When the news broke earlier this week that prominent Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid would design the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Sleuk Rith Institute, there were more questions than answers. The institute, envisioned by DC-Cam’s executive director Youk Chhang as a leading genocide studies centre in Southeast Asia, has been years in the making. Previous designs have come to naught. Securing Hadid’s firm shows that the institute is one step closer to a reality, and one step further away from an ambitious idea. In the years to come, the landscape in Phnom Penh could see a structure from an architect whose buildings have graced major corners of the globe. But why Cambodia? Why now? The Phnom Penh Post’s Deputy Business Editor Joe Freeman speaks with the award-winning architect.
What intrigued you personally about working on this particular project in Cambodia?
It is Youk Chhang’s vision that I find so inspirational. His brief for the institute is for beauty and optimism to heal and reconnect. The work of the Documentation Center is an important part of this process.We feel we can create a project that will help continue DC-Cam‘s work for future generations.
Did you draw any connections between the country’s history and the history of Iraq?
You could say there are some parallels between the histories of the two countries. In fact Chhang has also worked on resolving the problems in Iraq. But every country has its own particular identity and this project will focus on Cambodia.
How will you put your own touch on DC-Cam’s distinctive vision for the Sleuk Rith institute?
Chhang has asked us to contribute to this project as he strongly believes in healing through education, understanding and inspiration – to instigate a sense of future possibilities. He has trusted us with a great responsibility to realise his vision. We have two very distinct roles: he will challenge us with his requirements and we must deliver beyond his expectations.
As I understand it, the Sleuk Rith Institute is a memorial and a museum connected heavily to a tragic period in Cambodia’s history. Have you been here before and will you travel to the country and research its history, especially the Khmer Rouge era?
We have already started our research and we are working with the institute, putting together a great team of Cambodian and international experts that share [DC-Cam’s]vision. Now that we will start the design process, our team will travel to the project site and I very much look forward to this. In our work, we always try to look beyond the brief – we also try to interpret the purpose of an institution. It is not just the form of a building that interests us – but we also research new and better ways in which people can use a building. By visiting the site and extensive research, we are able to create projects that give much more than simply fulfilling the brief.
I know that Chhang has described parts of his idea for the institute by drawing on Angkorian-era temples like Banteay Srey. Do you intend to incorporate Cambodian elements of style, either historical or more modern, like Khmer New Architecture, into the design? Or can Phnom Penh residents expect something completely different and closer to what I’ve seen described as your “futuristic” style?
We’ve only just been appointed and will now start the design process. Certainly we will look at Cambodian elements [of style] as one of the sources of inspiration but also other elements such as the beauty of natural Cambodian landscapes. Chhang would not have approached us if he felt traditional architecture was solely appropriate.
I read an interview with you in which you expressed a preference for working in Asia because of fewer limits it places on the design process. Do you see a similar freedom to carry out your project in Cambodia?
Asia is a huge region with many rich and diverse cultures. There is certainly an ambition and energy in the new generation across the region and I am proud that our architecture seems to offer inspiration. I think my work encourages an optimism that is found in places where the young have embraced the future with confidence – but have also not forgotten the past. Many places across Asia have this wonderful attribute.
This is a sensitive and important project for this country. As of now, there are no official memorials to Khmer Rouge victims outside of Tuol Sleng prison and the “Killing Fields”, which are closer to preserved crime sites. Are you nervous about the reception or about the great responsibility that comes with a project like this, especially as you are coming in from abroad?
Designing Sleuk Rith Institute is a tremendous responsibility, and it is a great privilege for us to be entrusted with the project. Chhang’s work has empowered the people of Cambodia – understanding the past always leads to a much more optimistic future. We will do our best to deliver a great project that honours and engages the people of Cambodia – and inspires the next generations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.