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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Building on the shoulders of a giant

Building on the shoulders of a giant


New hotel claims to be design of Vann Molyvann, but details of the project remain obscure.

THE building under construction on Siem Reap's hectic hotel row is seemingly insignificant; just the featureless concrete shell and bristling bamboo scaffolding of yet another hotel in the making. But a sign outside the construction of what will become the Sokhalay Angkor Hotel, owned by Youvak Peanich Co Ltd, has created a buzz in architectural circles because listed as architect is none other than the iconic Vann Molyvann, recognised as Cambodia's most remarkable modern architect and engineer of an enlightened national social development policy that was planned for the Kingdom during the 1955-1970 Sangkum Reastr Niyum or "Golden Age" regime under guidance of Norodom Sihanouk.

This, of course, all fell apart when General Lon Nol staged a brutal coup d'etat, and Vann Molyvann rapidly exited the country, returning only in 1991.

Molyvann turns 83 in November and it was widely assumed that he'd packed up his Alvin architect's scale and his pencils and given the game away, but lo and behold, here on Siem Reap's infamous hotel row, unheralded, unfolds the latest creation of the master.

Or so it would seem. Except that nobody is officially talking about the project. Emails to Vann Molyvann about the project remain unanswered,
phone calls to the number listed for the owner elicit only abuse from the unidentified man who answers the phone, and enquiries at the site elicit only abuse from a worker who petulantly points out that the project is undermanned and delayed due to lack of capital.

Photo by: Peter Olszewski
Darryl Collins, co-author with Helen Grant Ross of Building Cambodia.

One of Cambodia's leading architectural experts, Siem Reap-based Darryl Collins, co-author with Helen Grant Ross of the 2006-published book Building Cambodia: 'New Khmer Architecture' 1953-1970, is obviously intrigued but lacks details about the putative Molyvann project.

"I did a double take when I saw the name Vann Molyvann on the sign," Collins told the Post. "It did surprise me because I had no idea that he was working on a new project on Airport Road. But the building has never really jumped ahead, and I know nothing of the project."

Diminished legacy
The desultory air of neglect that envelops the building is redolent of the almost-tragic legacy that Vann Molyvann has in Siem Reap, where nothing remains of his work apart from scant-recorded memory and a virtually unknown private residence tucked away in a little-visited rutted riverside road on the edge of town, close to a rubbish recycling plant.

The modest concrete and brick residence consists of two parts, sits on one piece of land, and is reminiscent of the 1960s contribution to Khmer architecture that that is Moylvann's mark.

Part of the residence is tenanted by a wealthy businessman. The other part, used as a sort of weekender by the Molyvanns in the family's better times, now sits largely vacant behind a screen of trees, hidden from prying eyes in a quest for privacy.

I DID A DOUBLE TAKE WHEN I SAW THE NAME VANN MOLYVANN ON THE SIGN.

This home is believed to have been built relatively recently, around the turn of this century before Molyvann was ousted in 2001 from the Apsara Authority, which he helped found in 1995, when he was appointed president and executive director.

Photo by: Peter Olszewski
A secluded retreat in Siem Reap, one of the few remaining examples of Vann Molyvann’s work in Cambodia’s second city.

Other buildings that bore Molyvann's mark in Siem Reap have been rendered to dust and ruins.

Darryl Collins agrees that Molyvann's Siem Reap legacy is sparse. He said, "Compared with the number of buildings in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap didn't fare as well. But this may be explained because many of Vann Molyvann's commissioned buildings in Phnom Penh were for state functions, and so they were big and they were commissioned obviously by Norodom Sihanouk in the main.

"But there was no doubt there was another part of Vann Molyvann, and that was to extend development right through Cambodia. There were a smaller number of projects in Siem Reap maybe related to the fact that it was a tourist venue."

'Mutilated' masterpiece
Vann Molyvann's most significant Siem Reap structure came to a sorry end: initially "mutilated" as Collins puts it, then destroyed "about a year or two ago".

This was the VIP Pavilion, built at the former Siem Reap domestic airport in 1963 to receive the stream of international heads of state and luminaries such as Jackie Onassis, who visited Angkor Wat in the 1960s.

It was a beautiful and striking building, said to have been inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, with a jutting V-shape inspired by the notion of flight, and a soaring, almost spiritual entrance that was glass-encased from floor to roof.

According to Collins, "It was there until fairly recently and only demolished maybe one or two years ago. It no longer looked like it originally did. I guess you could say it had been mutilated. The glass frontage was destroyed and virtually cemented up. The building lost all semblance of its original appearance."

It's interesting that Vann Molyvann is now named as architect of the under-construction Sokhalay Angkor Hotel because another hotel that bore his name as architectural adviser, but was designed by French architect Claud Bach, ended up as one of the great disasters of Siem Reap's recent tourism history.

This was the Angkor Hotel, partially financed by Air France. Construction started in 1968, but it wasn't completed until 1973, when the Kingdom was in chaos.

The Angkor Hotel was also mired in controversy because of its location, just to the left of the steps leading to the front of Angkor Wat, near where vendors stalls now stand. This was considered by many detractors as being inappropriate.

And although the hotel was completed, not one tourist set foot in the place because it was never opened to the public.

"It stood there completely devoid of tourists because when it was finished Lon Nol was in charge of the country and Siem Reap was a no-go zone," Darryl Collins said, "Severe fighting was taking place in Siem Reap, and Claude Bach's assistant had to be evacuated from the site. After suffering damage, what was left of the hotel was dismantled by local people seeking building materials for their own houses. A few traces of the foundation are still visible."

Possibly one of the great tragedies in Siem Reap's recent history is that Molyvann found himself out of favour with the powers that be at the turn of the century and was never able to achieve the master plan he'd envisaged for the city.

He was originally commissioned to create a town plan for Siem Reap during his time in charge of the Apsara Authority, but he was fired in 2001 when he refused to bow to the pressure of developers and a government eager for hotels and became involved in a dispute over building codes for Siem Reap.

Molyvann's master plan

Photo by: Peter Olszewski
A sign advertises the 'forthcoming' Sokhalay Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap, which claims to be designed by Vann Molyvann.

In late 2007, journalist Ron Gluckman interviewed Vann Molyvann, who told him that Siem Reap could have resembled Kyoto or Nara, well-preserved ancient cities in Japan.

In a subsequent article in the March 2008 edition of Urban Land Institute magazine, Gluckman wrote, "Vann shows off his old master plan, brilliant in simplicity and logic. The central core of the town would remain much as in the Angkor era. Development would take place in a nearby area, separated neatly from the old city by a moat."

Another ill-fated project was Vann Molyvann's proposal for a museum in Siem Reap for which he drew up plans about eight or nine years ago.

That museum was never constructed, and instead the much-criticised so-called Angkor National Museum with its odd birthday-cake-decoration-style architecture was foisted on the city.

But Vann Molyvann's biggest contribution to Siem Reap was not a structure as such, although it was closely related to the country's most famous structure, Angkor Wat. And, oddly enough, a contemporary commercial adaptation of his original lighting venture for the temple is now also mired in controversy.

During 1958 to 1966, Vann Molyvann designed and was responsible for organising light and sound and dance performances for state visitors to the temple.

These were lavish, heady affairs hosted by the then-head of state of Cambodia, Prince Norodum Sihanouk, attended by some of the great international leaders of the time such as Indonesia's President Sukarno, and National Geographic featured a photo of an illuminated Angkor Wat during this period.

That photo, plus a handful of architectural drawings are the only permanent legacy of Vann Molyvann's public contribution to Siem Reap. His private contribution, his modest home, does still stand, but is certainly not on the tourist map, and it seems unlikely that the Sokhalay Angkor Hotel, when and if construction is finished, will ever be regarded as a Vann Molyvann tour de force.

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