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The sprawling Olympic Stadium designed by Cambodia’s greatest living architect, Vann Molyvann, in 1963. Photo supplied

What Phnom Penh could have been

“The Man Who Built Cambodia”, a documentary highlighting the life and masterpieces of one of the most prominent architects in Cambodia, Vann Molyvann, premiered last Friday at the Institut Francais du Cambodge, drawing in a massive crowd with tickets rapidly snapped up for all of the four weekend screenings.

The director of the documentary, Canadian filmmaker Christopher Rompré, had a chat with Post Property to give his insights on the current city structure and the problems that accompany it.

What are the differences between Vann Molyvann and architects of present times?
I think from a technical perspective, Molyvann is really gifted in his ability to accomplish many things with many simple designs. Take, for example, the stadium – the interior, the basketball court in it, and the chairs that form the stadium for spectators and also the overhang that protects people from the rain when they’re coming in. And he cut holes in the seats, so that the air flows through the stadium very easily without any fans or air-conditioning. It also lets in natural light or at any time of day, even without electricity. You have natural ventilation, natural lighting, protection from the rain. You have the seats. It’s all in this very simple design.

But I don’t think you see that kind of design now. You have the very typical glass box, and then you put a bunch of air-conditioning and a bunch of electricity. It’s not very creative. That was one thing. It’s not so much the fault of the architects, but I think a lot of architecture in Phnom Penh today is very closed off. You don’t have these grand public spaces like the National Theatre, the National Stadium that are just very open and inviting. There are a lot of private spaces like fancy hotels or fancy clubs. I think Molyvann has a really public orientation and really thought about the way that Cambodians use space.

What do you think of the current city planning and city structure?
On a personal level, I think that great cities don’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of growth right now, and there’s very little conscious shaping of how that development and growth is happening. You have all these warning signs like increasingly bad traffic, increasingly bad flooding, and just such rapid development. There are buildings after buildings without expanded infrastructure, and without forethought of zoning and making sure there are enough public parks and open spaces for the public. People are exercising under highway overpasses because there’s nowhere to exercise, so they just do it in any open space they can find.

If the city just keeps growing really quickly without anyone putting limits on that growth, or trying to direct that growth in good ways, then you have a city that’s increasingly dysfunctional, especially for the poor. The rich will always find a way to get access to private spaces. But just in terms of the broader population, they have fewer and fewer spaces to be in; fewer natural lakes and fewer parks. And it just gets increasingly denser. By and large, I think the city just gets less and less functional the more that growth happens without a real vision.

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Director and filmmaker Christopher Rompré. Photo supplied

In your opinion, what are the causes of the problems you mentioned?
The rapid expansion isn’t the problem itself, but it makes the problem harder to deal with, because if this was happening five times slower and stretched out over time, there would be more time to deal with problems. But because the problems are accelerating so fast, it is too late in some cases to see the problem. You have already allowed all these big buildings to be built, you can’t take a big building down or disallow it to be built – it is too late.

I think there needs to be a focus on creating a vision for the city and reigning in private interest. Obviously and naturally, people with money want to make more money. But it’s also natural that the city authorities and the national government put limitations on people’s ability to make money because there are other factors that are important, like the public good, the environment, and long-term development of the city. I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to say what the problem is, but those factors together show that there is a lack in limitations on private interest and the lack of a clear vision for what the city should look like in 10 to 15 years.

Does the tearing down of Molyvann’s architecture and old buildings contribute to these problems?
Definitely. Molyvann is not what’s called the preservationist, in a sense that he’s not in favour of keeping old buildings around for no reason. He always wants buildings to continue to be useful. I think that what’s being lost with the tearing down of some of his old buildings is some of the model and ideology behind them; of public space and unique Khmer architecture.

Now, you don’t see a lot of buildings that are uniquely Khmer. Every big building, even Vattanac Tower, you can find other examples in Asia that look very similar. Molyvann’s buildings always look unique. They always look Khmer. And you don’t see a lot of people reinventing the Khmer identity through architecture today in the same way that he did back then.

Do you have an opinion on public housing in Cambodia?
I think every city needs a certain amount of public housing. Not just public housing in terms of government-run housing, but also affordable housing for all levels of society. This is why a lot of people are afraid about the White Building being torn down, or other places like it.

But I think what the government has never made clear is what would be put in its place. If they were saying, “Look, we’re going to tear down the White Building, but here’s the blueprints for some amazing public housing that’s going to go in its place”, then I don’t think people would be nearly as upset. But of course, what will almost certainly happen is that the White Building, if torn down, will be blocked off. The residents will be moved out of the city where they won’t have access to their community, or their jobs. And then something else will be put in its place that’s either a casino, a hotel, or some other development that benefits people with money more than [lower-income] people.

To me, every city, not just in Cambodia, needs to have a diverse range of people, and not only those who can afford to live in the most expensive housing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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