Rachel Kaplan: On Ritual and Resilience: The Nhà Rông of Vietnam

Rachel Kaplan

A chapel, a courthouse, a barracks, a beacon. For hundreds of years, the rong house, or Nhà Rông, has functioned as a spiritual, cultural, administrative, and focal center of minority villages throughout Vietnam's Central Highlands. Distinguishable by its massive, steeply pitched roof, stilt construction, large balconies, and locally sourced materials, the formal manifestation of the Nhà Rông is a rich juxtaposition of context and symbol. A Nhà Rông is part of the visual identity of a village, and as such, the scale and elaborateness of the rong are seen as a reflection of the power and wealth of the village itself.

In the modern sociopolitical landscape of central Vietnam, the troubled relationship between the Vietnamese government and the ethnic minority groups in the region can be seen in subtle and overt ways. Ethnic groups residing in the Central Highlands, known collectively as the Montagnards, or "people of the mountain," have a long and brutal history of conflict with the Vietnamese majority and have battled persecution, violence, displacement, discrimination, and state-sponsored colonization. Within this context, the role of the Nhà Rông is ever-changing. As external forces are threatening ethnic communities, some are forging closer bonds with their histories, while others are moving away towards a modern and globalized future. Thus, the Nhà Rông of the 21st century is a varied and fluid concept. While almost always still present, either by choice or government mandate, it can reflect identity or represent an anachronism.

On Ritual and Resilience: The Nhà Rông of Vietnam is a formal and contextual investigation of the Nhà Rông as a vernacular building type. The exhibition showcases four prototypical Nhà Rông from the Kon Tum and Gia Rai provinces in Vietnam. Through a series of technical drawings and photographs, the project investigates the unique qualities of the Nhà Rông across different ethnic groups and localities, and studies how environmental, political, and other factors have influenced the design, use, and contextual development.

Rachel Kaplan (M.Arch. '14) is an architectural designer at MDSzerbaty Associates in New York City. On Ritual and Resilience: The Nhà Rông of Vietnam presents research funded by the 2017–18 Eidlitz Travel Fellowship.