Since its introduction in the first half of the nineteenth century, the photographic medium is intimately intertwined with the work of recording the appearance and disappearance of sites and sights within the built environment. This starts from the very beginning of its history when the advent of this new technology coincided with the development of new urban landscapes across the world. The city was in fact the subject of one of the earliest photographic images. Widely recognized as the first photograph to include the representation of a human being, Louis Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple (1838) is also significant in that it captured an image of Paris that would soon be radically altered by Baron Haussmann’s “renovation.” This view photographed by Daguerre from the window of his studio was the appearance of a city before its disappearance.
Photography in cities during the nineteenth century inevitably led to the creation of a visual archive of various changes that took place, including industrial and technological innovations that emerged in the landscape. A sight that begins to appear in photographs of cities from this period is the infrastructure that came with the establishment of the then new electrical and telecommunication services. The Brown Brothers’ photograph taken around Wall Street in New York City following the Great Blizzard of 1888 shows a dense web of wires suspended across a disjointed series of utility poles. This photograph is evidence of the rapid and disorganized growth of public utilities during this period of modernization in New York City. It is also another example of a photograph that captures the appearance of a sight before its disappearance. Not long after this image was taken, the wires were buried below the ground and out of sight as the crippling effects of the “Great White Hurricane” led to greater regulations over the installation of electrical and telephone wires.1 Utility poles only had a brief existence in this urban center of New York City.
This photograph by the Brown Brothers is one of countless examples from the history of photography that exemplify the role the medium has played in documenting the changes experienced in a city and the sites/sights that are lost through the cycles of updates to its landscape. This image from 1888 is particularly noteworthy for me as a photographer because it serves as a precedent for my own work today with its treatment of what is commonly an overlooked presence in the built environment: the utility pole.
My project titled SGN examines the current state of the oldest utility poles in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam that were originally erected during its time as Saigon, one of the centers of French Indochina (1887–1954). The name of this project is derived from the IATA airport code for the Tan Son Nhat International Airport located inside the city. This airport code was derived from the city’s former name and continues to be used, even though the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975. The code “SGN” remains as a form of anachronism, like the oldest utility poles that continue to be used in the city and are the focus of my recent photographs.
Public utilities in Saigon date back to 1896 when the Société d’Électricité de Saigon (SEVS) was founded to supply electricity to the area. The electrical grid in the region quickly expanded after 1909 when Compagnie des eaux et d’électricité d’Indochine (CEE) bought out SEVS and secured a monopoly of both water and electrical services in Saigon as well as Cholon and Phnom Penh.2
References to the history and development of public utilities in Saigon tend to be extremely brief in documents from the early twentieth century that are still available in French or English. A book by the geographer Charles Robequain titled The Economic Development of French Indo-China that was published in 1939 is the rare example that goes beyond a cursory mention of this subject matter and elucidates the rationale behind the development of electricity in this region.
Electricity offers the European population infinite possibilities of increased comfort through various domestic appliances for ventilation, refrigeration, etc. The native and especially the Chinese merchants in the larger cities also find it invaluable.3
Robequain’s account asserts the fact that electricity in Saigon was developed first and foremost out of French colonial interests. Any benefit the local populace would receive from electrification would be secondary.
Postcards of Saigon from the turn of the century indicate that utility poles begin to appear in the landscape following the introduction of electricity to the region. These postcards also reveal that the earliest utility poles in the city were constructed as steel lattice towers. These structures were unlike the utility poles made of lumber that appear in the Brown Brothers’ photograph from 1888 and are still common in many parts of the world. The utility poles in Saigon were the product of modern manufacturing techniques developed over the course of the nineteenth century: prefabrication and assemblage of standardized parts. The expansion of the electrical grid led to the proliferation of identical lattice towers across Saigon.
This basic design would be used for the construction of utility poles for at least the next half-century. Variations of lattice towers were erected by CEE in Saigon through World War II and up to the end of French colonial rule in 1954. They then continued to service the city as it became the capital of the newly established Republic of Vietnam and through the turmoil that engulfed the city with the onset of the Second Indochina War. The public utilities in Saigon were finally absorbed and nationalized in 1975 by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after the reunification of the country.
Despite the passage of time, changes in regimes, and transformations with the urban landscape, a significant number of these lattice towers from the first half of the twentieth century endured in what is now officially called Ho Chi Minh City. Furthermore, they continue to be used into the twenty-first century in a country that is in midst of rapid socioeconomic changes. The developments that have occurred in Vietnamese society in recent decades have also led to these lattice towers becoming an extraordinary sight. Many of these structures are now overwhelmed with countless wires tethered to a variety of electrical and telecommunication networks. The overwhelming number of wires now supported by these obsolete utility poles far exceed the original capacity of their design. As a result, each one has morphed into a unique, sculpture-like object.
The accumulation on these lattice towers represents the rapid economic and population growths of the recent decades. They are the product of the transformation this nation has experienced since reforms were initiated in 1986 with Đổi Mới (Renovation) in order to steer the country from a command economy to what is described as a “socialist-oriented market economy.” Now deeply integrated with the global market, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. The national population also has increased from about 60 million to 96.5 million since 1986.4 The volume of wires on the lattice towers points to the increasing importance of networks that link a country that once faced international isolation from a larger global society and economy.
These remnants of French colonialism that remain in the contemporary landscape of Ho Chi Minh City are mostly overlooked as they are anonymous structures of civil engineering, originally installed to serve the practical needs of a city. As a ubiquitous presence in this built environment for over a century, they are normally passed unnoticed by the constant flow of traffic on the streets. When they are brought up in a conversation, some residents even view them as an undesirable artifact from the past that contradicts the project of modernization the nation is currently undertaking in its attempt to create the socialist-oriented market economy.
Yet, I believe the significance of these lattice towers could be revealed by capturing them as photographs right now. Their historical origin and current state provide an insight to the historical trajectory of the city as it evolved from one of the centers of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia to the economic engine of an independent and developing nation attempting to merge socialism with global capitalism.
Moreover, this question of documenting the lattice towers has taken on a sense of urgency as they are gradually being removed as part of the renewal of the city’s landscape for the twenty-first century economy. The wires previously supported by the lattice towers are beginning to be buried underground and out of sight, repeating the process carried out around the urban center of New York City over a century ago. Stripped of the wires, some of the lattice towers now stand in the landscape without function, an unintended monument that simultaneously points to the city’s past and the changes that are in motion for a city to come. These towers that are no longer in use will also inevitably be removed in the name of progress.
As a still image, a photograph has the ability to make visible various layers of accumulation on these structures: rust, coats of paint, dents, cracks, repairs, modifications, wires recently installed, and traces of wires taken out of commission long ago. These marks point to the time accrued on these structures as they stood over the series of events that took place is this landscape over the course of a century. The fact that they were in service for all of these years and continue to be used into the twenty-first century completely defies their expected service life.
Upon closer examination, the photographs also show the informal ways these structures came to be used in the daily lives of people in addition to facilitating the electrical and telecommunication demands of the city. The upper half of many lattice towers were retroactively employed as a support for newer streetlights. Neighboring businesses started to use the lower half of lattice tower as storage space or to hang advertising for the latest consumer products. Objects strategically placed by the concrete base (water buckets, bottles, bricks, tires covered in foil) indicate the roadside service set up by the lattice tower that offers fuel and repair for scooters.5 The local residents ultimately found practical uses for these structures that went beyond the original intent of the colonial administration.
The final passing of these lattice towers from the landscape could signal the arrival of a radically different space in Ho Chi Minh City. The significance of these oldest utility poles and their complicated legacy may become clearer when they are no longer there at the sites but still exist as photographic images that one could look back and reflect at their sights.
An exhibition of photographs from this project was held at FLXST Contemporary in Chicago from January 9 to February 14, 2021. For more information, please visit the gallery website.