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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.”

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