After a five-year search, the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s much-anticipated genocide studies institute has its designer – renowned Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the documentation group referred to as DC-Cam, said last week that he and his colleagues “are proud and grateful that Ms Hadid and her design team have joined with them in this project”, which he described as “the permanent successor to the centre, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to honour and commemorate the sacrifice of the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide”.
Hadid is an acclaimed architect and 2004 recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel of the field. Her London-based firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, has designed the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, or MAXXI, in Rome; the Guangzhou Opera House in China; and the Evelyn Grace Academy in England, among other works.
The move represents a significant step forward for the so-called Sleuk Rith Institute, an extension of DC-Cam’s work as the country’s go-to archive for Khmer Rouge history. Set to break ground in 2014, it will house a cross-section of pursuits, including a genocide studies centre, a school, a museum for memorial and education purposes and a newspaper.
Planners also hope that the institute can serve as a place for commenting on and crafting current national policies. The sleuk rith in the name are dried leaves that Cambodian religious leaders and scholars have traditionally used to preserve history.
Though Chhang has had the idea in mind for almost 15 years, the institute started to pick up speed in 2011, when Minister of Interior Sar Kheng authorised its construction on a 4,800-square-metre plot of land located on the campus of Boeung Trabek High School in Phnom Penh, the site of a security prison and re-education centre under the Khmer Rouge. Last year, in October, DC-Cam and the Ministry of Education, which donated the land, signed an MoU cementing the arrangement.
Chhang has previously quoted a cost of $2 million, but declined to offer an estimate in a recent interview. He said details about money, construction and completion dates will be ready later this year.
Though Hadid’s firm has completed dozens of works that span the cultural, residential and manufacturing worlds, the Sleuk Rith institute, because of its connections to genocide and Khmer Rouge history, would be a thematic departure from most of the previous projects. Her press department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Local architects, however, were lukewarm about the commissioning of a non-Cambodian firm for an institute centred on Cambodian history.
“You know, it’s a kind of a big project. And this one really touches the memory of the Cambodian people,” Pen Serey Pagna, a freelance architect who also works on urban planning issues, said. “The first thing is that the architects and the people who build that should know about the climate and the culture of the country.”
Yam Sokly, a senior guide at Khmer Architecture Tours, said “it would be nice” if a Cambodian architect were put in charge of the project. But, he added: “If you just push everything to Cambodian architects and then there is something horrible at the end, that’s not nice either. If they [an outside company] can produce good architecture, why not?”
“The Louvre Museum in Paris – it’s not French architects, it’s American architects,” he said, referring to a renovation project in the 1980s by Chinese-American architect IM Pei, which culminated in the now-recognisable glass pyramid at the entrance.
A few years ago, DC-Cam did hold competitions that solicited designs from Cambodians, but none of the submissions were picked. Asked why, Chhang said they were “not up to standard”.
He seems to have thought deeply about this issue. In a memo describing the venture, he notes that architects with ethnic or personal links to the victims of atrocities are often the ones chosen to design the specific memorial. In this case, however, he was searching for something different.
“There are good arguments for and against such affiliation. For the Cambodian Institute, the planners determined that the functional impact of less affiliation and greater distance is likely to have positive benefits,” he wrote.
As someone with Iraqi heritage, Hadid is “less encumbered in how she approaches this design effort”.
“At the same time, she is intimately familiar with the horrendous consequences of war crimes in one’s own country initiated by its leaders against specific population sectors, including the deployment of vicious campaigns and implements of death and destruction. The recent and devastating war in Iraq and the post-conflict terrorism that continues to plague her country and extended family bring home the complex issues that the design of a memorial to victims must incorporate.”