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The National Olympic Stadium by Vann Molyvann, as depicted by Stuart Croxford.
The National Olympic Stadium by Vann Molyvann, as depicted by Stuart Croxford. Photo supplied

Capturing Cambodia’s masterpieces in Penh to Paper

For architect turned artist Stuart Croxford, Cambodia had always been on the bucket list. Now a permanent expat living in the Kingdom, Croxford has literally put ‘Penh to Paper’ in his upcoming exhibition which showcases some of Cambodia’s iconic colonial-era buildings and new Khmer architectural designs. Croxford spoke to Post Property about his inspiration for the exhibition and his love affair with some of Cambodia’s most historic monuments.

Can you detail some of your work history with regards to your career in architecture and talk a bit about what drew you to Cambodia?

I started my career in London in 2000 and, having studied a Masters in Conservation, I joined a well-known practice which specialises in the conservation, restoration and adaptation of historic landmark buildings in the U.K. and overseas. I had the opportunity to work on incredible conservation and restoration projects such as St. Paul’s Cathedral by Sir Christopher Wren and on Christchurch, Spitalfields, London by Wren’s protégé Sir Nicholas Hawksmoor, and on Middle Temple, Kensington Palace and Westminster Abbey to name a few others. It was fascinating working alongside seasoned conservationists and I enjoyed learning the history behind these buildings.

In 2008, the recession hit architects and the construction industry in the U.K. quite badly and I moved to China at the beginning of 2011. I spent four years there, based in Shanghai, with various firms working on fast track, contemporary hospitality, commercial and government projects which at first, with my largely historical background, was a shock to the system but also an experience that I learned a great deal from.

I have always been drawn to monuments of bygone eras from around the world and none more so than the temples in Angkor Archaeological Park. I guess it’s on most architects’ ‘bucket list’. My wife and I started visiting Cambodia on a regular basis in 2012 and were fascinated by not only the temples of the Angkorian period but also discovering New Khmer Architecture in the capital and the decaying villas on the Cambodian Riviera in Kep and Sihanoukville. Working as a full-time artist since 2016, I was also drawn here on a permanent basis due to the arts and crafts scene that is present here.

Where did you draw inspiration for your exhibition ‘Penh to Paper’ and how long did it take to come together?

‘Penh to Paper’ was inspired by my love of art and architecture, particularly with historical buildings, coupled with discovering ‘new Khmer architecture’, largely through the release of Christopher Rompre’s documentary ‘The Man Who Built Cambodia’; it was quite surprising to me that this style is largely undocumented in western architectural education so it was quite exciting for me to learn of it. Some of the buildings should be considered masterpieces. I have always been inspired by architectural drawings by the likes of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph which has contributed in developing my own style. Buildings are art in themselves and I wish they had a voice as the stories they could tell would be fascinating. The exhibition took approximately six months to complete. I spent time researching, photographing and then ultimately drawing. I keep discovering new buildings and wish I had included them but I can always draw them for ‘Penh to Paper II’!

What were you trying to encapsulate with your exhibition and what do you hope your visitors will get out of it?

I think a lot of things are being lost by the digital age in conjunction with a world which is moving far too fast and I wanted to portray these buildings in a traditional format to illustrate how good and significant these buildings are. Through drawing buildings, in the way I do, I can really tap into the original architect’s design and I think my style of drawing highlights the details that make them so interesting.

More often than not, I am surprised at how intricate a building’s design is; although some often appear quite simple, they often are the opposite. The National Library of Cambodia and UNESCO buildings spring to mind. It’s a good way to underline the standard of the architects that have graced Phnom Penh and who have contributed to the city’s fabric.

At the end of the day, the architects have done the hard work, I’ve just drawn the buildings on display in the exhibition.

Architect and artist Stuart Croxford.
Architect and artist Stuart Croxford. Photo supplied

Phnom Penh is fast becoming a modern, metropolitan city with new high-rises often overshadowing the city’s historical, Khmer design. From an architect’s point of view, how can the capital ensure it maintains its Khmer architecture in the face of modern real estate construction?

I would say that architectural heritage and new development shouldn’t be seen as being at conflict with each other. Retaining and maintaining historic buildings are important for maintaining and developing the social values and cultural diversity of this great city. I think adaptation of a historic building for modern use is the key, coupled with introducing a class system for buildings, Grade I, Grade II, etc, whereby historic buildings either can or cannot be altered under strict guidelines. It’s easier said than done due to financial considerations but a sensitive approach adopted by developers and clients often leads to a profitable outcome with regard to reputation and popularity of a development; people love visiting and relaxing in historic surroundings and they find them educational.

Good examples would be Van’s restaurant, Plantation hotel among others and it’s refreshing to see that the Hyatt Regency Phnom Penh is to retain the old Royal Villa on Street 178 as part of the new hotel development. In the past, I have worked on numerous projects where historic buildings, under stringent guidelines, have been given a new lease of life by adapting them for use in modern times through the introduction of new extensions, employing sensitive designs, introducing new materials, upgrading access, etc. Phnom Penh has a growing economy and to keep it moving it is important to stimulate new investment and to create new jobs. Alongside that, it needs to protect the history and character that makes the city unique. Adapting heritage buildings to creative new uses helps to achieve both these goals and provides for a building’s future.

What are some of your favorite Angkorian and contemporary architectural sites in Cambodia and why are they particularly special to you?

I’m in awe of the buildings of the Khmer Empire. My favourite is Baphuon in the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap. The story of its restoration, which turned out to be a monumental jigsaw puzzle (as is the narrative of many others), is impressive. I think we must have got lucky the day we visited as the view from the top was spectacular, overlooking the water filled barays, which portrayed an idyllic sense of how it would have been back in the day. Phnom Chisor, outside of Phnom Penh, is also a favourite for similar reasons. The Institute of Foreign Languages is a fantastic college campus. I like it because of the cross referencing to Angkorian sites and design principles in a contemporary language and the fact that it has stood the test of time and still functions today as it was first intended to do so when completed in 1971.

Penh to Paper will be showcased at the Lotus Pond Art Gallery from June 21 until August 2.

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