As I’ve stated before, our trip to Southeast Asia was a rather serendipitous one. I’ve been rather singularly focused in the past 18 months on making my way through the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet nations, and had been hoping to spend this Memorial Day in the Ukraine, but luck brought us to Southeast Asia instead. While planning our time in Southeast Asia, I struggled to find the happy medium between a total relaxing hedonistic vacation and finding meaningful cultural activities relevant to my interests.
Enter Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was where we started our trip, and to say it impressed us would be an understatement. It’s safe to say that if I were to create a pie chart of subject matter on this blog, modernist architecture would make up the lion’s share of it. And despite knowing that Phnom Penh had been a jewel of French Indochina, I was not expecting it to be replete with amazing, funky, and downright jaw-dropping modern architecture.
Between World War 2 and the Cambodian Civil War, a man named Vann Molyvann founded the New Khmer style of architecture, and created the preeminent architecture style of the new Kingdom of Cambodia (1953-1970). His buildings blended Modernist style and materials with traditional Khmer architectural elements to create startlingly beautiful structures all over the nation. For more info on the style and his work, visit the Vann Molyvann Project site.
Enter Google, which led me to Khmer Architecture tours. I promptly booked a private tour of 60s New Khmer Architecture, and hoped we wouldn’t be too jet lagged to go right from 22 hours of travel to some intense architecture field learning.
My poor husband, but I digress.
Our travel, as it turns out, was incredibly easy thanks to a combination of a 2am flight from Seattle to Taipei and some light self-medication, so we were good to go when we arrived at our hotel in Phnom Penh. Virak, our guide, picked us up after we settled in, and we were off to see a handful of Molyvann’s beauties in the New Khmer style.
Our first stop was the 100 Houses development, west of the tourist core of Phnom Penh on the road to the airport. They were created to resemble traditional Khmer houses, but combined with the utility of the concrete plug and chug style of building dominant in early stages of nation development. Having traveled through many Asian nations who developed (some would say) too quickly, the 100 Houses development was a welcome change from concrete jungles I had visited in Korea and Japan. The houses are built on stilts, as necessitated by floods in the rainy season (and sometimes persistence of vermin). Vann Molyvann combined these traditional elements with the fine lines and geometric patterns popularized by Le Courbosier to make some truly fantastic structures. David commented that they reminded him of the Dharma Collective houses in “Lost” – identical structures lined up, some being slowly taken over by the lush jungle greenery. One was unoccupied, and we were able to take a peek through.
Sadly, many are being torn down to make way for Khmer Chinese-style McMansions. But as is the case with development, it is all progress. As outsiders, we can witness what remains and hope for some kind of preservation effort, but for developing nations and populations seeking modern amenities, refurbishment is inevitable. I’m looking at you, Tbilisi.
From there we moved on to the Royal University of Phnom Penh. For the sake of brevity, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Suffice it to say that I’d happily trade in my four years at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England to spend a few years studying here, at the Institute for Foreign Language Studies:
The architectural elements are not simply ornamental. Originally, all of the slats and window openings were created as natural cooling systems. Concrete, while beautiful, isn’t the most functional of materials for keeping buildings cool, so engineers had to figure out a way to use it to their advantage – the solution here being complex arrangements of angled window openings to encourage air flow. The university’s performance hall, pictured below, was completely open to the outside until just a few years ago – when windows were added along with air conditioning.
A surprise at the University was the library building. I’m still at a loss for words about it, but it looks strikingly similar to many circus buildings (I’m thinking Chisinau, Moldova, in particular) still standing in the former Soviet nations.
The final stop of the day was the Olympic Stadium, a complex of buildings housing a track, basketball court and arena, and swimming pool. The arena is still 100% open to the elements through similar creative windows and openings, making it at least five degrees cooler than outside. What impressed me most about the complex was its appearance of physical impossibility. The angles, stairwells, and connections between different elements seemed Escher-esque in their intricacy.
There was some kind of soccer game happening at the field, so folks were out in numbers – eating boiled corn and cheering on their local team. Jutting out over the field was what appeared to be another architecturally-impossible announcer box named for Charles de Gaulle. All around the field were groups of middle aged people dancing – a sort of impromptu Khmer Zumba. We were told that anyone could come and for 1,000 Riel (about a $0.25), participate in a group fitness class.
We had a wonderful time with Virak (seriously, if you take a tour with Khmer Architecture Tours, you should request him – he was incredibly kind and his passion for the architecture showed through his immense knowledge) and would take another tour with him in a heartbeat. The tour was $60 for just over two hours, and included transportation throughout.
Much of the architecture we saw is in danger today. Unregulated development combined with some’s distaste of the legacy the former Kingdom of Cambodia has led to the destruction of many, even if only replaced by empty lots or characterless Korean and Chinese apartment blocks. So if you’re in Cambodia and interested, go look at these masterpieces – who knows how long they’ll stick around.
There’s talk of a film about Vann Molyvann entitled “The Man Who Built Cambodia” being released in the indie circuit in the near future. Progress may be stalled on their Indiegogo page, but you can watch the trailer here to get the idea of the sickness of Molyvann’s style and design – as well as the tragedy around some of their destruction’s to make way for foreign investment.