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The search for a Khmer identity in architecture and urban planning

The search for a Khmer identity in architecture and urban planning


Bernard Wouters, senior design manager of architecture at Archetype Cambodia, says proportions, rhythms and spatial arrangements are the key to Khmer architecture


Archetype Cambodia senior design manager Bernard Wouters in his Phnom Penh studio.

The global financial crisis has given developers and planners a brief respite from the breakneck pace of Cambodia's property boom of recent years. Prime Location caught up with Bernard Wouters, senior design manager of architecture at Archetype Cambodia, to talk about where architecture in Cambodia is heading and how traditional design and planning practices can shape that future.

Is there such a thing as modern Khmer architecture?

I don't think modern Khmer architecture is the right phrase. You need to differentiate between Khmer architecture and modern architecture. It is better to ask is there such a thing as Cambodian architecture and where is it heading today.

Where is it heading?

What I see in Cambodia architecture today is that it's a search for identity. It's similar to what you can see in any post-war era, like we saw in Europe where there was a very strong rejection of the strong functionalist modernist movement that developed before the war through very famous architects like Le Corbusier, [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe and Bauhaus.

That was completely broken up by the war, and when the war had passed people were looking for some kind of security. They wanted to find an anti-movement to functionalist modern architecture.

This we can see also today in Cambodia. What was done before the war, before the Khmer Rouge, is in some sense rejected by most people today. They don't want to go back to what happened before because, if we look at that modern architecture movement in the 1950s and 1960s, it had a strong functionalist structuralist feeling.

Traditionally, structuralism was pure, it was clean, it was shaven of any unnecessary elements, and it was closely associated with the greater good, the community. Cambodian modernism of the time also had those associations with greater good and collectivism - they were good words at that time but today they are not.

The current trend is very much that we want to distance ourselves from that. We want to go back to where we feel secure like the way our ancestors lived, their culture and way of life. What we see today in new architecture in Cambodia is that quest for security, for something which is going to last forever and is not being determined by a political or scientific philosophical approach.

What are some of the key architectural elements?

The key elements for me in Khmer architecture are the proportions, the rhythms. It's about how the shadows fall on the facade; its about the spatial arrangement between nature and the building. It's about a return to the vernacular architecture that existed before - a traditional little house somewhere in the countryside with lush vegetation and the security of the village and family.

The elements that you can see are taken quite literally from village architecture with the way that they solved very practical problems, such as through steeply sloping roofs, a strong link between inside and outside and natural ventilation.

But the only elements of this type seen strongly in architecture today are the roofs and the ornamentation. And unfortunately most of the features are facade features - they are not coming into function but mostly into appearance. They are decorative items. It's a bit sad because Khmer architecture has much stronger qualities when it comes to use of space and how they live with space.

This was something also mentioned strongly by architects like Vann Molyvann, who wanted to incorporate Khmer living into the building rather than just what it looked like. Today we are a bit the other way around, worrying more what it looks like rather than how it functions inside and how it is adapted to the Khmer lifestyle.

Is that in part because the Khmer lifestyle is changing?

It's not so much that the elements are not appropriate but that the density of living is increasing nowadays and that most buildings are air conditioned, which from a natural living point of view doesn't work at all. It's a completely different conception of how you organise your space and how you organise your architecture. As soon as you work from a building that is an air-conditioned box, so to speak, then there is a strong differentiation between inside and outside. That's what we see in building today, so the only thing that is left is basically how it looks.

If you are building a six-storey apartment building, can you incorporate Khmer architectural elements such as the strongly sloping roof?
Traditional architecture is not an aesthetic architecture, or at least not purely aesthetic. It is as much based on practicality. When you take the building out of its context so to speak and give it a new practical purpose, it becomes very much a challenge incorporating that Khmer element.

If you talk about roofs as a strong feature, for example, the roof will never be a strong feature if you have a six-storey building.

In the original Khmer-style architecture most buildings were just single-storey buildings, or a single storey on stilts, therefore the proportions, the whole relationship between roof space compared to living space compared to space under the house is gone. I find it very difficult to proportion the whole thing in the correct way.

You talked about inside-outside flow. How can Cambodia's natural ecology be incorporated into architecture?

Today, we talk a lot about ecological architecture. Many foreign investors say they want something ecological, so why not combine those kind of things? That in itself could be the new Cambodia architecture. The lifestyle, how people live on their verandahs, and live in their natural ventilated spaces without having air conditioning, that is maybe the core of where architecture can develop.

We also have these extraordinarily large spaces that exist in Cambodia architecture because we are working with natural ventilation. As soon as you say, ‘OK I want to build an office', or ‘I want to build a very dense, budget-minded, air-conditioned space', then all of that goes out through the door.

Is there an argument that Cambodia doesn't need these big offices, that we should be looking at smaller standalone structures instead?

Yes, but there is an economic drive that is related to the land prices that requires a very high development ratio on the land that you have. Today in Cambodia they are creating land as if there is a lack of land. They are filling in lakes, they are extending beaches as if there is a need to make new land.

But a lack of land is not the reason. The reason is that some developers are looking for cheaper land, so they decide to make their own, or they are looking at it for a speculative purpose because making land is the same as printing money.

There is a lot of talk about how Phnom Penh is developing. Can traditional Khmer planning and architecture aid that discussion?

What is lacking in Phnom Penh is a community feeling. In the traditional architecture of the village, and of how Phnom Penh grew, the community was always a very central point. You would start at a community point like a pagoda and then everything circles out. That is completely gone.

Today it is all individualism; everybody for their own plot of land to develop it to the maximum with  no regard for neighbours. That is what needs to be done, to look at the community as a whole, the neighbourhood as a whole or the city as a whole.


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