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Reimagining Cambodia


A new documentary provides further impetus to the push to preserve concrete examples of buildings that can inspire the next generation of architects in Asia

The philosopher Alain De Botton once said, "Beautiful architecture has none of the unambiguous advantages of a vaccine or a bowl of rice".
And he could easily have been talking about Cambodia - where practical considerations often far outweigh cultural and aesthetic ones.

Preserving modern architectural treasures is an uphill battle when faced with rapid economic change and prosaic attitudes towards development.

But a growing number of voices are calling for a new approach to architecture in the Kingdom - one that preserves modern cultural heritage but also acknowledges Cambodians' rights to forms of shelter that go beyond the utilitarian.

That is, designs that use space, resources and the surrounding environment to express local values and ideas about how to live.
"It is architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be," says De Botton.

At Meta House tonight, founder Nico Mesterharm takes over his rooftop pulpit to present an evening celebrating the work of Cambodia's most famous architect, Vann Molyvann.

Mesterharm's own recently completed documentary Concrete Visions: New Khmer Architecture will screen for the first time.

There will also be a presentation on the work of The Vann Molyvann Project, a group of dedicated volunteers aiming to document Vann Molyvann's work in depth in the hopes of saving it from future demolition.

Photo by: ARJAY STEVENS
Co-author of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 Helen Grant Ross.

Photo by: HOM KOSAL
Documentary filmmaker Nico Mesterham.

Following Cambodia's independence from France in the 1950s, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk commissioned hundreds of new buildings to be constructed as Cambodia sought to express its own identity.

Vann Molyvann seized the opportunity to create a form of architecture unique to Cambodia, using design features drawing on international trends as well as incorporating the needs of the local environment.

The resulting style created by Vann and his peers became known as "New Khmer Architecture".

Famous examples around town include the Chaktomuk Conference Centre, the Independence Monument and the National Sports Complex (also known as the Olympic Stadium).

Vann Molyvann's work has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity due in part to the locally run Khmer Architecture Tours, which have drawn attention to his work, and the publication of a book, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins.

Mesterharm's documentary is a sad but timely reminder of what is happening to some of Phnom Penh's iconic buildings in the rush to development.

Only last year, two of Vann Molyvann's most notable designs - the Council of Ministers and the National Theatre - were demolished to make way for new constructions.

Concrete Visions exposes some of the shady deals occurring as the Cambodian government sells off architecturally significant public buildings to foreign owners with little or no regard for their historic and cultural value.

One of the joys of the film is the use of plenty of archival footage of Cambodia in the swinging '60s.

It is Phnom Penh as you've never seen it - clean, well-ordered streets lined with trees, modern, polished buildings and stylish locals sporting beehive hairdos and miniskirts, strolling by the pool.

It's easy to forget that Cambodia was once considered "an oasis of peace in the region", according to Vann Molyvann, envied by its neighbours and rapidly modernising under Sihanouk's firm leadership.

The footage is inspiring and a powerful reminder of why Vann Molyvann's buildings are so important.

They remind us of a different, peaceful time, of a unique vision for what Cambodia could be, and of Sihanouk's and Vann Molyvann's joint passion for designing Cambodia's future.

The Vann Molyvann Project is the brainchild of American architect Bill Greaves, who visited Phnom Penh in 2004 and says he "was astonished by the quality of the architecture of the 1960s".

After the destruction of some of Vann Molyvann's buildings last year, Greaves quit his job in New York and returned to Cambodia to manage the project.

He has assembled a team of volunteers from the US, Russia and Cambodia to meticulously photograph and document each of Vann Molyvann's remaining structures.

They are hoping to inspire locals to acknowledge his work and value its preservation, rather than merely seeing the buildings as "old" and rushing to tear them down.

"The buildings have so much to teach the next generation of architects in Cambodia, Asia and throughout the world," Greaves says.
"Long before the concept of 'green architecture' existed, Vann Molyvann created buildings that work seamlessly with the climate and culture.

"This can be seen at the National Sports Complex where water-management techniques based on the Angkor era are rendered in reinforced concrete."

Head along to Meta House tonight - and find out what Cambodia's future might look like.
Concrete Visions and a presentation on The Vann Molyvann Project will be shown Tuesday from 7pm at Meta House.

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