On the eve of the French release of his book Lessons from the Past, famed architect Vann Molyvann spoke to the Post's May Titthara about Phnom Penh’s development
What is your opinion of Cambodia's current construction boom?
Well, we have struggled a lot with the implementation of the old planning laws. For each house, the owners should find a car parking space on their own land instead of parking on the public road, and hotels need to provide parking spaces for all of their guests. When they build a skyscraper and it catches fire, we should think how much room our fire trucks would need to reach the building. We have to think about all of this. Cambodia always forgets to do things like this and it is a serous problem. When I returned from abroad to work in the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning & Construction, I tried to manage the implementation of planning and construction guidelines in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, but nobody respected the rules. There is a lot of illegal construction going on now, and it doesn't look like things will change any time soon.
In 1950, there were about 300,000 people in the capital. By 1960, the population had doubled to about 600,000 people, and has steadily increased since the Khmer Rouge period. In 1991 there were 534,000 people, and now I think it's about 1,400,000 people. Likewise, the boundary line for present-day Phnom Penh was built in 1950 to accommodate 600,000 people, not 1,400,000. And residents don't go to find other places to live. Since they are living in one place, everything is being destroyed.
What will happen if Phnom Penh doesn't adopt firmer guidelines?
You can see it with your own eyes when you go towards Pochentong, Chroy Changvar peninsula or Khbal Thnol: there are huge traffic jams. We are lucky that the Japanese government is starting to build a drainage and flood-control system for us, but if they didn't offer their help nobody would have. The government is also making a mistake pumping sand into Boeung Kak lake, and they are not developing the area for the people at Boeung Kak or for any other public benefit; they are doing it for their own benefit and their own profit. They need to increase the city's size to accommodate 1,400,000 people - essentially, they need to triple the size of Phnom Penh, and I have asked them not to build new areas on the flood plains. Instead, they must develop the higher-lying areas, such as Takhmau.
The government is developing the area for their own benefit and own profit.
What subject does your book Lessons of the Past explore?
The book is based on research I began in 1994. I focus on the cities in the geographical region of the lower Mekong, where the kings of Angkor established their empire from the 9th to the 14th centuries. I analyse the region of Angkor and Siem Reap, the city of Phnom Penh, and the city of Sihanoukville. Looking at the way the area today known as Cambodia came to be populated, we can discern a number of stages of settlement and development.
What is your main argument?
The first phase of my research was dedicated to understanding the mechanisms of land management and urban planning in traditional Khmer cities. My research is based on my belief that the evolution of land management must be analysed through multiple intersecting themes, which include physical, geographical, historical and archaeological elements, but also involve the socioeconomic, cultural and religious context of the people. Contemporary urban planning must concern itself not only with plans and buildings, but also with the socioeconomic environments into which buildings and infrastructure are inserted. Such an approach must analyse the existing contemporary environment, and contextualise these settings historically in order to consider both the past and the present when planning for the future.
PROFILE Van Molyvann, architect
Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most venerated architect, studied at the School of Fine Arts in Paris under Swiss modernist Le Corbusier, returning to Cambodia in 1955 to become the chief national architect. With then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s support, he went on to design many of Cambodia’s most striking modern buildings, including the Olympic Stadium, Chaktomuk Theatre and the Independence Monument. Vann Molyvann relocated to Switzerland in 1972 as civil war began to engulf the country, returning to Cambodia after the elections of 1993 to serve as the Minister of Culture & Fine Arts. He is now retired.