One Lab, One Legend, Home to Many

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
The internal staircase with sculptural railings inside the laboratory building of the original Pasteur Institute. GT2/Taing Rinith

Cambodia’s legendary architect Van Molyvann may be most famous for his iconic unique works such as the Independence Monument and the Olympic Stadium. However, “the man who built Cambodia” had worked on nearly 100 architectural projects during his long life. One of those less well-known works is the original Pasteur Institute situated in a low-lying plain of Chroy Chongva peninsula. Having lost its original function for almost 40 years, it is now home to more than 100 families. But its future is still uncertain, due to the existing huge increase of demand for land for real estate investment. Taing Rinith explores stories behind this historical building.

In 1983, the 36-year old Phoung Chea, who had tried his hand at many trades and failed, passed the state exam to become an elementary teacher in Phnom Penh. Thus, he had to leave his hometown of Takeo for Phnom Penh because he was assigned to a teaching position at Sala Chas Primary School, located on Chroy Chongvar.

The government asked him to live on a piece of land near his school, but he could not afford to build a house there. Fortunately, the school principal assisted him in finding a place to stay. Near the school was a housing building, at the front of which was a sign that read ‘Borey Kamaka’ (The Worker’s Settlement). It was occupied by the workers from the three state-owned factories in the area, and was managed by a director. The principal requested the director to give Chea a room, in which Chea and his family would live for the almost two decades.

On the first day that Chea moved into his new home, he felt a strong attraction to the building, which was still beautiful at that time. Containing three floors elevated on tapered square columns, it was built in reinforced concrete in the form of a rectilinear polygon. It also has a flat concrete rooftop, from which one could see the surroundings and a small, rectangular swimming pool on one side.

A Hallway. GT2/Taing Rintih

Chea did not know much about the building at that time. He was told by those who had lived there before that it was a former veterinary hospital built during the post-Independence era known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum. It was not until years later that he realised that the building is the original Pasteur Institute, a medical research facility, designed by the iconic Cambodian architect Van Molyvann.

It was unusual that Khmer Rouge, during their ruthless ruling over the country from 1975 to 1979, kept the building locked instead of destroying it to reinforce their radical anti-Western mindset. By the time that Chea moved into his room, most of the equipment, including the air-conditioners, were still working.

However, in the next few years, Chea witnessed the slow destruction of the building. Because of poverty, the occupants had been taking off and selling the facility’s equipment and its parts as well as materials from the building such as wood and steel. The machines which were too big to be sold by the people were transported out of the facility, allegedly to Vietnam.

By the time Chea left the building in 1997, one year after his retirement and four years after the government transferred the ownership to the occupants, what remained was the former laboratory, which had apartments for staff at the Institute.

“After a few years of living in Kampong Cham, I bought a small house next to the entrance of the ‘Old Pasteur’ because I really miss this place,” says Chea, who is now 67. “Every part of the building is beautiful. Besides, no matter how hot the weather is, inside the building is always cool.”

“I do not know anything about designing a building but Mr Molyvann was not an ordinary architect.”

The design of the building is functional rather than inspirational, as it mostly includes Western elements, which could not be found in most of the New Khmer Architecture movement led by Molyvann. However, the internal staircase with sculptural railings depicts a typical ornamental treatment of the great architect.

“The signature style of Mr Molyvann is the combination of traditional Khmer style and modern architecture, but that could not be found in the original Pasteur Institute,” says Seng Chanraksmey, an architect who used to work with the Van Molyvann Project and surveyed the building four years ago.

Slot Sokim in the apartment she inherited from his father. GT2/Taing Rinith

However, Chanraksmey adds that she tracked Molyvann’s manoeuvre of integrating natural surroundings into his design on the construction of the building.

“There is a shading device, which prevents the sunlight from entering directly into the building,” she says. “Meanwhile, he (Molyvann) drew the light into the building with thick mirrors, which make up most of the roof.”

Phoung Chea, the former occupant, showed Good Times 2 his room on the second floor, which is now occupied by a new owner, to whom he sold the room for only one thousand dollars in 1997. He also led us to his “kitchen” which was originally a sterilisation room.

“There were smoke chimneys in this room so I cooked my food here,” Chea says. “Of course the building was not supposed to be a housing structure so there was not even a bathroom, let alone a kitchen.”

Next to the Chea’s former kitchen is an apartment occupied Slot Sokim, 40, who has grown up here, and her family. Sokim inherited the home from her father who worked in a state-run lumber mill and has innovated it, such as repainting the wall and building a modern bathroom. Yet, she still tries to keep the original feature as much as possible.

“Mr Van Molyvann used plastic tiles, which are very durable,” Sokim says. “He also made the building to have enough holes for the air from the river to go in.”

“It may be very old now, but it is a very comfortable space. My daughter says the building helps her study well in her room.”

Sokim adds that there are now more than 100 families living in the building, including those who occupy the rooms built on the parking lot on the ground floor, and together they formed a loving and caring community.

Nevertheless, like many of Molyvann’s buildings, the original Pasteur Institute is under threat as the result of the redevelopment and speculative land deals. According to Chea and Sokim, a real estate company is having its eyes set on the land since last year and is attempting to buy out residents.

Phoung Chea, a retired teacher, standing in front of the original Pasteur Institute, which was his home for almost 20 years. GT2/Taing Rinith

While some of the households sold their apartments, which after the deal, were emptied and locked, others do not want to sell their homes either because of the insatiable offers or emotional attachment. While Sokim refused to sell her apartment for both reasons, she says she is already prepared to move.

“If the government orders us to move, we cannot do anything,” she says. “But I never want to leave this place. Yes, it is very old, almost a slum, but it is our home.”

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