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Cambodian Modern: The Architectural Legacy of Vann Molyvann

By Stephen Brookes • Modernism Magazine • Winter 2007-08

Institute for Foreign Languages, Phnom Penh                Photos by Stephen Brookes
It’s a still, clear morning in Phnom Penh, but storm clouds are gathering over one of the city’s most striking buildings. Empty and abandoned in an unkempt field, the light, sleek lines of the National Theater rise unexpectedly into the air, soaring over the bland office blocks and Buddhist temples nearby. With its sharp angles, walls of glass and playful interior spaces, it’s a tour de force of 1960’s modernism – utterly original, and as captivating as a mirage.

Designed in 1964 by the innovative Khmer architect Vann Molyvann, the theater is only one of dozens of important -- yet still little-known -- modernist buildings in Cambodia, all built during a spectacular architectural flowering between 1953 and 1970. Fusing European modernist ideas with Khmer vernacular architecture, Molyvann almost single-handedly changed the face of Phnom Penh, launching what’s come to be known as “New Khmer Architecture.” And while many of his masterpieces are under threat from new development, they still comprise one of the most intriguing collections of modernist architecture in Asia.

Known in the 1930’s as “the Pearl of the Orient,” Phnom Penh today is an open, low-slung city of broad avenues and tree-lined lanes, with an eclectic mix of pale yellow colonial villas, bland apartment blocks, elegant art deco buildings, graceful temples and tiny houses jammed up chockablock against each other.

And over the past decade, it’s been slowly coming to life. Cambodia spent most of the 20th Century enduring one nightmare after another – colonized by France, dragged into the Vietnam war, embroiled in civil strife, subjected to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge (when Phnom Penh was emptied) and invaded by the Vietnamese. And even now, though political stability seems to be restored, the country remains poor, corrupt and largely isolated.

Vann Molyvann
But there was one bright moment in the years right after the country’s 1953 independence from France. Determined to make the capital a symbol of Cambodia’s forward-looking, confident attitude, the ruling Prince Norodom Sihanouk commissioned more than 100 new buildings from a group of architects – led by the young Vann Molyvann, who had recently returned from studying with Le Corbusier at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Barely thirty, Molyvann was just four years younger than Sihanouk himself, and the two made a formidable team. There were already several modern architectural gems in the city, like the cruciform, deco-inspired Central Market from 1937 and the Phnom Penh Railway Station from 1932.  But Molyvann had absorbed Le Corbusier’s ideas and wanted to infuse them with a distinctly Khmer sensibility, using elements from the ancient temples of Angkor and paying particular attention to the problems of flooding and extreme heat that Cambodia endures.

“We could not simply repeat things as they were done in Europe,” says Molyvann, who, at 81, still lives in the airy, light-filled house on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard he designed for himself in the late 1960’s.  “We needed to think with new ideas, to build with a Cambodian approach.”

The National Sports Complex (1963-4)
Many of those new ideas are embodied in what may be Molyvann’s most important work, the National Sports Complex. Built in 1963-64, it’s vast without being grandiose -- a 60,000-seat stadium, an 8,000 seat indoor sports hall, Olympic sized swimming pools and tennis courts, all seamlessly integrated in a 96-acre landscape of open courtyards and ornamental pools.

With its bold, muscular contours, the main sports hall makes an appropriately athletic statement.  But inside, there’s a surprising openness to it; light and air filter in freely through the vented walls, and pools and streams run along the walkways, cooling the air and helping control the deluges of the monsoon.

Modernist "naga"
And almost everywhere, there are references to the iconic temples of Angkor, which lie at the heart of Cambodia’s identity. The stadium’s pools echo the vast reservoirs -- known as “barays” -- which surround the temples to store water and contain flooding, while the elevated walkways reflect the massive one that leads into Angkor Wat.  Even the louvered walls, which keep heat out but allow light in, reference the ancient temples.

That lively interplay between European modernism and Khmer vernacular architecture can be seen in virtually all of Molyvann’s buildings.  The Independence Monument (1960), with its distinctive lotus-bud shape, emulates the Arc de Triomph yet is modeled on the central tower of Angkor Wat.  The National Theater integrates the traditional “barays” with modern suspended staircases and cantilevered triangular roofs.  And the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, though thoroughly contemporary, was modeled on the shape of the fan palm – a plant virtually emblematic of Cambodia’s rural villages.

Some of the most overt references to Angkor can be found at the Institute for Foreign Languages, next to the Royal University of Phnom Penh on Pochentong Boulevard. In homage to the kilometer-long entry passage at Angkor, it’s reached via a long elevated concrete walkway that leads to the main building.  The walkway even includes modernist versions of “nagas” – the stone serpents that guard the Angkor temples.

Institute for Foreign Languages
And here, too, modern materials have been adapted to traditional uses.  While the buildings are largely brick and concrete, they are designed to minimize direct sunlight, maximize airflow and control the risk of flooding. But there’s a whimsical quality about them, as well; the Institute’s library is modeled after traditional woven palm-leaf hats (and is set in its own small, circular moat), and the lecture halls are cantilevered imaginatively out over angled “legs” that give them a coiled, animal-like energy.

The Institute for Foreign Languages is still in active use, as are many of Molyvann’s other enduring designs, including the Ministry of Finance, the Council of Ministers, and the “100 Houses” residential housing project.  But others are decaying, and many are threatened by the helter-skelter development now underway almost everywhere in the city. Real estate speculation and a lack of oversight, says Molyvann, have resulted in reckless building – with little respect for the environment or Cambodia’s architectural heritage. 

The National Theater
A planned renovation of the National Sports Complex, for example, has turned into a disaster.  A Taiwanese company was given the contract to restore the main buildings in 2000, in exchange for the right to build on some of the surrounding grounds.  But the developers filled in Molyvann’s carefully planned ponds (leading to flooding in the area), threw up a cheap, ugly retail building next to the stadium, and haven’t even begun the renovation. 

The National Theater (also known as the Tonle Bassac Theater) faces an even more urgent threat.  It’s been steadily deteriorating since a fire gutted much of it in 1994, destroying the distinctive glass pyramid at its top. Cambodia’s current King, Norodom Sihamoni, has said that he wants to see it rebuilt, but no funding has been provided, and the Theater is largely boarded up.  A local telecommunications company, meanwhile, is reported to want the site for other uses.

“The land there is too valuable now,” says Molyvann, sitting at a book-filled desk in his home in Phnom Penh, “and it’s expensive to renovate. The Bassac Theater will be destroyed.  They want to put in a department store.”

Interior, National Theater
For other buildings, it may already be too late. Molyvann introduced apartment blocks to Cambodia with his two Front du Bassac buildings from the mid-1960’s, designed along Le Corbusier’s idea of the “modular.” Once landmarks, their striking design has largely been obliterated.  One was renovated beyond all recognition, turned into a faceless box and renamed, ironically, the “Build Bright University.”  The other is in terrible condition and is likely to be torn down, says one architect in Phnom Penh, to make room for a 46-story development.

“We’re starting to introduce property rights, respect for law and so on,” says Molyvann, as the sound of construction drifts up from the busy street below. “But I’m concerned about the future. In ten years, I don’t know what will be left.”


Touring Phnom Penh's Architecture: A Quick Guide

Phnom Penh is a manageably sized city, and most of the important modernist structures can be absorbed in a day. The best way to see them is in an open-air tuk-tuk with an architect as your guide, which a non-profit group called Khmer Architecture Tours can arrange for well under $100 for a full day.  Before you go, get the essential “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970” by Darryl Collins and Helen Grant Ross.

The Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh
While there are plenty of hotels in Phnom Penh, few hold much architectural interest. One notable exception is the historic Hotel Le Royal, built in 1929.  A luxurious oasis from Phnom Penh’s gritty streets, it was carefully restored by Raffles in 1997 with a blend of colonial and art deco styles and, at about $130 a night, is a bargain.  It’s worth a tour on its own, as is the nearby National Library (or Bibliotheque) from 1922, a stylish and well-preserved example of French neo-classical architecture.

Other interesting hotels include Le Pavillon, a lovingly rebuilt French colonial villa (about $50 a night) and the popular Foreign Correspondents Club, in a fine colonial-era building along the river.  Its stylish (but rather noisy) rooms run about $60 a night, and the open-air restaurant on the top floor is the best place in the city for mid-century surroundings and great views of the waterfront.

The Foreign Correspondents Club, Phom Penh
Shopping for vintage artifacts is a challenge in Cambodia -- during their 1975-1979 rule, the Khmer Rouge tried to wipe out all evidence of the country's  culture, and few items from the colonial era survived. As always in Asia, the best way to find unusual pieces is to locate a resourceful dealer, tell him what you want, then just wait a few days; the results can be remarkable.

But there are a few shops in Phnom Penh where interesting things surface from time to time: Bazar, art de vivre (28 Sihanouk Boulevard) has a worthwhile collection of mostly-Asian furniture and antiques, and there are several dusty little antique shops along Street 240 with a constantly-changing selection of curiosities.  Our favorite was  the chic, eclectic Le Lezard Bleu (61 Street 240), which had a fine selection of 20th-century paintings ($20 to $1,500), as well as reproductions of art deco furniture (nicely designed, but a bit rough around the edges) starting at $200.

Elsewhere in Cambodia:

There are modernist gems outside of Phnom Penh, too, including a deco-filled 1930 house in Battambang called La Villa that recently opened as a six-room hotel, and the Molyvann-designed SKD Brewery and the National Bank of Cambodia in the southern coastal town of Sihanoukville. 

Also on the coast is the town of Kep, which flourished as a seaside resort during the 1960s.  Amid the palm trees are some intriguing modernist villas (Sihanouk had one built here), and three of the finest have been restored and turned into the elegant 11-room Knai Bang Chatt resort.  Its main building, the multi-terraced Blue Villa from 1962, is a lively three-story house with balconies looking out over the sea.

The  Amansara  resort in Siem Reap
To get to the heart of Khmer architecture, though, it’s necessary to head north to the temples of Angkor.  And as it happens, one of the country’s finest examples of mid-century residential architecture is in the neighboring town of Siem Reap. Designed by the French architect Laurent Mondet, the sleek, elegant Villa Princiere was built in 1962 by Prince Sihanouk as a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries.  In its heyday, luminaries including Leonid Brezhnev, Peter O’Toole and Jackie Onassis all basked by its whimsical zigzag pool and dined in the circular dining room, where the Prince screened his latest films.

Though it fell into near-ruin during the Khmer Rouge era, Amanresorts bought the property and thoroughly renovated it in 2002, under the direction of Kerry Hill Architects in Australia. Enlarging and modernizing the rooms, they used a minimalist color scheme of whites and grays to emphasize the clean, austere lines of the buildings. Rather than trying to incorporate traditional Khmer references, they stayed true to the original 60’s style, with superb results; the Prince’s villa, now known as the Amansara, is a must-see on any architectural tour of Asia.

The recent development of Siem Reap has had other benefits; a number of colonial buildings in the old French Quarter have been renovated and turned into restaurants, art galleries and guest houses, and there are now over 100 hotels in the town. The most architecturally entertaining is the high-end Hotel de la Paix (designed by Bill Bensley), which mixes art deco, Angkor references and international chic with cheerful abandon. With gas-fired sconces over its entrance and hanging beds in the courtyard, it may be over the top for some tastes, but its architectural playfulness is guaranteed to keep you smiling – and its restaurant, Meric, may be the best in the entire country.

Posted on Monday, December 31, 2007 at 10:48AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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