CAMBODIA’S greatest living architect is in a cheerful mood, toasting visitors with champagne in his home that he designed in Phnom Penh. At the age of 84, Vann Molyvann is relishing the thought of the work that lies ahead of him this year – overseeing the translation of his doctoral thesis, first into Khmer and then into English.
Covering the development of Asian cities from the past to the present, so far his thesis has been available only to readers of French. Admirers of his architectural legacy from all over the world have contributed to a fund to translate the book, written in 2008 when Vann Molyvann gained his PhD in France at the age of 82.
The champagne celebrates the completion of funding for both translations.Officials of the Australian Business Association of Cambodia this week handed over a cheque for US$10,000, raised during a dinner in December last year that auctioned off photographic reproductions of some of his greatest buildings.
These include the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, Independence Monument, Tonle Bassac apartments (also referred to as The Building), Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Chenla Theatre and the demolished National Theatre.
And, revealed Vann Molyvann, the Swiss government has approved a grant of 10,000 Swiss francs towards the translated edition. The Australian Embassy was also considering funding of up to $25,000, he said.
“The translations are likely to take about a year,” said the architect. “But the translation from French into Khmer is likely to be extremely difficult. The Khmer language is not abstract and may not be precise enough to translate technical terms and ideas. However, the translator Dr Ashley Thompson is a leading American scholar who is a specialist in Sanskrit and speaks Khmer fluently and we are fortunate to have the Khmer scholar Dr Ang Choulean working on the translation.”
Monument Books in Phnom Penh would oversee the publication of the translation because of the shop’s extensive publishing contacts across the region in Bangkok and Singapore, throughout the United States and Europe, Vann Molyvann said.
He read aloud letters from King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen congratulating him on the publication of his thesis.
But his voice wobbled with emotion as he read out the words of King Father Norodom Sihanouk thanking him for his contribution to the nation and people of Cambodia and calling him “an authentic national hero”. Tears squeezed through the great man’s eyelids and coursed down his cheeks as he recalled the glory days of the 1960s in Cambodia, when the young architect and the prince shared a common vision of shaping a modern nation.
Vann Molyvann was appointed state architect in 1956, overseeing a transformation of public buildings and housing in Phnom Penh and across the nation, including a new town plan for Sihanoukville.
This golden age spanning less than 15 years ended with the coup by Lon Nol in 1970, forcing Vann Molyvann, his wife Trudy and family to flee to Switzerland.
“Even now we are Swiss citizens, because we were left stateless at the time,” he recalled. He spent 10 years working on refugee affairs for the United Nations.
The family returned to Cambodia in 1991, when Vann Molyvann was appointed as Minister for Culture, Fine Arts and Town and Country Planning.
Amazingly, the modernist house he designed as his family home in Mao Tse Tung Boulevard was still standing. “But everything was stripped and the house was abandoned – all we found when we returned here was one of the water skis belonging to my wife Trudy,” he said.
He also recalled a battle with bats living among the precious relics in the National Museum. “They had colonised the museum during the Khmer Rouge period but the guards at the museum were strangely reluctant to chase the bats away.
“The guards said they had to take many precautions and stage several religious ceremonies before they got rid of the bats.
“But in fact, the legend had been introduced by the guards themselves, because the excrement from the bats made excellent fertiliser for their gardens. They were reluctant to give up such a good resource,” said Vann Molyvann, smiling.
“The Australians discovered that the bats were a protected, rare species so we did not want to use toxins or gas to get rid of them. But we took the example of Angkor Wat when we illuminated the temple towers – the bats can’t sleep when faced with such bright light. So we decided to flood the museum with the lights – and the bats flew off in a big black cloud.”