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Seven questions: Cambodia is a dream for architecture buffs

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The STHA PATYAKAM magazine team in front of Vann Molyvann’s French Library on the campus of Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh’s Meta House will host the launch of STHA PATYAKAM - The Architecture of Cambodia on Tuesday, July 10th, at 7pm. The new magazine was produced by 30 students from the Department of Media and Communication (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The 32 full-colour pages give a general overview of the capital’s most significant buildings from Wat Phnom to Vattanac Tower. After the launch at Meta House the magazine will be sold ay Monument Books for US$2.50. Michael Scholten spoke with the DMC’s Dr Tilman Baumgaertel, who supervised the project.

After KON – The Cinema of Cambodia in 2010 and DONTREY – The Music of Cambodia in 2011, the latest magazine deals with architecture in Phnom Penh. Why did you choose this topic?
I consider it kind of a trilogy: Cinema, music and architecture were the three fields, where Cambodia really broke new ground in its Golden Age in the 1960s under Sihanouk. I felt it was important to look at these issues from a contemporary point of view. The magazine is of great interest both to the residents of Phnom Penh as well as for tourists, who have a handy introduction to the very diverse and interesting architecture of the city.

How did you chose the buildings that finally made it into the magazine?
We looked for representative buildings from each period. Obviously we had to include well-known tourist spots such as the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom or the National Museum. But we also added buildings that are not in the regular travel guides, such as the 100 Houses or the Church of the Sisters of Providence. Originally, we had a list of 100 buildings, and then boiled it down to 40 due to limited space. This is only the tip of the iceberg. And it is only about Phnom Penh and about not the rest of the country. Cambodia is a really a dream for architecture buffs.

Looking back in younger history: Who had the biggest impact on Phnom Penh as it looks today?
The key figure is Vann Molyvann. His work is of international importance and he is one of the pioneers of “green” and ecological architecture. Today he is an inspiration to young Cambodian architects and architecture students. We are very sad that we were not able to get an interview with him.

Were you surprised about anything that the students brought home from their research?
I am very happy about the research on the second campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, which was, as far as I can see, the only major building that was constructed in Phnom Penh during the Vietnamese occupation. Nothing about this building can be found in other books on Cambodian architecture. And I think only a few people know that Borei Keila once was the athletes’ village of the Olympic stadium.

Were there any big challenges for your students?
They had to work very hard to find out more about new buildings like Hun Sen’s office, the new Vattanac Tower, the villa of An Try and some of the new real estate developments. Nobody is forthcoming with information about these things. Property is such a loaded topic in Cambodia, because of the land-grabbing and the evictions. In fact, this magazine was more difficult to make than the ones about cinema and music, because many people do not like to discuss the modern construction boom.

Could your students use any existing literature on Cambodian architecture for your work?
Currently, there is no good book about architecture that is easily available. The important works are out of print. And most books on Cambodia have been written by foreigners, therefore I think that in some instances our texts show the Khmer perspective on certain buildings for the first time. However, it must be stressed that our magazine is by no means a complete account of the buildings in Phnom Penh.

After three years in Cambodia you and your family will return to Germany soon. How do you want to see Phnom Penh, if you come back to the city in a couple of years?
I hope that all the buildings in our magazine will still be in good shape, or even renovated. This magazine can help to encourage the citizens and the politicians of Phnom Penh to take a fresh view of some of the most brilliant architectural works in Phnom Penh. It would be very unfortunate if fantastic buildings - like the Olympic Stadium - would disappear.

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