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Comment: Sports complex under threat

The international press was recently alerted to the construction of an ungainly building that threatened to dwarf the Sydney Opera House. The world was up in arms: this 20th century landmark that has given a new image to Australia might be in danger.

Here in Phnom Penh all eyes can see that the National Sports Complex is being boxed up in a reinforced concrete jungle that will kill it gently. A contract signed in May 2000 between the government and a Taiwanese developer, Yuan Ta, states that in exchange for refurbishing the buildings, the company had the right to build: three hotels, a six-story "entertainment" building, an office building, a multistory shopping mall - and a partridge in a pear tree.

There are a few down-to-earth technical reasons why this building work has to stop.

1. It is erroneous to consider the unbuilt areas of the Sports Complex as "free space". When all the stadium, sports grounds, sports hall, outdoor grandstand and swimming pool are filled to capacity this can total 100,000 people.

At the end of a major sports event everybody gets up and leaves at the same time. Straight into the busy streets full of traffic? No, to the so-called "free space" around the buildings, from where they can gradually scatter. One hundred thousand people take up a lot of room - around 24 acres. If this complex is to house major sports events, rallies, and concerts it has to respect this basic safety rule - preserve enough space to avoid panic and crushing.

Conclusion - no new building whatsoever should be allowed.

2. The site plan shows that about one sixth of its 96 acres is moats and drainage systems that are an integral and vital part of the design in collecting monsoon rain.

When 10 cm of rain falls in a few hours, then 40,000 M3 of water has to be rapidly drained to avoid flooding. Construction is taking place in the moats that will destroy the waterflow and drainage system irremediably.

Consequence - catastrophic flooding in the surrounding area of the city.

3. One hundred thousand people need the toilets and sewage system that were integrated in the initial design. This is also being destroyed by the present construction work. Consequence - a major health hazard.

The most important reason to protest about this wanton destruction resides in the simple fact that the National Sports Complex is a work of art - far more than just an elaborate football pitch.

Inaugurated in 1964, an enthusiastic crowd shrieked its joy. A small third-world country had achieved the feat of building a gargantuan sports complex to international "Olympic" standards comprising:

  • A 60,000 seat stadium
  • An external grandstand for 8,000 spectators, an indoor sports hall for 8,000 spectators, changing rooms, restaurants and a reception area
  • Eight tennis courts
  • 16 volleyball and basketball courts
  • A swimming pool and diving pool with seating for 8,000 and prize-winner's podium.

In the sixties, with its gold-colored galvanized aluminum cladding and pointed spires emerging from its roof, the building was widely acclaimed and attracted the attention of the press throughout the world. The Japanese were amazed that Cambodia could achieve this at a time when Japan itself was only beginning to find its way in modern architecture.

Is this not a part of Khmer heritage as significant as Angkor? Does it not merit the same respect and protection accorded these ancient monuments of Cambodian prowess?

In the same way that the Sydney Opera House has contributed to creating world renown for Australia, it can contribute to building a positive image of Cambodia. It has the potential to house international sports events, gatherings that draw tens of thousands of people but also as an architectural wonder in its own right it can contribute to tourism, just as Kenzo Tange's 1964 Olympic Stadium in Tokyo has done.

It is an asset that should not be squandered. Nobody in their right mind can imagine Cambodia financing another sports complex of this status. Every country dreams of having such a tool: Paris only recently acquired its "Parc des Princes", London has its "Wembley", and Phnom Penh has its "Forum of the People" as it was known in the Sixties. And it rightly belongs to the Cambodian people as part of their heritage.

Note: the stadium was Vann Molyvann's masterpiece. He was the first qualified Cambodian architect after independence and trained at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1949 to 1955. He was a major contributor to the achievements in modern architecture of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, realizing literally hundreds of buildings throughout the Kingdom. Some other important works by him are Chamkar Morn State Palace, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Finance, and the Institute of Languages.

Helen Grant Ross, Architect-Urbanist DPLG, History of Architecture DEA, is a dual French/British national who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1997. She was coordinator and lecturer at RUFA's Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism for three years. She has been working since 2000 with Australian historian Darryl Collins on investigating the territorial development and architecture achieved under the Sangkum era (from 1953-1970).

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