Student architecture competition kicks off French Institute events series around urban living
In the 1920s, acclaimed Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier set himself a puzzle in need of solving: in crowded urban environments, can the benefits of spacious, green living be maintained when building up rather than out?
This week, 21 architecture students in Phnom Penh are asking themselves the same question. As part of the French Institute’s Living Together series of events on urban architecture, teams from each of Phnom Penh’s seven architectural training programmes have designed innovative prototypes for high rise accommodation in the city.
The starting point for each team was a famous design inked by Le Corbusier almost 100 years ago – the Immeuble Villa.
“Le Corbusier’s idea was that maybe we can maintain the values of the house, but stacked together in a building,” explained San Chanritthy, an architect with Hok Kang Architects who is acting as both mentor and judge for the competition.
“According to [Le Corbusier], it should be private, it should be customisable, it should be redesignable, and it should have places where the house owner can express himself.”
At the French Institute on Thursday, students milled about in the gallery comparing their completed models for the Immeuble Villa as they waited to present them to the panel of seven judges.
“We had to produce three models. The first model was quite a vague construct, using the original idea, the feelings,” said 20-year-old Yend Sereyroth from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Her first model is simply a pile of elegantly stacked twigs, intended “to get the feel for nature”, she explained.
Sereyroth’s final model is anything but vague. Crafted in delicately cut plywood and populated by tiny plastic figurines, the building features two gardens, and spacious balconies outside every apartment.
“I imagined people living in their hometown surrounded by nature, and the way of living of Cambodians in the past or in the rural areas,” explained Sereyroth. “Thinking about the people in the city, they’re sometimes so busy. So I imagined something that is in between those two things.”
All seven models have drawn on the Immeuble Villa’s prioritising of roomy living, with several teams incorporating jungle-themed gardens in their buildings, or elevating them on pillars to allow for open space below the apartments.
While Le Corbusier himself never built in Cambodia, his architecture has a strong presence in the country thanks to the work of the pioneer of New Khmer Architecture Vann Moly-vann, who was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s philosophy while studying in Paris.
Next month, Japanese architecture professor Yoshiyuki Yamana will be giving the talk “Le Corbusier in Asia” as part of the Living Together program.
“His architecture allows people to live in comfort,” said RUFA student Sereyroth. “There’s enough space for the garden, for people living, and the cross-ventilation is so comfortable. It’s really [made] according to our climate. It fits together.”
But mentor Chanritthy said that while the models dreamt up by the competing teams were certainly innovative, they were a long way from being viable as functioning buildings. It’s a problem that Le Corbusier himself ran into in the 1920s – although the principles introduced in the Immeuble Villa went on to inform large parts of his work, the design itself never made it off the page because of the high costs inherent in its construction.
“In real life, a lot of things come into play – if you can sell it, if it’s profitable,” Chanritthy said. He added that he hoped that the Living Together project would nonetheless open young architects’ minds to the importance of ensuring better designs for high-rise living in Phnom Penh.
Among the students, there is still optimism that their time-consuming models could prove feasible. “I think it could happen. It’s not too much imagination,” said Sereyroth.
But, for now, a win at next Tuesday’s competition is her priority. “Day by day, step by step, from the morning until 6pm, for two and a half months. We never skipped one day; we worked so hard,” she said. “We really want to win this competition.”
The exhibition and award ceremony for the architecture contest will take place on Tuesday at 6:30pm at the French Institute, #218 Street 184.