Thirty-seven-year-old Vong Visal graduated in architecture from the Phnom Penh University of Fine Arts, after years of sustaining himself by teaching English.
As an architect he struggles with the apparent worthlessness of contracts. He still is passionate about his job and has a vision.
1. What are the challenges of being an architect in Cambodia?
I had a client for example who wanted his house renovated and we agreed on a design. For the new design we had to tear down a few walls. After we had done that he complained to us that he did not want his walls to be broken and wouldn’t pay us.
Generally, you can say that clients want to pay a small price for their building and have it ‘very beautiful’ at the same time.
We usually agree on a contract for the design and price of building. After signing the contract the clients always add more details and say they will pay for it. When I send them the bill, which is naturally higher than what was first agreed to, they say, “That is not what it says in the contract.”
2. What kind of people tend to be most difficult to work with?
I used to build for high government officials and they cause a lot of trouble. I refuse to work for them now because they often say ‘Do it first.’ They make us order material from abroad—for example, marble from Italy. When they see it and don’t like it, they won’t pay for it.
Because people don’t pay the bills, building companies often go bankrupt. I have been bankrupt, too—twice.
Not all officials are like that however. I build the house for Kep Chuktema [the governor of Phnom Penh]. He paid and did not complain about my design. His wife is very nice, too. She always bought fruit for the workers at the building site.
3. Who have you enjoyed working with, apart from Kep Chuktema?
It’s usually easy to work with foreigners. At the moment I am building a factory for a South Korean company. Foreigners usually never break the contract and have a better understanding of the quality and the scope of the work involved. I can also charge higher prices.
4. What are the challenges of architecture in Cambodia today?
The new generation of architects in Cambodia have to learn to design houses economically and functionally instead of making them just beautiful. Architects of that generation often design costly houses with computer programs. The clients find it amazing and they sign a contract. Very often they cannot pay for the buildings they bought, so the work on the building site has to stop. This is why you see so many deserted building sites in Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia. As architects, we have to help to save the client from this peril and look at his budget.
5. What building design are you most proud of?
I am very proud of a port I designed for a lake in Takeo province. I combined Khmer and European styles of architecture in the towers of that harbour. In ancient, as well as in contemporary Khmer architecture, you have to either build one, three or five towers on a building. I designed three towers, two in Khmer and one in European style. The architectural community asked me why I did it because they found it strange – but it was well received. Even the Ministry of Urban Planning appreciated it a lot.
6. What is the significance of ancient Khmer architecture in contemporary Cambodian architecture today?
There are similarities – and there have to be! We have to make the world understand our country and the Khmer design in architecture identifies our nation. Vann Molyvann, who designed the Olympic Stadium and the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, understood this best. He is the greatest architect for me, and I am proud that I was his student.
7. What do you wish for yourself in the future?
I want to be a good architect and businessman. I want to speak to the world not through my mouth but through the buildings I design.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at email@example.com