As Cambodia modernises, traditional Khmer architectural techniques,
materials and urban planning methods have a key role to play,
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
A student sits in the shade Vann Molyvann incorporated into the IFL building at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
The Royal University of Phnom Penh may have only been built in the 1960s but its architectural heritage stretches much further back, rooting itself not only in French modernism but also in the Angkorian empire that flourished from about the ninth century to 15th century.
Today, local architects fear that the drive to combine the best of the traditional and the modern has been lost as developers rush to build with little regard for the landscape or climate. They warn that greater heed needs to be paid to traditional Khmer architecture, materials and planning methods in order to match buildings to the local ecology and preserve the country's heritage.
French-chartered architect, urbanist and architecture historian Helen Grant Ross said vernacular architecture, which refers to methods of construction that use locally available resources to address local needs, holds the key to good design for any architecture.
"It's a question of common sense as local builders have integrated thousands of years of knowledge about the climate, readily available building materials, spatial organization to suit family needs and public space into the vernacular," she said via email from France.
But rather than simply copying traditional architecture, she said, developers need to explore how "this intelligence can be integrated and transcended into modern buildings, built economically with readily available materials, plus modern comforts such as sanitation and electricity".
"Literal copying of tradition doesn't lead anywhere," she added.
The key benefits of vernacular architecture were in the design of ecologically sustainable buildings, she said. "In the 60s there was good urban planning that integrated water basins, forest trees and cross ventilation. This is all common sense, but seems to have been completely forgotten today in the intensive shophouse developments cropping up all over the place, or the banal high-rise."
Cambodian architect and architecture historian Hok Sokol, who worked as a research assistant for Grant Ross on her book Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, which she co-authored with Darryl Collins, is leading the charge for the reintroduction of traditional techniques. "New Cambodian architects and designers should think of where they come from," he said. "They should study Cambodian architecture."
He said techniques used in traditional wooden architecture, which he has extensively researched, have a lot to offer Cambodian contemporary buildings. "We can still modernise the traditional," he said. "[Khmer] wooden architecture had hundreds of years of development in this climate."
The Royal University of Phnom Penh was an example of how traditional techniques can be used to locate buildings in the environment, obviating the need to tame natural landscapes and processes, he said. Built in the 1960s, it was part of a series of works that came to represent the New Khmer Architecture movement, which flourished under the patronage of Norodom Sihanouk.
"The campus was built to the land," Hok Sokol said. "Where the land is low, they raised the buildings. They kept the water and turned them into architectural elements and flood prevention."
"Now, developers don't care if the land is high or low," he added. "They'll just fill it in. They make the land fit the building, but varied land has more value than flat land."
The Royal University campus was designed by a pair of French architects, Leroy and Mondet, and the adjacent Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) was designed by Vann Molyvann, the spearhead of the New Khmer Architecture movement.
These architects took into account the hot climate, seasonal flooding and harsh sun by incorporating lessons from traditional Khmer architecture.
In the IFL campus, Vann Molyvann planted lush, indigenous plants in the central courtyard to help keep the campus cool. Today, clay tiles have replaced the foliage that - instead of cooling - only reflect heat into the neighbouring classrooms.
Yam Sokly, an architecture student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, said that young Cambodian architects need to spend more time on the campus to learn how a building can take the environment into account.
"Young, Cambodian architects today do not learn about the 60s," he said. "They should stay here and see how it all works. Every detail can teach you something."
Simon Wright, managing director of Phnom Penh-based Arti-tech Design Studio, said that unlike Vann Molyvann, the current generation shows little interest in the construction techniques of the ancients. But he warned against the tendency to romanticise the past. Traditional dwellings were constructed out of what was available, not from materials chosen out of some deep ecological concern.
Although building large, modern developments in timber is not cost effective or environmentally sustainable, the building principles of old could be utilized by incorporating more natural ventilation and taking note of solar orientation in modern buildings, he said.
He noted that high-pitched roofs serve to distribute hot air more effectively if combined with crossflow ventilation, while raising a house on stilts or poles allows for ventilation and cooling of upper levels and provides a temperate climate for relaxing in the heat of midday.
Each of these lessons can be learned by taking a stroll around the Royal University of Phnom Penh, but they seem to have been forgotten by many architects today.
Grant Ross warns that it is the functionality not just the aesthetic that is important, as understood by Vann Molyvann and his contemporaries.
"The question of aesthetics is a trap," she said. "If I wear a Khmer dancer's hat will I become a traditional Khmer woman? Obviously not. So why would sticking a roof, a few nagas and so on, on a concrete box, transform a banal building into a Khmer style one?"
Five of the best
Helen Grant Ross picks her top five buildings in which the designers have integrated what she call Khmer intelligence into the architecture
Norodom Sihanouk acclaimed Phnom Penh’s Institute of Technology as the most successfully-designed university building in Cambodia. Inaugurated in 1964, the team of Soviet architects used all the techniques available to accommodate the heat and humidity of the tropics. Walls are made of sunscreens, window openings feature deep recesses and the rooms are cross-ventilated. The roof was also designed to cope with heavy rain. This image from 1964 was suppied by the Royal University of Fine Arts.
Vann Molyvann’s State Palace is part of the Chamkar Mon Compound in Phnom Penh. Its raised ground floor opened onto the grounds (since walled in) and the design featured cross ventilation and high ceilings. The central reception was initially open on all sides so it interacted with the garden. This photo of the newly completed State Palace entrance in 1966 is by Vann Molyvann.
Vann Molyvann’s SKD Brewery was inaugurated in Sihanoukville in 1968. Its roof has a six-metre cantilevered overhang to provide protection from the sun, while a skylight diffuses reflected light into the upper floor. The location was only selected after a long search throughout Cambodia for the best water source. This photo of the main building was taken by Hok Sokol.
Henri Chatel, the architect behind the National Bank of Cambodia apartment buildings on Sothearos Boulevard, said he always looked for architectural solutions to suit Cambodia’s climate. The suspended VVV-shaped roof provided protection from the heat and rain while providing a space to dry washing. The building was also raised off the ground to provide shade for people or cars. His only regret was that he used concrete, which as a good conductor of heat is unsuited to the tropical climate. The image is an original sketch by the architect.
Vann Molyvann also designed the Teacher Training College, library and workshops at what is now the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The buildings were initially surrounded by water so the entrance linking what is now the Institute of Languages to the main campus building takes the form of a huge bridge replete with Angkorian-inspired nagas. The building is raised off the ground in respect of the natural landscape, and it takes the form of an inverted pyramid in which each floor provides shade for the one beneath. It was inaugurated in 1972. Photo by Helen Grant Ross.
Helen Grant Ross is a dual French-British national who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1997. She was coordinator and lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Art’s faculty of architecture and urbanism for three years and is the author of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 with Darryl Leon Collins. All images are taken from her book with permission.