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Bringing modernism back to SR architecture

Architecture firm Asma’s buildings – such as the Villa Ni Say – have characteristic wide-open spaces, clean lines, functionality and simplicity. Photo supplied
Architecture firm Asma’s buildings – such as the Villa Ni Say – have characteristic wide-open spaces, clean lines, functionality and simplicity. Photo supplied

Bringing modernism back to SR architecture

A small architecture firm is having an outsized impact on Siem Reap’s landscape.

Asma Architects has just five Khmer, French and French-Khmer staff, of whom architects Lisa Ros and Ivan Tizianel, and engineer Bun Yalin are the principal players.

They have been working on projects large and small in Siem Reap since 2002, and their distinctive modernist style can now be found all over the city, most notably in the recent opening of Templation, new but already becoming a landmark property in the north of town. 

“Modern architecture, in the ’20s meaning of the term,” is how Ros herself describes it. But while modernism might be international, Asma’s architecture remains resolutely of its place. Templation’s wide open spaces and stone work vividly evoke heyday Kep. At Villa Ni Say, an exclusive getaway in the southeast of Siem Reap, manager Tommy Bekaert said guests love the way the villa has been designed for sociability, reflecting the way traditional Khmer villas are constructed.

The firm’s principal operations are in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Paris. But Siem Reap is where they’ve had the greatest impact, not just because of their work, but also because as the hotel sector has exploded in the last two years, others are now starting to follow them, and modernist-style architecture is mushrooming all over town. As a result, a new landscape and allure, lost during the rash of rushed developments that sprang up especially in the years running up to 2008, are coming back. 

Architect Stuart Cochlin, founder of Stuart Cochlin Architects Cambodia, agrees. 

“The architectural landscape has certainly changed over the past decade. Architecture then was in a large part pastiche and formulaic in design. Perceived ‘quality’ of a building seemed to run also in parallel with how much hardwood would be used in the interiors,” he said.

The new Templation hotel is already becoming a landmark property. Photo supplied
The new Templation hotel is already becoming a landmark property. Photo supplied

“Pastiche architecture will still continue, but there has been a shift towards more modern, spatially interesting and considered architecture, which I welcome. Asma Architects certainly have contributed to that shift in Siem Reap.” 

The impact has been felt in the quality of work carried out as well, which feeds into a virtuous loop as everyone feels compelled to step up their game. 

“There are definitely more interesting projects and the development of Siem Reap is happening fast,” said Ros. “There is a better quality architecture with a lot more attention to the proposed space and to the constraints linked to the climate but there is a lot of façadism also.

“The good thing for us is that it pushes us to renew our work to ask ourselves all the questions again.”

Alexis de Suremain, owner of Templation, and its sister hotels, including Phnom Penh’s Plantation, which Ros and Tizianel also designed, is a big fan.

“You can tell when you walk into one of their spaces,” he said. “They have their own signature, but it’s not at all cookie-cutter. It’s in the way they create wide-open spaces, with lots of light and air, the use of natural materials, and very little use of air-conditioned spaces. But the details change with each one.”  

In all its many guises, modernism relies on simplicity, an emphasis on clean lines and functionality, and wherever you see these things in Siem Reap, it is likely to have been created by Asma, or inspired by them. For example the old McDermott Gallery complex on The Passage, where you’ll still find the stylish Be Hotel, The Aviary and Somadevi hotels in the centre of town, or the stunning off-central hotels Templation, Viroth’s or Villa Ni Say. 

“Villa Ni Say was designed so that you can open out all the walls so there is no divide between inside and outside, as you see in traditional homes where everything happens in the open space beneath the house,” said Bekaert. 

Fabien Martial, the co-owner of two Viroth’s hotels and the restaurant on Wat Bo Road, agrees about Asma’s impact. 

“Before there was no modern architecture at all, but since they’ve started to leave their mark you see more and more modernist architecture all over Siem Reap,” he said. “Even more than in Phnom Penh.”

And the benefits don’t just accrue to visitors. “[Asma’s designs] have also stood as good examples to local business owners that a well designed building is the ‘quality’,” said Cochlin. “Providing a richer experience for people that use their buildings, the consequence is that this can also increase returns to their owners due to their popularity.”

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