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Diving Deeper into Vann Molyvann’s Architecture

Marina Shafik / Khmer Times Share:
Pen Sereypagna from The Vann Molyvann Project guiding students from the Summer School at Sa Sa Bassac gallery. Photo: Prum Ero

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – I strolled into the Sa Sa Bassac art gallery recently and found an unusual spectacle. 

Gone were the usual suspects – paintings, sculptures and installations. Instead, 15 architects and architectural students sat at two large tables, busy creating wooden scale models and working on computers.

Sa Sa Bassac curator Erin Gleeson smiled upon seeing the surprised look on my face. She explained the gallery space had been transformed into a “transparent studio” as part of the Vann Molyvann Project: Summer School 2015. 

The project’s official opening will be Saturday at 6 pm. The project will run until Sep.r 5 under the curatorship of Ms. Gleeson and Pen Sereypagna of the Vann Molyvann Project.

“I really love the idea that people come here expecting an exhibition, as in an environment exhibition,” said Ms. Gleeson. “And there were many times when artists have broken that idea of an exhibition in the classical sense by pouring sand on the exhibition hall or by putting a wall in front of you so you can’t walk.”

“I am happy and very honored to extend that idea to architecture, especially considering the knowledge and legacy of Vann Molyvann,” she said.

A Little-Known but Iconic Architect 

Vann Molyvann is an icon. Described as “The man who built Cambodia” and “The father of the New Khmer Architecture,” he is the creative force behind the construction of numerous iconic buildings. These include the Olympic Stadium, Independence Monument, the Institute of Foreign Languages and the Chaktomuk Conference Hall. 

Despite his huge portfolio, little documentation is available on his projects. 

“We spent a lot of time in the archives searching for urban design and there was nothing, nothing, either at the National Archives or at Bophana,” said Ms. Gleeson. “So we had to go to other archives to find mini records of his buildings. But that’s what we already had in our collection.”

As an extension of the project’s ongoing research, which included a summer school in 2010, participants will dig into the architect’s works, conduct surveys and analyze both the architectural and social dynamics related to his buildings. They will also create AutoCAD renderings for documentation purposes. 

The public program will include screenings at Bophana and Meta House, a symposium, studio-tours at Sa Sa Bassac every other Saturday, and Khmer Architecture tours.

The Vann Molyvann Project is funded by the US Embassy, the Center for Khmer Studies, and Parsons The New School. It involves selected students from Norton University, RUFA University and American students returning from 2010’s summer school. 

Anti-Elitist Architecture 

Even the most casual Phnom Penh visitor will notice that the development of the contemporary city lacks coherence. Yes, new buildings do pop up on every street corner, but something is missing in the capital. 

Mr. Molyvann got it right when he said in 2007 in the documentary Concrete Visions: “I am extremely afraid that we will lose the specific character of the town.” 

“Phnom Penh doesn’t really have urban planning, and it was the same in the 60s,” said the project’s Mr. Sereypagna. “But nowadays development is all focused on the private sector, and not really in the public interest.”

One of Mr. Molyvann’s main objectives was to design buildings and their surrounding areas in a way that people could fully live in and enjoy them. His architecture, Mr. Sereypagna explains, was not only for the elite but for everyone in the Kingdom. 

Olympic Stadium is probably the best example of Mr. Molyvann’s talent for bringing together people and buildings.
At sunset every day, hundreds of Cambodians crowd the stadium. Some of them dance to Khmer traditional music. Others run or watch sport matches. Some simply enjoy the fresh breeze and have snacks on the stand seats. 

Ms. Gleeson says the Olympic Stadium now is threatened by a planned new stadium and a series of renovations that do not honor the original drawings. She adds that construction of a scale model of this masterwork will be a key element of this year’s summer school.

The curators stress that the school is not a project to evoke nostalgia. Mr. Sereypagna, for one, says he will never forget an important piece of advice from Mr. Molyvann a few years ago: “Learn from the past, don’t copy it.”

Students repair and create new scale models of Vann Molyvann’s iconic buildings. Photo: Prum Ero

A model created by the 2010 summer school organized by The Vann Molyvann Project. Photo: Kim Hak

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