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Building Cambodia student-by-student

Final-year architecture student and part-time guide Yam Sokly talks about education in Cambodia, his career ideas and goals, and what it takes to stand out in his chosen field.


Yam Sokly says sacrifices are needed to land jobs.

Yam Sokly is in his final year of a bachelor of arts in architecture at The Royal University of Fine Arts. For his thesis, he is designing an underground cultural centre with a rooftop garden at street level. Sokly has worked part-time for two years as a guide with Khmer Architecture Tours in Phnom Penh.

When did you realise you wanted to be an architect?

I never expected to study something like architecture; my mother wanted me to study tourism. But I have been fascinated since I was young by buildings like the Olympic Stadium and the Independence Monument, and my father was an electrical engineer so I used to see his plans around the house, all the designs and drawings.

Even though I don't have any family members involved, no connections at all, I love to study it. I don't care if I can find a job or not...I just love architecture.

Final-year architecture student and part-time guide Yam Sokly talks about education in Cambodia, his career ideas and goals, and what it takes to stand out in his chosen field.

What do you enjoy most about architecture, and what least?

The best thing is that there is always more to learn, so I will always be able to keep researching. Dealing with the architectural ideology of some Cambodians is challenging. People are very into "Khmerisation" and there needs to be more distance to allow variety in points of view.

A lot of architecture students are undertaking joint degrees now.

The new National Assembly Building is something that most people consider looks Khmer, but it isn't a practical public space.

I would like to build something more symbolic of the nation, not Angkorian or colonial or modern but something that represents the habits of the Cambodian people and the climate. When we spend money on something like that it is a waste - copy and paste on a big scale.

Who have been your role models and has anyone given you helpful advice?

Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, the authors of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, have been very helpful. I learnt a lot from their book and also they gave me advice to be more individual. I very much admire the work of 1960s architect Vann Molyvann, and they said to me, "You can't be like him - you have to be yourself". That changed me a lot, and I realised I should learn from him, but add new ideas of my own. I need to pick up all the good ideas from the past and update them with more practical ideas from the future. I have even learnt to find flaws in his work.

What does it take to stand out among a sea of architecture graduates?

Students should learn everything - they shouldn't just concentrate on the things they like. If people really sacrifice themselves I think it will be much easier for them to get a job.

Tell me about your thesis.

I have chosen to design a small building with lots of detail. There are two streets in Phnom Penh that intersect and on one corner is a Taoist Temple, on the other a Christian Church, and on the third a Buddhist Monastery. So I am designing something to be in between. My first idea was to build a cultural centre in the middle, but then the buildings would be separate so I have decided to build something underground, with a garden on the street level to bring the three of them together.

What are your career goals?

Education in Cambodia is of such low quality. To change that it means ... some of us have to achieve the highest level, we have to stand out so we can improve education. So I am looking to do more study abroad, maybe a master's or PhD at the National University of Singapore.

Also, because of the global economic crisis, not many firms are hiring. The offices in Phnom Penh still have staff, but they are keeping them on a low salary. And they want people with lots of experience, not fresh young graduates.

A lot of architecture students are undertaking joint degrees now - at least half. Architecture and IT or architecture and accounting. The other way to try and get a job is to have family connections.

Do you have an architectural dream for Phnom Penh?

I would like to create good local housing for people. Most of the residents in Phnom Penh live in bad conditions; their quality of life is not the way to live. They should live more with nature; we can't separate nature from our living area.



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