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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vann Molyvann, visionary architect who shaped Phnom Penh, receives a final farewell in Siem Reap

Mourners pay their respects to the late architect Vann Molyvann during his funeral yesterday in Siem Reap province.
Mourners pay their respects to the late architect Vann Molyvann during his funeral yesterday in Siem Reap province. Heng Chivoan

Vann Molyvann, visionary architect who shaped Phnom Penh, receives a final farewell in Siem Reap

Mourners yesterday bid farewell to Cambodia’s most prominent modern architect, Vann Molyvann, releasing some of his ashes into the waters to the east of Angkor Wat before dawn, and laying some to rest at a stupa of his own design in Wat Preah Inkosei. It was a fitting send-off for the man who achieved renown melding Angkorian artistry with modernist designs, ever in sync with the natural flow of air and water.

Politicians, historians and admirers of the father of New Khmer Architecture – an urban planning movement that shaped the capital in the 1950s and 1960s – flocked to yesterday’s funeral to pay their respects to Molyvann, who passed away last Thursday. His coffin shared the earthy hue of his iconic Independence Monument, and featured the traditional flourishes representing the Naga that adorn the National Museum and Royal Palace.

Molyvann’s daughter, Vann Carole, yesterday mourned the loss of her father, the architect of some of Cambodia’s most striking and ambitious modern structures, such as the Olympic Stadium and Chaktomuk Conference Hall. “We really feel we have lost a great father and a great man,” she said. “I urge the young people not to forget him, to try to follow his path.”

A strong family unit was key to Molyvann, she said, especially during the decades he spent abroad to avoid the Khmer Rouge massacres and the political turmoil that rocked Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Carole remembered her father as a steadfast and sometimes stubborn man. “If he thought Siem Reap should be built this way, nobody could change his mind. He might fight to the end to [achieve it] . . . to find a noble way to make the city better.”

Molyvann's eldest daughter Vann Carole.
Molyvann's eldest daughter Vann Carole at the funeral ceremony yesterday in Siem Reap province. Heng Chivoan

Despite Molyvann’s status as a beloved national figure among the people – evident in the outpouring of emotion on Cambodian social media over the weekend – his carefully constructed vision crafted in the 1960s was eroded over time, with some of his works lost to neglect and new developments, often driven by profits rather than design, sprouting up in Phnom Penh.

Ever loyal to his original patron, the late King Norodom Sihanouk – whose ideas were often at odds with the dictates of Prime Minister Hun Sen – Molyvann too appeared to have fallen out of favour with the government, and was vocal in his criticism of Phnom Penh’s increasingly ad hoc urban sprawl.

Prime Minister Hun Sen sent his condolences to Molyvann’s widow in a letter on Thursday, but very few ruling party and government figures made the pilgrimage to Siem Reap to pay their respects in person yesterday. Also conspicuously absent were reporters from government mouthpiece Fresh News.

Minister for Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona was present at the funeral, as was Siem Reap Governor Khim Bunsong. Kong Sam Ol, deputy prime minister and minister for the Royal Palace, which organised and funded the ceremony, lit Molyvann’s funerary pyre.

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Mourners accompany the body of late architect Vann Molyvann during his funeral procession yesterday in Siem Reap province. Heng Chivoan

Before being sidelined, Molyvann was briefly appointed as the minister of culture after he returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s. He was also crucial to the creation of the independent Apsara Authority, formed to oversee the preservation of the Angkorian temples. But he was unceremoniously stripped of the Apsara presidency in 2001, reportedly in the wake of a disagreement about who should benefit from the temple proceeds.

Ahead of the 2013 national elections, Molyvann threw his support behind the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, lamenting the lack of thoughtful urban planning under the ruling party.

Molyvann’s own word for how he felt about this destruction of his life’s vision – caught on camera in the documentary The Man Who Built Cambodia – was “powerless”.

The directors of the film, which is centred on Molyvann’s work, originally wanted to screen the movie at the Chaktomuk Theatre, one of Molyvann’s designs. They didn’t, however, because they needed approval from the Ministry of Culture, which demanded they edit the title and the last scene, where Molyvann calls for an intellectual “rebellion” among Cambodian youth.

Vann Molyvann, seen in a still from the documentary The Man Who Built Cambodia. The Man Who Built Cambodia
Vann Molyvann, seen in a still from the documentary The Man Who Built Cambodia. The Man Who Built Cambodia

CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua and a group of opposition members paid their respects to Molyvann’s family yesterday. “We lost not just a man, but we lost almost the spirit of the nation,” she said, adding Molyvann deserved full recognition from the ruling party.

“Vann Molyvann was dedicated to the heart and soul of the nation . . . We see nothing but commercial centres, built by South Korea, China or by other businesses, paying very little respect to the heritage of the people. That hurt him; we know it hurt him.”

Darryl Collins, co-author of Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970, said people often didn’t understand or appreciate what Molyvann was trying to achieve, and “now the infrastructure problems are threatening to devour the city”.

“He needs to be recognised as a national treasure. I think this recognition has come a little bit too late . . . Money and power issues have taken the fore, and I think the consideration that Vann Molyvann had was stifled,” he said.

He said he was stunned to hear – on one occasion from the mouths of ministerial-level government officials in a public forum – that Molyvann’s works were “not Khmer at all”. On the contrary, Collins said, Molyvann was “the height of absolute Khmerism” – a fact that was not in conflict with the fact that his designs were also modern.

The architect’s careful consideration of Siem Reap’s famed temples, as well as his utmost respect for the four elements of water, air, earth and fire – revealed in his thoughtfulness for drainage, cooling, orientation and lighting – stemmed from the very “roots of Khmer culture”.

Molyvann's wife (centre), with his two daughters at the funeral ceremony yesterday in Siem Reap province
Molyvann's wife (centre), with his two daughters at the funeral ceremony yesterday in Siem Reap province Heng Chivoan

Historians agreed, with Michel Tranet describing Molyvann as a key part of Cambodia’s cultural memory. He praised Molyvann’s hydraulic systems, and said that as at Angkor Wat, his use of water could “reflect the cosmic sea”.

“Water is not only for life, but for representing prosperity, power and politics also. His works are very sophisticated,” Tranet said. “He was very honest, very sincere . . . He was not corrupted, and he was incorruptible.”

“We should not destroy his achievements or works. Before he died, he said his tears almost dropped when his works were [partly] destroyed, like Olympic Stadium,” he continued. “His last goal is that he wants his works to be preserved, not destroyed.”

Fellow historian Sombo Manara said there was hope for the future in the younger generation. “His legacy is not only the buildings, but also the knowledge he shared . . . to hundreds of students,” Manara said.

Collins, the author, echoed the sentiment. “I think his candle is still very strong and burning,” he said.

“And that is reflected in lots of living candles around the place, and these are young architecture and urban planners that are coming up. They adore him.”

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