Almost 40 years after Lu Ban Hap fled Cambodia, German architect and journalist Moritz Henning set out to find arguably the most overlooked contributor to the Kingdom’s architectural legacy
It was a cool day last December, the sky overcast with grey clouds. For nearly two years, I had been searching, spending late nights scouring Google, telephone books and architects’ directories – without success. Then, just as I was ready to surrender, I hit upon someone who could help me – a French filmmaker I found via Facebook provided me with an address. And now I was standing in a quiet suburb of Paris outside the rather inconspicuous house of Lu Ban Hap, one of Cambodia’s most significant – and in my opinion most significantly overlooked – modern architects.
In 2006, the publication of Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins’s key tome Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, laid the foundation for a renewed appreciation of the architecture of the so called “golden age” – a time of striking architectural flourishing that Norodom Sihanouk himself once announced to be on a par with the achievements of the Angkorians.
But in the flurry of interest that has followed, it has almost always been the work of one architect in the spotlight: Vann Molyvann, the creator of architectural gems including the National Stadium and Chaktomuk Theatre.
Molyvann may have been the most radical and, with more than a hundred buildings to his name, perhaps the most successful architect of the age, but he was not the only one. Alongside him there worked a number of ambitious architects and planners, who returned from studies abroad to make important contributions to the country’s urban landscape. Perhaps the most prominent member of this cohort was Lu Ban Hap.
Ban Hap’s architecture still defines Phnom Penh’s cityscape: the Hotel Cambodiana, the Chenla Theatre and – an uncomfortable claim to celebrity – the Lycée Tuol Svay Prey that later became the notorious S-21 prison camp. His most famous landmark, and one regularly misattributed to Molyvann, is the iconic White Building, which he designed in 1963 together with Ukraine-born engineer Vladimir Bodiansky.
But as head of Phnom Penh’s most important city-planning institution, Ban Hap’s influence on the shape of the city stretched far beyond buildings. He was responsible for creating the public gardens that once encircled the White Building, a park around the now filled-in Boeung Kak lake (modelled on Paris’ famous Bois de Boulogne), and the long boulevard in front of Independence Monument that remains to this day.
As an architect and journalist living in Berlin, I had first heard Ban Hap’s name when I visited Cambodia in 2007. I had discovered the great works of Molyvann, but wanted to go deeper – to open the eyes of others to the role played by the other Cambodian architects. And so I started the search that would ultimately lead me to this address at the very edge of Paris.
The welcome I was offered on that first afternoon was in stark contrast to the chilly weather outside: the door opened, I was ushered in, and offered something to drink (“Pernod or whiskey?”). Formalities over, Ban Hap started to talk. Old of age but young at heart and of good humour, he filled the afternoon with anecdotes. It seemed that it had been a long time since anyone had asked him about his architecture, and yet he would sometimes brush off my questions. “My buildings, they are only memories today, they are not important,” he would say, then resume speaking again after a pause.
Since my first visit, I have made the trip back to Paris several times, sitting on the sofa of Ban Hap’s home listening to the incredible stories told by him and his French wife, Armelle, more than once until midnight.
A gifted youth
Lu Ban Hap was born in 1931 in Kampong Cham province. At the age of 14 he moved to Phnom Penh to attend a secondary school. “Life was hard,” he told me of those early days. “I lived in a pagoda and had no money; my family was far away. I could hardly learn because the daily routine in the pagoda did not fit to mine. When the monks put out the light, I went out into the street and sat down under a streetlight to continue learning.”
On the verge of giving up his studies and returning home to Kampong Cham, Ban Hap spotted a familiar face in the street – the Minister of State, Penn Nouth, who he’d known when he was governor in Ban Hap’s hometown.
“I gathered all my courage and asked him if he could offer me some work,” Ban Hap recalled.
Penn Nouth, impressed by the courage of young Ban Hap, took him into his family, enabled him to finish school and stayed his mentor and friend until his death in 1985.
In 1949, Ban Hap became part of the wave of Cambodian students sent to Paris on academic scholarships. Initially, he wanted to become an engineer. But on the advice of Molyvann – who had arrived in Paris three years previously – he changed course. “At that time, there were no qualified architects in Cambodia,” said Ban Hap. “Molyvann told me that this could be our chance and won me over.”
By the time he qualified, Ban Hap had developed grand designs for his career and was intent on travelling to Brazil to work on the futuristic new capital Brasilia that modernist master Oscar Neimeyer was building at that time.
“Friends were already there and urged me to follow,” recalled Ban Hap. “But Sihanouk said no.”
Cambodia’s head of state, who Ban Hap had first met during Sihanouk’s stay in a Parisian hospital when he was roped in by his old mentor Penn Nouth to entertain the prince, didn’t want to let the young, well-trained architect go. Ban Hap obeyed his orders to return to Phnom Penh in 1960, where he was immediately commissioned to set up the Phnom Penh municipality’s department of housing and town planning.
In his new role, Ban Hap was given carte blanche by Phnom Penh governor Tep Phan to modernise the city’s planning. It was a task whose vastness he relished.
“When I arrived in Cambodia, the land languished,” he told me. “There was no one who cared, no cadres, no administration. French Indochina had been managed from Hanoi, but the French were gone indeed. We had to build everything new, but for me it was good.”
With 12 employees, Ban Hap, still only in his thirties, managed everything from urban planning to the design and maintenance of public gardens, waste management, street lighting, power supply and building permits. He also carried out a survey of the population and the buildings of Phnom Penh.
“If you direct a city, you have to know how many Khmer, Chinese or Muslims live in the city so that you know where to build a school or a mosque,” he explained, adding: “Before me, there was nothing. I was the first who began to look at the city this way.”
Under Ban Hap’s direction, Phnom Penh edged its way towards a new status as a metropolis to be admired. “Once, the president of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, came to see Phnom Penh,” recalled Ban Hap.
“He was in despair and asked me how I can do it just to keep the city neat. Singapore then was a dirty city. Phnom Penh, however, was called the Pearl of Asia.”
Alongside his governmental work, Ban Hap established his own architectural practice out of his villa on Monivong Boulevard, and later also founded a construction company. Among the projects commissioned through his private offices were universities, factories and villas for Norodom Sihanouk and his daughter, the princess.
The White Building, commissioned by the municipality to house athletes at the Southeast Asian games and then later privatised, was never one of Ban Hap’s favoured designs.
“The Cambodiana Hotel and my own house, yes, they were important to me, but the White Building, no. It was not my own project,” he said.
For connoisseurs of Cambodia’s modernist architecture, the value of documenting Lu Ban Hap’s legacy is clear. “He is very important for the New Khmer Architecture movement,” says Pen Serey Pagna, an architect and urbanist who has undertaken extensive research on the history of the White Building and the Bassac neighbourhood.
Nonetheless, Martin Aerne, an architecture professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, argues that there are solid reasons why it is Vann Molyvann’s work that is most celebrated from the period. “Vann Molyvann picked up things from Le Corbusier, France and the modernists, and then created something unique and connected to Cambodian elements and traditions,” he says. “Lu Ban Hap was a little more formal – less integrated, less deeply interwoven.”
Aerne said that there was an instructive comparison to be made between Ban Hap’s White Building and the Grey Building, designed by Molvann, that was once its neighbour. “The structure doesn’t have the same impact on the space, the lighting and the shading as Vann Molvann’s building, which was a much more of a spacious experience,” he says. “Trying to be as objective as possible, I’d say the architectural value of his work was not the same.” Aerne adds that historians still have a lot of work to do if they want to document the architects who shaped the 1960s in Cambodia. “It’s really a lot who’ve been forgotten.” HARRIET FITCH LITTLE
A career cut short
Ban Hap was well into a four-year-long research project looking at the future direction of development in Phnom Penh when Lon Nol took power in 1970, and all grand plans for the country fell apart. Many of his colleagues, including Molyvann, saw the dark clouds rising and left the country. Ban Hap’s wife and children returned to France, but the architect himself remained, a decision he says he made out of a sense of duty to his country.
In the increasing turmoil of the civil war, work became difficult. “We could not do anything. More and more people came to Phnom Penh. My service was busy only to provide them with the basic necessities,” Ban Hap recalled, referring to the massive rural migration to the capital caused by US bombing in the provinces.
“And there were no more building materials. One of my clients had to fly in the cement from Bangkok because he absolutely wanted to go on with building.”
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, and Ban Hap, like the rest of the population, was evacuated to work in a rural labour camp. After three months he executed a daring escape. Accompanied by his niece, he walked – mostly at night – all the way to Saigon, from where he flew to Hanoi, then Vientiane and Bangkok, and finally Paris. The trip took months, and it was only on reaching Bangkok that he could telegram his family to tell them he was alive. The telegram said simply, “We come.”
Once settled in Paris, Ban Hap started work again, but he never recaptured the magnitude of his Cambodian achievements. He was employed by a laundry chain, and fitted out restaurant interiors on the side. In 1978, he designed and built the house where he and his wife live to this day, and then another house next door for his old friend Penn Nouth, who came to Paris in 1979.
Ban Hap returned to Cambodia for the first time in 1989 to support the work of the NGO Médecins du Monde. Until 1994, he made annual visits to the country, overseeing the construction of orphanages and hospitals. He was asked to return to Cambodia permanently, but refused.
“I told them I’m too old and my wife and children don’t want to leave, they have their friends here,” he explained. But I felt there was more that he was leaving unsaid.
“I could have done so much more for my country,” he told me when dropping me off at the airport to return to Berlin. “But my career was at an end when I was 45.”
“I only had 15 years. That was not enough.”