Markus Zimmer, secretary-general of the Sleuk Rith Institute.
Today mourners worldwide recall the untimely death of Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, an Iraqi-born architect whose global achievements and honours rank her among the world’s most talented.
At the Sleuk Rith Institute – a permanent Documentation Center of Cambodia, we are graced by having managed to enshrine her talent in the institute’s innovative design, which in itself has achieved significant renown, in particular for the uniquely novel approach it takes to architecture conceived to honour the memory of innocent victims.
We pause on this occasion to reminisce how we came to involve her in the SRI and how we introduced her architectural team to Cambodia’s magnificent ancient art and architecture, thereby enabling them to incorporate elements of it into the project design. We lament that because of her untimely passing, we were unable to welcome her to, and to immerse her in, Cambodia’s extraordinary ancient legacy. Here are the details.
Shortly after Youk Chhang, SRI founder and executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) asked me to serve as a member of DC-Cam’s senior advisory team, we discussed his vision of the SRI. He had made inquiries of local Cambodian architects but thought the preliminary proposals did not adequately respond to his vision.
I suggested we secure the services of a world-class architect, and he requested that I make some inquiries. I wrote inquiry letters to two internationally prominent US-based architects, one male and one female, both of whom declined because of existing workloads or interests that had migrated away from buildings.
I then wrote to Zaha Hadid Architects in London, explaining the project and expressing our intent to introduce a new model, one far different from the traditional heavily institutionalised approach that dominated much Western memorial architecture. Youk Chhang bias favoured a female architect because the innocent victims of genocide often include a preponderance of women and children.
We were delighted when Dame Hadid’s firm expressed interest, and we subsequently met with her hand-picked design team in London to commence the design process. At that meeting, Youk Chhang explained the importance of integrating into the design symbolic elements of Cambodia’s wealth of ancient cultural and religious architecture perhaps best symbolised by the extraordinary complex of temples concentrated at Angkor Wat.
We also emphasised the positive values we wanted the design to evoke – healing, justice, reconciliation, and hope for the future. Team members agreed, and a few months later, they travelled to Phnom Penh.
Following consultations, we travelled with the team to Siem Reap, first touring the Angkor Wat complex and nearby temples, then branching out to more distant locations that entailed lengthy trips on asphalt and dirt roads as well as excursions by foot through Cambodia’s jungle to visit a variety of older temple ruins, some of which were near and at Cambodia’s border with Thailand, the Preah Vihear temple.
One of the highlights of the multiday excursion was our visit to Banteay Srei temple, whose central linga Tribhuvanamahesvara signifies “Great Lord of the Threefold Underworld”. Unlike the grand majestic temples that grace Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei is a petite and compact temple, yet the extraordinary detail of its façades, still largely intact, dramatically exceeds that of the larger temple family.
For the design team members, the experience of Banteay Srei added a new dimension to their exposure, one of a miniaturised concentration of artistic beauty rendered with exquisite technical expertise to present a visual feast of religious and cultural symbolism almost unmatched elsewhere in Cambodia and, for that matter, Southern Asia.
Design team members supplanted their visual exposure with drawings and pictures, returning to London having been exposed to an entirely different world and how a gifted and determined people conceived it, now prepared to interpret that experience and conceive, with Dame Zahid’s guidance, what resulted in the design of SRI.