Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Echoes of Le Corbusier in Phnom Penh – and beyond



Echoes of Le Corbusier in Phnom Penh – and beyond

Professor Yoshiyuki Yamana has dedicated his career to modernist architecture in Asia.
Professor Yoshiyuki Yamana has dedicated his career to modernist architecture in Asia. VICTORIA MØERCK MADSEN

Echoes of Le Corbusier in Phnom Penh – and beyond

Professor draws link between the influence of the French architect – central to the New Khmer Architecture Movement – and modernist architecture throughout Asia

A conference held by Japanese architecture professor Yoshiyuki Yamana at the French Institute on Thursday sought to bring an international perspective to one of Cambodia’s most celebrated cultural narratives – the New Khmer Architecture movement of the 1960s – by linking its history to that of other Asian architects influenced by French-Swiss pioneer Le Corbusier.

Within the country, the dynamic history of Cambodian architecture in the 1960s is an oft-told tale. A group of bright young architectural students spent the late 1950s studying in Paris, where they were heavily influenced by the modernist architectural philosophy of Le Corbusier.

Upon their return, they were instrumental in crafting a new urban landscape for the capital – one which reflected Norodom Sihanouk’s hunger to see the country cast off its colonial heritage.

What Cambodians are less familiar with is the story of how this dramatic flourishing was being paralleled elsewhere in Asia.

“It was really surprising,” enthuses Virak Roeun – a young Cambodian architect who participated in the conference.

As a guide with Khmer Architecture Tours, Roeun is well versed in Cambodia’s modernist history, but had little if any idea of that of other countries. “None of the buildings are that famous internationally, so you never think of it,” he said.

It’s a message that Yoshiyuki Yamana has dedicated his professional career to conveying.

His talk on Thursday came on the back of a conference held in Tokyo on the first of November, which presented examples of modernist architecture from every ASEAN country, with the exception of Brunei.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Yamana believes the Olympic Stadium is unique. Kimberley McCosker

Virak Roeun attended the Tokyo conference, having met Yamana while guiding him on a tour of Phnom Penh earlier in the year. Along with fellow Cambodian architect Yam Sokly, Roeun presented the work of New Khmer Architecture’s leading light, Vann Molyvann, and listened as other participants told similar tales of locally celebrated architects that were little known abroad.

Two buildings particularly impressed Roeun during the presentations: the Singaporean National Theatre, an unusual building with a five point facade designed by Alfred Wong, and the Istaqlal mosque in Jakarta – the largest mosque in South Asia – designed by Frederich Silaban.

In both cases, Roeun was struck by the parallel histories of the two designs: both architects had been influenced by Le Corbusier, and their works were publicly commissioned as grand monuments to celebrate recent declarations of independence.

Speaking prior to the conference, Professor Yamana explained how Le Corbusier had come to embrace this local “customisation” of his architectural style.

“Up until the 1930s, he believed that there was an international truth [to architecture] – the same way that communism was international,” explained Yamana.

“In the 1950s, he started to realise that those ideas didn’t work, because for every country there were certain climatic and cultural situations. So he started to change and respect each locality and its specificities.”

Yamana was also keen to emphasise that while Le Corbusier has been most celebrated for particular buildings, he was a man of “basic ideas” who cared as much about urban planning as about the form of particular buildings.

When assessing Cambodia’s architectural heritage, Yamana echoes this emphasis on function rather than form.

For example, he describes the White Building as holding “cultural significance”, but believes that Lu Ban Hap’s “idealism” in designing the structure makes it a less-than-pleasant environment for modern living.

“We can’t conserve everything, so we need to choose the important buildings – something classic, something original,” he said.

For Yamana, who has travelled the world exploring the works of modernist architects, it’s Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium that most exquisitely combines international and Cambodian design elements.

“There needs to be intervention by the state, which doesn’t exist now,” he said. “It needs to intervene on certain chosen important buildings that it then has a responsibility to protect.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Construction begins on $1.5B Kampot seaport

    The International Multi-Purpose Logistics and Port Centre, principally invested by Kampot Logistics and Port Co Ltd and projected to cost $1.5 billion, has officially broken ground in Bokor town, Kampot province. The multi-purpose logistics and port centre, located in Prek Tnaot commune, will be built on

  • Cambodia eyes key role in electronics, auto hubs in SEA

    Two roadmaps, part of the LDC’s economic diversification plan, were designed to see it through its migration process, but experts say the journey might be arduous, particularly in the presence of two established hubs in the region By 2028, Cambodia hopes to have exited the

  • Hun Neng, lawmaker and PM’s brother, passes away aged 72

    Hun Neng, chairman of the 4th Commission of the National Assembly, has passed away from heart disease at the age of 72 on the afternoon of May 5, according to the Ministry of Information. Hun Neng is the older brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and was

  • Massive stingrays may live in Mekong’s deep pools

    US scientists have suggested that unexplored deep pools in the Mekong River in an area of Stung Treng could potentially be home to significant populations of giant freshwater stingrays, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish species. This comes as a fisherman hooked a 180

  • PM meets with US business giants

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has met with a number of major US companies who have expressed interest in investing in Cambodia, in a meeting convened by the US-ASEAN Business Council (US-ABC). A delegation of companies – including Amazon, Meta, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Ford, Visa and Pernod

  • CCC team off on US business trip

    The Kingdom’s leading economists and private sector representatives have called on the US to renew its tax preferential status for Cambodian exports, as a Cambodia Chamber of Commerce (CCC) delegation departed for a weeklong business visit to the US, where they will meet with