studio at the MSD to the Venice Biennale led by Alan Pert and Scott Woods. How did your travels to Italy and Europe influence your project and did you have any “turning point” moments? 

KD: I would definitely say that the studio was a turning point for me, but it’s difficult to pinpoint at which exact moment during the trip the turning point occurred. A lot of things happened in Venice. Just being there in Venice, the whole city is swimming on this lagoon. That whole setting is just awe inspiring. I had seen it in photos before but when you travel there on Vaporetto and walk in between alleyways, that whole experience produces a lot of strange effects. I had read Italo Calvino’s “Invisible City”, I realised that everything he wrote about Venice is exactly how Venice is. Calvino’s chapter was supposed to be an exaggeration and fantasication of Venice, but I realised how true it was when I was there. It is a city that seems to be stopped in time but there’s a lot happening there. The whole existence of Venice is a miracle itself. Venice is where theory meets reality in a very strange way. All these weird things and weird ideas that didn’t follow any rules, but suddenly in Venice became possible.

Image of Venice Studio at Museo M9 Fondazione Di Venezia, 2018, provided by James Rafferty

IE: Many cities in Italy seem to have this effect, of course Venice is the most extreme example. Perhaps that harks back to what you mentioned about seeing it in photos compared to experiencing it for yourself produces an effect like nothing else. I had heard about Italy many times from my Grandparents and everytime I visit, my experience feels shaped by other lived experiences as well. Did you see your heritage or your experiences coming through in your project beyond just the immediate context in Rome?

KV: It’s undeniable that our projects are an extension of ourselves. It didn’t actually translate into a form that you can identify with my heritage. For me it’s about how I think about things which relate more to my heritage. One of the things about my thought process is that I have so many things going on at the same time and I can’t seem to make decisions. The whole problem of me doing Thesis, I got pulled in so many directions. I was born in Vietnam, which was influenced heavily by France. I think that because of this the way of thought is often torn between tradition and enforced modernisation brought by the French through the Beaux-arts. It’s always a negotiation between you and your surroundings, there is always an understanding that your position is in relation to other things. In a way, I see everything as a network, and it is difficult for me to say this is how it should be, or this is my direction. One of the things that annoys me the most about doing presentations, that you should be able to describe your thesis in one sentence, but I would argue there is a danger in over-simplification. 


Project credits:

Impossibilium Thermarum by Kim Vo Duy

School: Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

Supervisor: Scott Woods

Year: Semester 1, 2019

Project images provided by Kim Vo Duy.

Follow Kim’s Instagram @voduykim for more updates


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