It’s just after two in the afternoon and Sok Muygech, director of BMK Architects, is discussing the details of a new interior design project with her six employees at the company’s office in BKK1. The small office that sits above an optician’s shop is what people in her business would describe as “cosy,” but the 26-year-old architect considers it a giant improvement over the cramped one-room apartment that the fledgling architect firm operated out of when it opened two years ago.
But small spaces cannot contain the creativity and grand ideas that Muygech and her young energetic team of architects and designers are developing, and she sees the small office as merely a stage in her firm’s rising name in a sector traditional dominated by men.
You wouldn’t know it from the stunning concept drawings on her desk but Muygech has been operating on a shoestring budget since buying out her two partners in the firm late last year. Apart from the BMK’s co-founder and director, she also fills in as the company’s lead architect, marketing manager, accountant, and – at times – even its receptionist.
“It’s definitely not easy being an architect, not to mention being the leader of a group of architects,” she says. “But I am certain we’ll do fine as long as I give it my best and have help from employees whom I trust.”
Muygech does not come from a long line of architects, nor did she even dream of becoming one when she was a child. But she was born with an artistic talent that evolved quickly from crafts and sketches in primary school into a captivation with architecture and interior design by the time she reached high school.
“I was the star in my family when it comes to drawing and creativity,” she says. “When I finished high school, I realised that architecture and design was the perfect thing for me. To be honest, I did not know much about it at that time, but it looked fun to me.”
While her parents supported her decision, some of her elders were critical, arguing that in Cambodia architecture and engineering were professions only suited for men. The challenge of dispelling that outdated thinking gave Muygech a sense of purpose.
Four years of hard work at Limkokwing University – where she racked up awards and wins in architectural design competitions – landed Muygech a scholarship to continue her education at University of Nottingham in the UK. She graduated with a master’s degree in architecture and design in 2015.
But before returning to Cambodia, Muygech spent several months travelling throughout Europe, soaking up the nuances of Western architecture and décor.
“Architecture is not about confining yourself in one place,” she says. “I believe that a great architect has to see and study structures from different countries, not only for inspiration, but also to get ideas for innovation.”
Back in Cambodia, Muygech’s ambitions and creativity were further shaped by those of her university lecturer, Hun Chansan, one of the country’s most prominent young architects. She also took inspiration from legendary architect Vann Molyvann, a pioneer in the New Khmer Architecture movement that incorporated the concept of what we now call sustainable architecture.
So in late 2015, Muygech and two architects she knew from university launched BMK Architects. Rather than compete against deep-pocketed international firms on skyscrapers and large-cap developments, the firm built a client list by focusing on smaller projects around the capital, mostly renovations and interior design for boreys, villas and small businesses. Some of their earliest projects include the Grow Plc microfinance headquarters in Sen Sok district and the interior design of Koi Café on Norodom Boulevard.
Two years in saw the firm’s biggest challenge, as Muygech’s two partners divested their shares in the business to start their own design firms.
“There are many reasons that caused my partners to walk out, but the main one is our disagreement on the ways we see things,” Muygech explains. “Part of the difference, I believe, resulted from the difference in our genders.”
Since taking over full operations of BMK last October, Muygech and her team of six young architects have worked to finish up several design projects. They have also taken on new ones, including a renovation of the Blue River Hotel in Phnom Penh and the interior design of a 500-room luxury hotel in Siem Reap.
Muygech attributes her firm’s growing reputation and client base to her comprehensive research into sustainable architecture, which aims at minimising the environmental impact of a structure, and to her team’s focus on the user experience – that is how the structure will provide comfort and benefits to those living or working in it.
An example she gives is the design of an office. While it sounds like a simple enough space to design, she says it is important to assess the impact of each design element on the workers who will use it on a daily basis. Even the smallest details, such as the angle natural light enters windows and way people will sit while typing, should be analysed before deciding on a design.
“The light, the air, the space, and many other physical conditions have to be considered and analysed carefully, to create beautiful yet comfortable structures,” she says. “And we as architects have to put ourselves in the shoes of those who will use the structures.”