The magnificent Olympic Stadium (originally called the National Sports Complex), designed by Molyvann in 1963. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days
Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most revered living architect, sweeps a creased hand over rows and rows of glossy books lining his teak bookshelf. Historical books on the Angkorian Kingdom, on Swiss chalets, the Italian Renaissance, on France’s Le Corbusier, modern Japanese architecture of the 1960s, Cambodian artisans and ancient Greece – testament to the man’s vast and varied influences.
He stands poised and protective. In the face of the widespread destruction of much of Cambodia’s historically important architecture, Molyvann’s stance is the pose of a man who faces the fear of his work disappearing, to be replaced by shiny, towering structures of steel and glass.
Molyvann’s work during the ’50s and ’60s heyday of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk created some of the nation’s most iconic architecture: the National Sports Complex (now the Olympic Stadium), the Ministry of Finance, the White Building, the Institute for Foreign Languages, the Independence Monument and the fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall hugging the banks of the Tonle Bassac river to name but a few.
Along with the Olympic Stadium, Molyvann says the design of his house is his magnum opus.
Flanking the monolithic Tonle Bassac restaurant on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, the house, veiled by vines of purple Bougainvillea, is an example of New Khmer architecture at its best.
The roof is feat of engineering which required painstaking calculation by his engineer brother-in-law, Walter Amberg.
While its influence seems to lean towards the oriental, concave domes characteristic of Japanese pagodas, Molyvann says he was inspired rather by the traditional jungle huts of Brazil and rural Cambodian thatched roof huts, “for ventilation purposes”.
Molyvann, as a man of design, is methodical and precise by nature. When asked about his inspiration for the home, built in 1968 (more than 10 years since his return to Cambodia from university in France), he pores over its floor-plans and recites slabs of literature from his manifesto, Modern Khmer Cities.
“It is very important for me to stay in my country, in the house of my history. [The late King Father] Sihanouk and I are the same here – we’ve both come back for the finale, to be cremated.
“This home is meaningful for me and my family. I was the most experimental I ever was, you see. Because I did not dare to impose crazy ideas on any of my government projects or for clients. It was a chance for me to play, but I was a little afraid,” he chuckles.
“I wanted to see if this roof would be possible, if you could live inside a very modern, complex structure in Cambodia while keeping traditional features – such as the ventilation in the roof, and the lighting. The roof is concrete – two layers where one man can actually walk through.”
Molyvann and his family lived in the cubic concrete and red brick home for four years before fleeing the Khmer Rouge, returning in 1992. The empty house watched the evacuation of the city in April 1975 and remained vacant until 1979, when it became a government office.
“It was important for my large family to have a large space to spend time together,” he says. On the second floor, bedrooms are labyrinthine, tucked around corners and slotting together like a puzzle.
With the Molyvanns too old to trek up and down the grand staircase, the two upper levels are now empty, save for a few wicker chairs.
His wife, Trudy, frail but articulate, interjects.
“It was occupied when we came back, and the furniture from that era was all gone. None of the windows were left, they were all smashed. When you went to the top of the house all you could see was debris… Our memories had been shattered,” the former UN worker says.
Molyvann’s daughter Delphine, one of six children, was only four when she fled the Kingdom with her mother and siblings. Lon Nol had banned all movement in and out of the country at the time, and while her father’s passport had been confiscated, he was allowed to travel to a conference in Israel (after being secretly warned by the Israeli ambassador about deteriorating security and the threat he was under as a government worker).
Although the Khmer Republic president was “holding [his family] hostage”, to ensure the architect came back, Trudy ordered Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff to extend her children’s passports, enabling them to flee, and herself escaped on a UN passport.
Molyvann was born in Kampot in 1926 to poor parents. He studied in Phnom Penh before being bestowed with a government grant to study in Paris in 1946. He had a go at law but found his true calling studying architecture at celebrated arts school L’ecole des Beaux Arts. He fervently absorbed the teachings of Swiss/French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, as did young students Lu Ban Hap, Chhim Sun Fong, Seng Sutheng and Mam Sophana. When the intensely patriotic Sihanouk, after independence from the French in 1953, called on them to spearhead the design of new, remarkable civic structures, the group became what is now known as the New Khmer Movement.
Molyvann, the most qualified of the group, returned to the Kingdom in 1957 and was appointed chief architect of the Kingdom and director for urban planning and habitat. In 13 years, he was responsible for the creation of about 100 buildings.
When asked what it felt like to be accountable for the planning and design of a city at the age of 30, he shakes his head. Another smile spreads across his face.
“Of course it was an exciting, humbling experience for a young man – can you imagine?”
Molyvann’s eyes sparkle when he recounts his experiences with Sihanouk, whose funeral he will attend next week.
“Sihanouk and I were colleagues. I had great respect for him. I can tell you a story about the way that he gave orders, which was inspiring. One day, in the ’60s, he called me, a French-trained Khmer engineer, a physician and a few others. We had a meeting at the Royal Palace, and he said he had just come back from Indonesia … He said: ‘they have just built independence but they have plenty of universities, why do we not? This is the future!’ He said, you, Molyvann, you will create the Royal University of Phnom Penh. And I received a small Italian car, and went on a hunt for students and teachers, scholars, to create the council for the university.”
“I was having my petit dejeuner with my wife one morning in 1967 when he announced on the radio that I would become the Minister for Education.”
“Of course there were [political] criticisms of him. Yes, he was probably not concerned with much outside Cambodia. If we look at it in modern terms, he wouldn’t have been a politician but a nationalist. Above all he was a patriot.”
Modern Khmer Cities (translated into Khmer and English) was born from Molyvann’s broad doctoral thesis on the development and planning of Asian cities he completed in France at the age of 82.
He says he wrote the thesis as a kind of cathartic plea to the current government, to prompt better foresight into the planning of Phnom Penh and the construction and destruction of historical buildings.
Molyvann’s ideas are to expand the city in a southerly direction towards Takmao.
“Phnom Penh has no planning! A southern extension will link greater Phnom Penh to other parts of Southeast Asia and industry. This is something we planned that was never realised because of the war. But the government refuses to listen.”
Molyvann shoots a frustrated glance. He says Sihanouk’s government had based the planning of Phnom Penh around the idea of a “garden city”.
“There would have been a mixture of density and enough space for ventilation, to breathe, for green space. That’s what Phnom Penh would have had. Now there is no space, because the government is trying to sell any land they have. Why should they bother to make a public space out of 2000 square metres when they can have money in their pocket?”
He built the linear, public housing blocks under the Bassac area project (which included the National Theatre Preah Suramarit), which contained the Grey and White buildings (although Lu Ban Hap is officially credited for the latter) – the first and only attempt by a Cambodian government at a housing ownership scheme for civil servants.
“I was very proud of this – each apartment was cross ventilated with cool, open space. But it’s the ideology behind it. It was very close to my heart – allowing those who rented the houses to then be owners after 15 years. The Cambodians are too poor for this to happen now.”
“The ones there now [in the White Building, now slums] will never leave unless they are well paid, which is great. It is theirs. I am passionate for their rights, for housing and land rights.”
As investment continues to flood into Phnom Penh, swathes of colonial buildings and the work of Molyvann and the New Khmer ensemble have been ripped down, communes evicted from their lands and soaring skyscrapers built in their place.
The Grey building is now the Phnom Penh Centre, barely recognisable as Molyvann’s work, rendered and renovated beyond recognition. The National Theatre and Council of Ministers have been razed, and the Olympic Stadium was sold to a Taiwanese company in 2000, who have left it in poor condition.
Molyvann thrusts open his book once more, this time reeling through the country’s property decrees and articles established after 1999. He chuckles to himself.
“These laws make me feel desperate for the Khmer people.”
When asked how he felt about his work being under such threat, he remains silent for a moment.
“I feel extremely sad … It’s a systeme totalitaire! There is no hope left for my buildings. I believe most of them will go. I cannot elaborate any more: I am sick of it. What will it do?”
The Molyvanns are seeking tenants for the first and second floors of their house. They will continue to live on the ground floor and say the rooms would be ideal as an exhibition or residential space.
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