A new building at the Royal University of Phnom Penh has won a prestigious international architectural prize. The extension to the Hun Sen Library was awarded the 2012 Sustain Magazine International Project for Sustainability, a fitting reward for a building that is sensitive to its location and yet elegant and beautiful.
The architects were both Khmer and western; lead architect Geoffrey Pyle has spent much time in Cambodia, and is aware of both the challenges and the potential of the country. “I came to live in Cambodia with my family in 2003, loved it and stayed for nearly five years,” he told Post Property.
“Since then I have split my time between London and Phnom Penh. I really like the openness to ideas and the interest in growth and change here. Cambodia is a special place and after nine years, it feels both familiar and fascinating.”
The award-winning library extension - intended to double the size of the library to provide new reading and study areas, seminar rooms, teaching spaces and special collection rooms - presented architectural challenges which were perfectly suited to Pyle’s sustainability-minded approach.
“I have had a professional interest in sustainability all of my working life; it is for me a fundamental part of design along with the many other aspects that make good architecture,” he said.
Despite being a professional architect, Pyle says that throwing up new buildings isn’t always the best thing to do. “One big issue is that architects and the building industry exist to build, and building means an expenditure of energy - we should be looking for ways of re-utilising old buildings as well as minimising the carbon footprint of new ones - at the same time as asking ‘is a new building necessary?’”
The Sustain award for the library extension was earned for, in the words of the judges, taking “a holistic approach to sustainability, using local resources and trade where appropriate.
The design solution is robust and appropriate to its context. If this approach can be taken as standard and replicated in more international projects it would really impact on sustainable development in developing countries.”
Thought was also given to keeping as much of the budget as possible spent within the country: local materials and techniques were specified so that money would be fed into the local economy.
Carpentry, metalwork, plastering and terrazzo were carried out by local skilled labour.
Pyle says that he attempted to design the building in a way that was appropriate to Cambodian culture. “The design aims to take a similar approach to the New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s, which reinterpreted contemporary thinking about design in terms of local culture and context. The design of the library responds to its site, to the climate, to building methods and particularly to the way students in Cambodia like to study, which is in groups as well as individually,” he said.
He went on: “The existing library already provides spaces which are fairly enclosed and protected from the outside environment; we wanted to make spaces which flowed from one to another and had good natural light and views out to the trees and the water behind the building.
How natural light falls in a space, and how that space is connected to nature outside I think are fundamental to the human experience of architecture, whatever the culture. The openness of the spaces hopefully says something to the students about the availability of knowledge which is present in the library.”
Pyle believes that Cambodia’s capital has the opportunity to become a world leader in sustainable architecture and design: “Phnom Penh is a special case due to its recent history, but this gives it the opportunity to be ambitious about what kind of city it wants to be. It could have a strong ‘green’ strategy with excellent buildings which are very responsive to environmental issues.
It could choose to skip the stage of highly-cooled glass buildings which the West is full of and move instead to low-energy, greener buildings.”
He warns that it is imperative that the world learns to do this quickly. “We can’t as a world continue to use natural resources at a rate which can’t be replaced.”
The growth of Phnom Penh is, for Pyle, both exciting and challenging.
“It is exciting that Phnom Penh is growing. That brings issues of traffic and potential overdevelopment, which is a challenge for the city authorities, but there are some very good people there working on these issues.
It would be helpful to have a clearer city plan to guide developers and give a lead to land use and zoning. And I think it is time for a system of protecting the most important examples of urban heritage in the city, including some 1960s buildings.”
Pyle says that he doesn’t see any major changes in urban planning happening in the near future. “Creating substantial new green spaces in any city is difficult; it requires a strong will on the part of the authorities and an acknowledgment that public open space is beneficial to the inhabitants of a city and therefore to the city itself. With the potential for generating income from the development of ‘unused’ land, I am not hopeful about any radical changes in direction in the short term.”
However, Pyle says he is generally optimistic about the future of Cambodia’s built environment.
“I think it is going mostly in a good direction and new projects are improving in quality all the time," he said.
"More young Cambodian architects and urban designers are graduating and many are getting experience and training overseas, seeing and experiencing how things are done well elsewhere, which is extremely valuable.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Rupert Winchester at [email protected]