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Building upon a successful past – what could the future hold for public housing in Cambodia?

White Building
Even though Van Molyvan’s famous White Building is falling apart, a new generation of architects praises it for its intelligent design focusing on efficient use of space and natural ventilation . Pha Lina

Building upon a successful past – what could the future hold for public housing in Cambodia?

I van Tizianel walks to the book shelf in his office, pulling out book after book on Cambodian architecture. The French archictect and his team at international architecture company ASMA, have designed schools, hotels, restaurants and hospitals throughout Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, including The Plantation hotel and the VIP building at the Phnom Penh airport.

One of Tizianel’s passion, however, is the genius of the design applied in Cambodia’s public housing architecture, which history dates back to the 1960’s. While the White Building is slowly crumbling apart and the Grey Building was down in the 1990s the need for new public housing projects that makes home ownership affordable for the emerging middle class is increasingly becoming a hot topic again – but property in central urban areas is very expansive. How could urban public housing be realized? Post Property sat down with the architect to discuss the history and possible future of public housing in Cambodia.

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What can you tell me about the history of public housing in Cambodia?
It began in the 60’s. Some buildings are from [Vann] Molyvann and his team, the Grey Building, for example. Then there were the White Buildings that were designed by ATBAT, which is a group of architects, and Lu Ban Hap was taking care of the construction. They were proper [social] houses.

Molyvann created the grey buildings. You can see the quality of the design. Those were torn down in the 90’s and it was completely lost. [The original building] was very nice, and [the new one that took its place] is completely uninteresting. The way he designed the building… you have a lot of natural ventilation. You have airflow. That was all lost when the building was [reconstructed].

It’s quite complex, no? It’s not really eye-level architecture. Vann Molyvann was a very good architect, but he was not alone. He was also working with Vladamir Bodiansky- a really talented engineer. He’s an interesting person, who moved from one place to the other because of war or revolutions. He did a lot.

What made the White Building such an outstanding achievement?
Well, they were designed by Lu Ban Hap and engineer [Vladimir] Bodiansky. It’s really nice architecture. You can see it. It was a very strong design, very good quality design. It was made to be [energy] efficient.

Currently, new building projects focus on the upper end of the market – condos popping up all around Phnom Penh cater to expat tenants and foreign investors. Do you see potential for housing projects catering to the upper and lower middle class?
I hope so, because all the condominium projects [happening now] are targeted to rich people. For sure, there is potential, but the problem now is that most of the housing built for the middle class are shop houses. I don’t think it’s social housing. It’s social in a way, but it’s not housing. It’s a place where people can stay for some days. It’s not an apartment. It’s temporary. It’s social in a way, but it’s mainly built by the owner of the factory.

It seems to me like the government are missing a project for the people – really for the people – not only for the rich. I think if there’s any [social housing] happening, it will be away from the city, like far away from the center, for sure. In the center, the land is too expensive...

If you were to design middle class housing projects here, how would you approach it bearing in mind that you have to lower costs?
What we try to do when we design a house or hotel, or whatever, is to create shade so we don’t need much air conditioning.

If you create the proper ventilation, it’s fine. The problem is land, so the cost is a bit high. Because of the location, [they want] the walls to be dense, and it’s very difficult to create energy efficient techniques [with dense walls]. If you want the wind crossing the building, you can’t make the building too deep. The building has to be narrow. That’s how houses should be built in Cambodia.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The Grey Building on a picture dating back to the 1960’s. Photo supplied

Is that why you say creating shade and applying other energy efficient techniques is so important?
Yes, creating shade is very important. That’s the minimum thing you can do, because if you have shade, the sun doesn’t beat at the glass. The walls stay cool, and it saves a lot. Then, if you can create natural ventilation, then you have circulation for two sides of the housing.

What construction design specifics would you take care of?
I would try to make a public housing system that is more like apartments.

Can you tell me more about housing projects around the world?
There is many, many around the world. It’s interesting to compare them, because building projects are so different. When you go to the North, the most important thing is to protect from the cold, which makes a completely different architecture. It’s easier to build in countries that are hot or cold all-year round instead of places where the weather changes. It’s much more complicated to make a building with a big difference [in temperature] rather than here where it’s always hot, so you just have to protect from the sun.


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