At a Glance
Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins, including a preface by His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni. The Key Publisher, Bangkok, 2007. Price $65, 333 pages. Available at Monument Books.
For travelers to Phnom Penh and ex-pats alike, there is no more informative or timely city manual than the recently published study “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970.”
The authors, longtime Phnom Penh residents Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, masterfully present a face of the capital that is often overlooked. As the rush to preserve the classic French colonial buildings — such as the FCC’s recent acquisition of the stunning mansion at 32 Sotheros Boulevard — grabs headlines and preservation grants, many fear for the fate of uniquely Khmer-style architecture that is increasingly endangered.
Specifically, as the book’s title suggests, it’s the prodigious and innovative period following independence from France in 1953, and lasting until the emergence of the US-backed regime of former general Lon Nol.
Flash back to Cambodia, 1953: following nearly a century of French rule the country was reinventing itself by calling on well-loved cultural traditions and looking ahead to the future, and the West. Cambodia was caught in the grip of nationalist fervor, and empowered by the thought of molding a new nation. At the head of this excitement was the enigmatic, but always interesting, head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
Under his royal direction young Cambodians rapidly returned from their respective studies overseas to lend a hand in the reconstruction of the country. The best coupled Western ideas with traditional forms. Nowhere was this more unmistakable than in architecture, where modernist forms and practices were melded with local materials and the influence of such awe-inspiring monuments as the already world-famous Angkor temple complex.
As Grant and Collins point out it was a new and entirely indigenous school of design; as such, “new Khmer architecture” was born. Today, the evidence is still everywhere, from Phnom Penh’s National Sports Complex (better known as Olympic Stadium) and Institute of Languages, to the newly remodeled Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville, which had its interior decorated lavishly by Prince Sihanouk himself.
Aptly illustrating the blend of traditional and modern is The Institute of Languages, located prominently on Russian Boulevard. The relatively small structure is a circular building inspired by the traditional Khmer woven palm leaf hat worn by farmers. The interior is illuminated by filtered light, dispersed by the careful location of windows. As were many buildings (and entire towns such as Sihanoukville) the institute was designed by Vann Molyvann, the most influential Khmer architect and still a major figure in Cambodian cultural pride and preservation.
Like many others, Molyvann studied abroad after World War II and returned to work in the domestic arena. Perhaps his most famous work is Phnom Penh’s most visible, and visited, structure – the newly refurbished Independence Monument.
According to Ross and Collins, elements of Western modernism — for example, the mantra of form following function — were blended with well-recognized Cambodian motifs and traditional Southeast Asian architecture built in harmony with the tropical climate.
The authors identify the use of large open spaces and courtyards — as opposed to glass enclosures — used for ventilation. Water was a common design feature. Like the traditional Cambodian stilt-home, the space underneath structures didn’t go to waste, nor did the ever-present roof terrace.
The largest construction of the 1953-1970 era, and perhaps Molyvann’s masterpiece at least in scale, is the 60,000-seat, 40-hectare National Sports Complex, which was opened in 1964. Reportedly, half a million cubic meters of earth were dug out of the site and piled up to create the elliptical stadium that is used for sporting and political events even today.
“Building Cambodia” is a masterpiece as well. A product of seven years of research thanks to a grant from Japan’s Toyota Foundation, the book was launched in September at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. The full color format, and insightful text, is interspersed with wonderfully grainy vintage photos of an architectural age that was soon to end. Following the Lon Nol coup of 1970, Cambodia would wait almost three decades for a return of the peace and optimism that were the underpinnings of new Khmer architecture. And that’s exactly what the authors build to.
As Cambodia’s current building boom brings prosperity to some, it is increasingly threatening the signature “New Khmer Architecture.” Some are now gone — the Bassac theater, for instance — and even more are in terrible states of disrepair. Worse, the so-called cookie-cutter construction seen throughout the capital is taking the place of more significant structures, and threatening to turn what was once “the pearl of Southeast Asia” into another homogenized mega-city.