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When minimalism was king

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A popular architectural tour is aiming to bolster interest in Phnom Penh’s rapidly diminishing stocks of the New Khmer modernist architectural style

Photo by:

Mark Roy

Khmer Architecture Tours guide Yam Sokly holds forth on the finer points of the Vann Molyvann-designed Chaktomuk Conference Centre on Sisowath Quay.

While Phnom Penh is host to a number of examples of modernist architecture, many city dwellers see these buildings merely in terms of their utility, if they see them at all.

Classic buildings lie in varying stages of decay, while others still are demolished to make way for new constructions in styles that range from Korean nouveau bland through to Chinese baroque.

However, one local tour group is aiming to redefine the way the city's inhabitants view its architectural form.

Khmer Architecture Tours is a not-for-profit organisation that conducts regular walking and cyclo tours of prominent examples of Cambodia's architectural heritage.

The tours feature many buildings by the group's patron, Vann Molyvann, the Kingdom's pre-eminent architect of the post-independence era.

During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime (1955-1970) Prince Norodom Sihanouk pushed for the socially enlightened development of Phnom Penh as a capital city of wide boulevards and sublime public buildings.

Under Sihanouk's patronage, Vann Molyvann created many of the city's landmarks, including the National Sports Complex (Olympic Stadium), Independence Monument, the State Palace, the Institute of Foreign Languages, the 100 Houses project, and the  Grey and White buildings on Sothearos Boulevard.

Diminishing heritage

The National Sports Complex was sold to a private developer in 2001, who then reneged on renovating the complex as part of the deal.

Heritage cannot be sold, changed or denied – now they are destroying it.

In 2007, Vann Molyvann's National Theatre building was torn down, after being sold to a private developer.

"Heritage cannot be sold, changed or denied - now they are destroying it," said an angry Vann Molyvann at the time.

Last Sunday, Khmer Architecture tour guide Yam Sokly met with a group of 20 people outside the Vann Molyvann-designed Chaktomuk Conference Hall for a tour of the Front du Bassac and an introduction to key works by architects such as Vann Molyvann and Henri Chatel.

"Chaktomuk was designed in the shape of a fan, with its structure clearly visible on its outside," Yam Sokly said. "It was built in 1961 with US funding - but is now privately owned."

Planned in the 1960s as a civic and cultural centre, the Front du Bassac included the National Theatre, Cite Nautique, and the Grey and White buildings.

The staggered, open design of the Grey Building was effaced when it was rebuilt as the box-like Phnom Penh Centre, and it is now white.

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, the White Building has turned grey in its tropical environment and, like so many modernist housing projects of the '60s, will end its days as a slum. Some fear its residents are next in line for eviction after the neighbouring Dey Krahorm was razed two months ago.

Inside the White Building, the tour visited the Cambodia Living Arts project, the Aziza School and the On Photography Cambodia (OPC) project, which is helping the building's occupants document their lives within this decades-old experiment in social housing.

The OPC project will culminate in an exhibition in June 2009 at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre.

"We are not aiming to save the building - its future has already been written," OPC project founder Maria Stott said. "The building was designed in the 1960s as a social housing project - the biggest in South East Asia - but what it has come to represent is the complete opposite.

"On the other hand it can become a vehicle for discussions about future urban planning."

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