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Big task ahead for Sleuk Rith genocide centre

Hadid’s design is a sinuous, tapering structure of five interconnected towers. Photo supplied
Hadid’s design is a sinuous, tapering structure of five interconnected towers. Photo supplied

Big task ahead for Sleuk Rith genocide centre

For the past three months, Youk Chhang has been scrutinising wooden planks.

He leaves them out in the sun, and in the rain, and then diligently notes down any resulting changes.

Sitting in his office this week, the long-serving executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) held up a plank with the number three written on it.

“It has quality like a rock,” he said, tapping it approvingly. “There’s nothing in the wood that insects can eat, or that it can take from the climate.”

The rock-solid quality of this wood is important, as is the fact – Youk explained – that it burns extremely slowly.

Because one of these samples, quite possibly number three, will be commissioned in vast quantities to construct the towering, interlocking columns of the Sleuk Rith Institute – the permanent home planned for DC-Cam that is to act as an archive for Cambodia’s modern history, and as a global hub for genocide studies.

First revealed in October 2014, the design for the institute has been the subject of international attention, in large part due to the clout of its creator, Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

“This building is everything we talk about,” Youk said this week of the project. “It’s with me every day, 24 hours.

"Huge, framed pictures propped up around his office show the striking building as it will stand: a sinuous, tapering structure of five interconnected towers.

In the 10 months since the big reveal, the project has faced challenges in getting off the page.

Sourcing the wood is one of them: once the best sample has been chosen, it must be imported in vast quantities from New Zealand. “There are no trees here to cut,” Youk pointed out.

Then there’s the legal documentation to be reckoned with. Construction permits – first for the building and now for the site itself – have been “a lot of work”.

Flooding also threatens the 6.8 hectares of “Cambodian jungle” that Youk has decided to landscape around Hadid’s design.

“It’s like a pan with the building at the edge of it,” he said of the site – set on land donated by the government on the old grounds of the Boeung Trabek High School.

“The advice from engineers is that we have to raise the soil, but if you do it now you’ll flood your neighbour.”

But these issues are currently obscured by a more immediate challenge: finding the money to build.

The cost of the Sleuk Rith Institute has been rising steadily since the project was first conceived.

In 2010, when the Ministry of Interior first granted permission for construction, it was said that it would not surpass the $2 million mark.

According to estimates made by US-based consultant company Beacon Fire, the project currently appears to need somewhere in the region of $40 million, although Youk said he believed some of their costings to be excessive.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Youk Chhang’s office features several un-hung artist’s impressions of the Sleuk Rith Institute. Kimberley McCosker

Coincidentally, plans for Tokyo’s Hadid-designed 2020 Olympic stadium were yesterday ditched amid growing public anger over its $2 billion price tag.

Next week, DC-Cam will be launching a campaign appealing to high-profile potential donors for help with the Sleuk Rith building.

Dr Markus Zimmer, senior adviser to the institute and the man who originally reached out to Hadid, said that design efforts had been put on hold for approximately six months so that the focus could be on fundraising.

“Initially, when we started meeting with the Zaha Hadid folks, they just pulled a number out of the air and said we’re looking at maybe 18 or 20 million dollars,” Zimmer recalled.

“We kind of banked on that, but as we got further into the design and they understood we wanted the building to have the facility to include all these different components – the museum, the academy, the research centre, the media centre, et cetera, then the price started to go up.”

At present, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s major backer is USAID – the US State Department organisation responsible for civilian foreign aid.

Rebecca Black, USAID’s mission director in Cambodia, explained that USAID first set up an endowment of $4 million for the creation of a permanent documentation centre (DC Cam’s current premises are rented) a decade ago.

“We want to make sure there’s a sustained centre in the future that provides access to information and history,” Black said. “That’s our main concern.”

Currently, DC-Cam only has access to the annual dividends paid out by the endowment’s investments. In 2019, it will have access to the lump sum.

Black said that at the time the endowment was made it was “felt it was sufficient for a centre”.

“But the decision to do something different is a decision, we hope, of the Cambodian people along with DC-Cam.”

Downsizing the design has been mooted as a money-saving option.

“We had a meeting in London two or three months ago and decided not to,” said Youk.

“We cannot yet experience [it], so what right do we have to modify [Hadid’s] interpretation?”

Another money-saving solution could have been to construct the institute tower by tower rather than all at once, but it’s not an option favoured by Hadid.

“They want it all at one time,” said Youk, citing concerns about continuity if the building went up over a longer period of time.

Arup, the consulting engineers who won the contract to work on the Sleuk Rith Institute, described it as a “project in progress”.

“There are always challenges on projects about size, scale, type, usage – and I think that’s part of the engineer’s role to work with client and architect to move the project forward,” said Jason Simpson, Arup’s country manager in Cambodia.

If funding can be secured, building should commence towards the end of 2016.

It’s a long way to go, but Youk Chhang isn’t a man to be rushed.

“You have one bullet to shoot,” he said, describing the institute as a building designed for the Cambodia that would exist in 35 years time, not the Cambodia of today.

“The utmost that we can do is to show respect to those who’ve died with such a beautiful place.”

“I don’t regret it at all,” he said of the ambitious scale. “No regrets. Regrets don’t exist.”

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