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Looking to the Past to Build for the Future

Mark Tilly / Khmer Times Share:
The guides of Khmer Architecture Tours on the bridge of the Institute of Foreign Languages. KT/Sotheavy Nou

Young architecture students and graduates look to the works of Vann Molyvann and others of his generation to guide them in their vision and inspiration for Phnom Penh’s future.
in his closing remarks in Christopher Rompre’s documentary “The Man Who Built Cambodia” released last month, iconic architect Vann Molyvann said it was up to the next generation of Cambodian architects to recreate the new architecture, the work that Molyvann and others started during Cambodia’s 1950s and ‘‘60s post-independence architectural renaissance, abruptly cut short when the Khmer Rouge took power. 
Commissioned by the late King Sihanouk, Molyvann flourished as one of the most prolific architects and urban planners Phnom Penh had seen, designing iconic works such as the Independence Monument, Chaktomuk Theatre and arguably what could be considered his magnum opus, the National Olympic Stadium, which was completed in 1964. 

With its sloping flats of grass and monolithic bleachers, the stadium is a work that continues to inspire more than 50 years later. 

The Stadium is what influenced 23-year-old architecture graduate and Khmer Architecture Tours guide Hun Sokagna to study the profession. 

“When I was young, I stayed near the stadium, it made me feel like I wanted to study architecture. My idol is Vann Molyvann, and also my father is an engineer and he knows architects and so he wanted me to study it as well,” she says on Sunday, sitting in the stands overlooking the vast football field being prepared for the Cambodian versus Sri Langka football match.

“We should also be thinking about heritage buildings, like Vann Molyvann’s buildings, we should be protecting them, not knocking them down.” 

It’s this appreciation of Phnom Penh’s historic buildings that encouraged her and other architecture students and graduates to guide tourists and locals around not only Molyvann’s work, but also areas of central Phnom Penh, including the historic French Quarter as well as its various religious sites. 

For the Netherlands-born coordinator of KA-Tours, Ester van der Laan, the tours are a chance to show Phnom Penh’s unique historical architectural attributes Molyvann and others have left behind and that are quickly becoming lost in the city’s race for modernity. 

“What we do is first of all, try and make Cambodians feel proud of their history and heritage,” she says. 

“There are so many cities that don’t have this heritage or history of great buildings to build upon.”

It is a sentiment that 24-year-old Hor Daro, in his final year studying architecture at Norton University and fellow KA-Tours guide, agrees with.

“I think people should value it more because tourists don’t visit Cambodia for high-rise buildings, they want to see culture and heritage, things like that,” he says. 

To that end, the students are also involved with Space for Architecture Cambodia, an initiative spearheaded by Van der Laan which surveys some of the city’s smaller historic sites, such as the ‘60s era villas around the city that rapidly are disappearing amidst the condominium boom.

Based on the survey’s results, the students then recreate the original blueprints and designs that have been lost or destroyed throughout the tumultuous period of the Khmer Rouge and the following the fighting.  

“Because of the Khmer Rouge, all of the drawings on the construction of the buildings have been lost, pictures, drawings, blueprints. So with the Space for Architecture Cambodia project, you go and work backwards,” Van der Laan says, essentially planning to reverse engineer the buildings.

 A similar initiative, The Vann Molyvann Project, aims to achieve a similar goal for Molyvann’s undocumented work. 

“After the war, we didn’t have any master plan we could follow, because everything about the economy had gone, so architecture did not have any steps to follow. So now architecture just follows the eastern style, it doesn’t have the Khmer or Angkorian designs which is sad for me,” says Van Molyvann Project member, KA-Tours guide and architecture graduate Sok Sopheap. 

The project’s aim is to create a catalogue of historic blueprints for future architects to study and draw inspiration from, in order to continue to develop and innovate design for buildings in the city.

Molyvann’s work, which came to be known as the New Khmer architectural design, combined traditional Cambodian aesthetics and motifs from the Angkorian temples, with European brutalism styles of Le Corbusier and others. 

His works were well known for using naturalistic approaches to light and ventilation for both functionality as well as to be spiritually in line with Cambodia’s traditional way of life. 

It is these techniques that Daro, Sopheap and Sokanga hope to continue and develop, drawing inspiration from Molyvann’s work in order to meet the challenges Phnom Penh faces.

“You cannot find something like this in another country, so we should be proud of his work, and so the next generation of architects should follow his ideas to create something new that combines with the Khmer spirit,” Daro says. 

With the city’s population potentially swelling to three million people by the end of the year, according to Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong, both architecture students and working architects are aching to address the city’s problems, increasingly frustrated with the government’s choice of using foreign architects to create new work. 

One of the most prominent examples is the Council of Ministers building, originally designed by Molyvann, it was demolished and rebuilt eight years ago with a modern Chinese design. 

“Most of the designs used in Phnom Penh are by foreign architects. Why not use Khmer architects? The Khmer architects have the ability to design as well,” Sokanga says. 

“It’s better to work with that and find your own style, because Cambodian architects can do it, they’ve done it before. So now it’s up to the future generation and I think they can do it, but not if they don’t get the chance,” Van der Laan says. 

An example of City Hall listening to young Cambodian architects is the recent “Envisioning the Future of Post Office Square” competition, in which deputy chief of urban management Vannak Seng sat as one of the judges. 

Organized by the Asia Foundation and Norton University , the competition gave students two months to reimagine the square in front of the Post Office, in Phnom Penh’s French Quarter, drawing on both past and present architects as sources of inspiration to create a more socially and environmentally friendly version for the future. 

At the launch event on Friday, Sokanga says she was thrilled when her team, including Sopheap, Chhor Savin and Seng Chanreaksmey won second place with their design. 

“I feel really happy because it took two months of planning,” she says gleefully.

“I’m really happy to design in here, because the focus is on urban design. In Phnom Penh, there are no sidewalks, so the idea to close off the street to pedestrians is good. And we think about parking and underground parking, rather than people parking on the sidewalk,” she says. 

Hun Chansan, founder of architecture firm Re-Edge and a jury member at the event, praised the finalists for being in such close competition with each other, adding that their ideas were an example of a greener, more community focused vision of Phnom Penh. 

“It has the potential to be a square that represents that neighbourhood. It should have an identity, it shouldn’t be buried in the past. It should be re-used. The top three were really close to one another,” he says. 

“I think the city will need to make it feel more activated. I would like to see it more interactive, more commercial value added to it and also parks more trees more grass. I just want to see more trees, more greenspace.” 

While it is at this stage only an academic experiment, the project demonstrates young Cambodian architects’ desire for the works of Molyvann and others to be cherished and preserved, with the KA Tours and the Space for Architecture Cambodia continuing to take active steps to make sure these buildings are not forgotten in the future. 

“We can introduce the new generation of young architects to learn to teach more and pay more attention to what is the identity of Cambodia so we can produce designs that are Cambodian,” Sopheap says. 

For more information on the Khmer Architecture Tours, visit: www.ka-tours.org
The “Envisioning the Future of Post Office Square” will be open to the public tonight from 18:00 at the Asia Foundation. See Around Town for details.

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