It is a strange sight in the middle of the tasteless utilitarian architecture of Footscray’s low rise suburban shopping. Two matching curving arabesques of wings and bird’s neck reaches high into the sky. The forms of the fabled Vietnamese Lac birds The inside of these enormous forms is lined with golden printed metal with an image with a mass of flowers, butterflies and a woman in traditional Vietnamese dress.
On one edge, in clear lettering is “Saigon Welcome Arch”. Footscray is such a welcoming place, or at least it aspires to be, a short distance away there is and Indigenous welcome, the ‘smoking’ ceremony at Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins.
The Saigon Welcome Arch in Footscray is packed into the intersection of Leeds and Hopkins streets with a cafe one side and a pharmacy on the other. This is about creating a better urban space by making a place out of an otherwise nondescript T-intersection. It doesn’t fit into bland cheap utilitarian architecture of the place, it burst free from it.
But does any of that matter aside from aesthetics how does this public art work? On a large scale of architecture and human interaction the arch is a landmark in Footscray and the Saigon Night Market operates every second a Friday of the month under it and along Leeds Street (I should go, sculptures and public art is different at night). On the small personal scale of comfort for tired legs there are matching curving white seats at the base of each of the arch’s wing.
It was created in 2016 by architects McBride Charles Ryan and local artist Khue Nguyen as part of the redevelopment of the Little Saigon precinct. Khue Nguyen came to Australia as a political refugee in 1988 and in 2010 he was a finalist in Archibald Prize for a self portrait.
There aren’t a lot of gateways in Melbourne but Khue Nguyen has done another on the opposite side of the city for the Springvale retail area. This time it was in collaboration with Hassell Architect. In Buckingham Ave two towers topped with a flat red roof hang large golden banners printed with a Vietnamese design. Springvale, like Footscray, also has a large population who were, or whose parents were, from Vietnam.