New Khmer architecture’ once inspired the region but today risks obscurity in a rapidly changing Cambodia
Chaktomuk Conference Hall in Phnom Penh is regarded as one of architect Van Molyvann’s most iconic works.
visitors to Cambodia are oriented toward the ruins of the sprawling Angkor complex or what’s left of the capital’s early 20th century French colonial structures. But often overlooked is an authentic heritage of structures designed and built a half century ago.
One of the most significant stages in the growth of Phnom Penh came during its short-lived golden age after independence, when the city was marked by a strong sense of urban identity and evolved from a provincial town into a modern capital.
In their book on architecture in Cambodia corresponding with the Khmer renaissance of the arts from 1953-1970, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins write that “by the swinging sixties, Phnom Penh was not only hip – it was the city that most other Southeast Asian nations wished to emulate…”
They go on to explain that during several visits to Cambodia in the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, was so impressed by the beauty and new architecture of Phnom Penh that he expressed the desire for Singapore to be developed along similar lines.
Young Cambodian architects trained in Europe cultivated an original style – coined New Khmer Architecture – that mixed postwar European modernism with Angkorian motifs, and took into consideration the country’s hot temperatures and regular flooding.
Leading architects such as Van Molyvann, Henri Chatel, Lu Ban Hap and Ung Krapum Phka applied themselves to the capital’s major public works as well as landscape improvement projects and modest housing developments.
The movement’s tenure was cut short by the civil war and the subsequent targeting of artists and professionals by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. However, its leader, Van Molyvann, 80, remains a national figure, even as some of his marquee structures have been neglected or torn down – the most recent loss being the Bassac Theatre, the architect’s favorite creation.
The first Cambodian architect trained in Europe, Molyvann returned from Paris in 1956. He developed a relationship with King Norodom Sihanouk who wanted Phnom Penh to undergo a program of urban development, from universities to promenades to sports facilities.
Molyvann embodied the spirit of New Khmer Architecture – to make the city beautiful and outwardly Cambodian, as well as accommodating to its inhabitants.
His waterside Chaktomuk Conference Hall has been the site for a variety of functions over the years, from speeches by the king to the trial in absentia of Pol Pot in 1979. Positioned along Sisowath Quay, not far from the Royal Palace, the conference hall was inaugurated in 1961 and is regarded as one of Molyvann’s most iconic works. Elevated on pillars and with a pointed roof, the building uses elements of traditional Khmer design, but its triangulated concrete structure radiating in a fan shape is distinctly avant-garde.
The crumbling Bassac municipal apartments, now the site of a heated evictions controversy, are praised by many Molyvann enthusiasts for their social utility. The 300-meter-long, low-cost housing complex consists of six separate blocks joined by open-air staircases which afforded easy access to the park that used to surround it.
Meanwhile, the Molyvann-designed Independence Monument, positioned prominently at the intersection of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, remains one of the capital’s principal landmarks. Built in 1958, the lotus-shaped stupa is reminiscent of the style seen at Angkor Wat, yet modern in its simplicity and clean form.
With little interest in preservation and a take-no-prisoners construction boom, the architectural legacy spearheaded by Molyvann increasingly appears to be in danger.
“Older Cambodians generally look back with nostalgia and recognize the qualities of this period, whilst the younger generation has lost contact with it through years of chaos,” says Collins.
“The aspiring Cambodian of today is not interested in these examples that, after suffering years of neglect, look a little shabby compared with the bright new buildings of today.”