Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Building Phnom Penh: An Angkorian heritage

The library of the School of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh,
designed by Vann Molyvann.
(Courtesy of Susan Schulman)

Source: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/27/arts/cambarch.php

PHNOM PENH: Many Asian cities have laid claim to the title of "Paris of the East." During the 1930s, Phnom Penh's candidature was supported by no less a luminary than Charlie Chaplin, who described its orderly, tree-lined avenues as "little sisters" to the Champs-Elysées.

But today's visitors to Cambodia are surprised to discover that the true architectural legacy of this former French protectorate is not colonial at all, but a unique synthesis of postwar European modernism and what might be called "Angkorian vernacular."

"New Khmer Architecture" emerged from Cambodia's 15 years of prosperity following the end of French rule in 1953. The euphoria of independence spawned an entire school of designers and architects who, rather than replicate international styles, chose to reinterpret them according to a set of local conditions, foremost among them flooding and hot temperatures.

It was a kind of Asian Bauhaus in that its members worked concurrently and in a similar style.

The movement's influence was short-lived: few of its architects survived the Khmer Rouge. However, Vann Molyvann, the leader and most prolific member of the group, remains, at 80, an enterprising and respected figure, even if his work has yet to acquire the protection it so patently deserves.

The first Cambodian architect to be trained in Europe - at Paris's Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts - Vann returned to Cambodia in 1956. Introduced to the left-leaning King Norodom Sihanouk, the two spearheaded a campaign of urban development and construction that transformed Phnom Penh from a sleepy colonial backwater to a vibrant, ambitious capital.

From universities to sports facilities, the architect and his royal mentor created more than a hundred public projects throughout Cambodia, using funds from the Chinese, Russian and French governments as well as "nonaligned" states during the decade and a half before Cambodia was dragged into a regional war with the United States. The engineer Vladimir Bodiansky and the urbanist Gerald Hanning provided technical assistance.

Vann's imposing Independence Monument at the intersection of Sihanouk and Norodom boulevards symbolizes the era. Paying direct homage to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the chocolate-hued Phnom Penh structure built in 1960 is adorned, appropriately enough, with a profusion of nagas, the protective serpents of Hindu mythology.

Vann's 1964 National Sports Center, constructed before Kenzo Tange's Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, is as clear a statement of civic pride and for Sihanouk an attempt to proclaim the country's neutrality in the face of growing Cold War hostilities. Cambodia's rejection by the pro-Western International Olympic Committee prompted Sihanouk to join Ganefo (Games of the Nonaligned and Emerging Forces), a sporting event created by China, Russia and others. Cambodia's turn to host the Games came in 1966.

Though Vann shared Sihanouk's utopian vision, his inspiration is drawn from his own architectural heritage. The Sports Center's large ornamental pools directly imitate the barays, or reservoirs, surrounding Angkorian temples, while the elevated walkways at both his Cham Car Mon palace and the School of Foreign Languages pay homage to Angkor Wat's kilometer-long causeway.

Vann's signature suspended "zigzag" roof lines created artificial space to enable air to flow in what he describes as "a reworking of the concave shape of the temple roofs."

The other major influence was Le Corbusier and his complex theories of communal living. Vann's use of the Frenchman's "modular"' as a tool for establishing proportions is best emulated in the "White" and "Gray" buildings of the Front du Bassac, a development begun in 1964 to house foreign advisers and Ganefo's athletes.

"His buildings are like sculptures in the way they celebrate depth and space as well as light and darkness," said the architect today.

Assessing Phnom Penh at that time as "an active sedimentation zone with poor ventilation and prone to flooding," Vann found traditional solutions to mass housing in a rapidly expanding city. A new book, "Building Cambodia: 'New Khmer Architecture' (1953-1970)" by Darryl Leon Collins and Helen Grant Ross (The Key Publishers, Bangkok 2006) applauds the movement's aims and philosophy while establishing Vann as a seminal figure in postwar Asian architecture.

But while steadily collecting admirers abroad and celebrated by the more enlightened sections of Phnom Penh society, this architectural patrimony has not been protected by the authorities. Rather than celebrate the achievements of Sihanouk's "golden age," the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen seems to go to considerable lengths to undermine them.

To the dismay of international groups attempting to stimulate cultural continuity, Vann has been largely shunned by the political establishment in Cambodia. When Unesco organized a conference on how to protect this legacy and designated Vann as its head, it had to disinvite him after complaints by the government. Rarely consulted on the fate of his buildings, Vann has been forced to watch from the sidelines while his work has been ripped out or ineptly renovated.

The refurbishment of Vann's fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall met with the architect's general approval. However, the Taiwanese Yuanta Group's cosmetic makeover of the National Sports Center in 2000 robbed this voluminous site of a good deal of its land to make way for commercial development. "Economic tradeoffs with foreign developers result in short-term quick-fix solutions that ignore longterm planning," Collins said.

The latest building to attract scrutiny is a theater commissioned by Sihanouk in 1966 to promote Cambodia's performing arts. A masterpiece of concrete plasticity with staircases suspended over shallow pools of water, the Preah Suramarit was gutted by fire in 1994, devastating the auditorium and stage area. It has remained in its ruined state for more than a decade.

Only days after Cambodia's new King Norodom Sihamoni declared a desire to see the theater rebuilt, the government pre-emptively announced its sale to a local telecommunications company, which is expected to replace it with a conference hall and TV tower.

Given the minimal architectural merit, much less public interest to be found in the latest rash of government offices, casino and private villas, this is especially depressing.

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