Cambodia's New Khmer Architecture

Around Asia, great civilizations gave rise to stunning architectural styles, but all long ago. In recent centuries, aside from the colonial cities, most architectural innovation has been religious and ceremonial rather than urban in nature. One exception came in the flowering of independence in Cambodia, when an unprecedented building boom led by Vann Molyvann created New Khmer Architecture.

By Ron Gluckman /Phnom Penh, Cambodia

NEW ARCHITECTURAL FORMS ARISE rarely, and unpredictably. The flourishing of Khmer society in Cambodia a thousand years ago gave birth to a series of magnificent stone temples at world-famous Angkor. The massive towers and exquisite carvings blend Hindu and Buddhist features, but in unique Khmer style.

  Fast-forward a millennium and Cambodia again made its mark on architectural maps. An entirely new style of architecture, a modernist movement fueled by nationalism and inspired by the old Angkor temples, arose half a century ago, but the exact impact is only now being debated.

  Gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia distinguished itself from the rest of former Indochine with an ambitious building boom centered on the capital of Phnom Penh.  

  In less than two decades, an estimated 1300 new buildings shot up around the city, a pace of urban renewal that would be astonishing anywhere, let alone such a small, poor nation.

  More significantly, the vast majority was constructed in a mostly-cohesive style that is increasingly being hailed as New Khmer Architecture, by admirers like urban planner and author Helen Grant Ross.

  Ross, a French-British architect who arrived in the region over a decade ago to work on Bangkok’s mass-transit subway system, moved to Cambodia to teach architecture at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1997.

  Everywhere she went around the city, she spied the faded ochre and white-trimmed buildings from the celebrated colonial period, denoting a long-ago grandeur that largely disappeared in waves of redevelopment in other Asian capitals, from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur.

  Even more intriguing to Ross was an array of distinctive structures unlike any she had seen in the region. The buildings ranged from massive sports complexes and sprawling universities to simple houses and apartment blocks. While the structures and functions they served were disparate, Ross began noticing a certain uniformity of features and symmetry of design.

  Together with another professor at the university, Darryl Collins, she began cataloguing the structures, convinced that they represented more than a passing fad in urban design, but rather a concerted urban movement unlike any other indigenous architectural style in Asia. They pair detail the results of almost a decade of study in the recent book, “Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970.” (Key Publishers, Bangkok)

  Heavily influenced by the minimalist movement, as well as art-deco from the French, the designs are uniquely Cambodian, with high-spiking triangular roofs that recall Angkor’s temples, although much more flamboyant. Public buildings - theaters, universities and government ministries - are typically low rise, often surrounded by ponds or moats, again in the Angkor style.

  But unlike those stone temples, New Khmer Architecture is lighter, warmed by curving walls and other deco details.

  While the look has an Angkorian vernacular, the designs are modern and sensitive to a local climate hot much of the year, and drenched by rain for months at a time.

  Walls tend to be screened or feature cutaways that provide shading and air circulation. Ventilation is enhanced by elevated roofs, while foundations are often lifted off the ground, so air can flow underneath. The appearance is arresting – buildings seem to float in the air.

  “This was not inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, not an European clone,” insists Ross, “but an authentic style that arose independently in Cambodia.” And all by design, she adds, as new King Sihanouk decided to create a model city for independent Cambodia.

  “The 1950s was about a new age, in health, education and planning,” she notes. “The buildings reflect the sense of optimism, vigor and confidence. This was a time when all of Asia was looking at Cambodia, and Phnom Penh became a more developed city in the 1960s than Bangkok. It was an exhilarating period.”

  There was a confluence of design style and statements. Young architects from France, like Henri Chatel and Roger Colne, stayed on in this newly independent nation to make signature buildings of a scale and ambition that they could never achieve at home. They were joined by architects and engineers from Cambodia’s new friends in the Soviet block, like Vladimir Bodiansky, who introduced the sprawling socialist style evident from Berlin to Pyongyang.

  Together they helped nurture a new generation of local talent like Lu Ban Hap, who designed Cambodia’s Chenla State Cinema, and the O’Russei and Olympic markets. But above all the rest rose the defining architect of the era, Vann Molyvann (pictured at his home in Phnom Penh, below).

  Vann came from humble roots. Born in 1926, he was raised in a traditional wooden house in the small town of Ream, on the southern coast, but became one of the first Cambodians trained in architecture in Europe, studying at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

  Returning home in 1957, he immediately attracted attention with bold designs heavily influenced by Le Corbusier. Throughout his career, Vann used the Frenchman’s “modular” for the fine proportions in his buildings. The young king liked Vann’s modern flair, naming him to oversee a scheme to transform Phnom Penh into a kind of Asian urban utopia.

  It was a unique partnership. Both were in their 30s. Sihanouk has been depicted, alternatively, as royal gadfly or shrewd statesman, who deftly balanced alliances with the west, the Soviet block and the new non-aligned movement.

  An eccentric who dabbled in poetry and filmmaking, the king is listed as interior designer on many of the Vann buildings. But his most important contribution was cajoling funds from the giants of the Cold War, and using the largesse to finance a spree of civic spending.

  This was typical throughout the socialist world, but in Cambodia, thanks to Vann, aesthetic tended to trump self-glorification. Even in the mid-1960s, when the king commissioned the construction of a vast sports complex for a kind of Asian Olympics, Vann responded with an wonderfully stylish complex rather than the kind of Potemkin folly seen in states like North Korea – a close ally of Sihanouk’s Cambodia.

  Pool and exhibition space radiate around a smart 60,000-seat stadium. The indoor arena is especially impressive with a zigzag design of bleachers, and gardens and ponds tucked underneath. The roof is four concrete umbrellas, spaced to provide lighting and a natural system of air circulation through a connecting cross-bar. 

  Vann, now 81, ranks the stadium with some of his finest creations, although there is plenty of competition around Phnom Penh. These include the fan-shaped Chatomuk Conference Hall, topped with traditional Khmer rooftop.

  While the old architect bemoans the loss of signature structures – the Preah Suramarit National Theatre on the Bassac River was gutted by fire and despite a spirited public campaign for refurbishment, is slated for demolition – the amazing thing is how so many of his buildings survive.

  “The astonishing thing is to look at his work now and see how good it is,” notes Ross. “He built an incredible amount of work in a very short period of time, and all of it is good. There isn’t a bad design in the entire lot.”

  Visitors to Phnom Penh cannot help but be bowled over by Vann’s work, starting with the enormous Independence Monument, a kind of Arc de Triomphe in classic Khmer style. Straddling a main intersection, the multi-tiered tower, adorned with Hindu Nagas, resembles the Lotus flower domes of Angkor. Inaugurated in 1962, and renovated last year, the pink-hued monument remains a celebrated local icon.

  On the ride in from the airport, one sees his circular library at Teacher Training College; the design was inspired by a common field worker’s palm-leaf hat. Other buildings sport pop-art style walls inspired by fish scales.

  “There are a hundred variations. A good architect always looks for tricks,” the old architect says with a mischievous twinkle to his eyes.

  Now 81, the grandfather of New Khmer Architecture remains good-humored and humble about his role in spawning what some call an Asian Bauhaus. “There was a wonderful culture of independence,” he recalls of the time. “It was the same climate I found in France as a student, after the war, with all this new art and thinking.”

  Normally publicity shy, Vann has been outspoken about the need for preservation and the kind of thoughtful urban planning that once made Phnom Penh a model Asian city. He especially bemoans current moves to fill in lakes and canals to provide more land for development. Moats and ponds were key to the glorious Angkor designs and much of his work. “You cannot create new architecture without roots,” he notes.

  Although increasingly valued by the public, the real reason so many of Vann’s creations survive is because of the country’s stunted recent growth and legacy of turmoil. Despite Sihanouk’s desperate attempts to remain neutral in the conflict raging in neighboring Vietnam, fighting spilled into Cambodia in the 1960s.

  Following a devastating civil war, the Khmer Rouge assumed power and are blamed for the death of perhaps a fourth of the population in widespread executions and starvation.

  Even after the Khmer Rouge were toppled in 1979, fighting continued for nearly two decades. Isolated and ripped apart by warfare, Cambodia missed the Asian economic boom that swept the region, modernizing economies and cities. Most of Vann’s buildings survived intact to this day.

  Vann himself wasn’t as fortunate. After the king was toppled in a 1970s coup, he worked in exile, in Europe, Japan and Africa. After the United Nations arrived in Cambodia in the early 1990s, in what was then its largest peacekeeping mission, Vann returned home to help rebuild his nation. But times had changed, and his views no longer welcome.

  Initially tasked with planning for Siem Reap, a provincial capital that serves as gateway to the Angkor temples, he was forced out when he refused to bow to the pressure of developers and a government eager for hotels and golf courses.

  Now a mess of sprawling construction sites with no planning for water or sewage, he says Siem Reap could have resembled Kyoto or Nara, well-preserved ancient cities in Japan. Vann shows off his old master plan, brilliant in simplicity and logic. The central core of the town would remain much as in the Angkor era. Development would take place in a nearby area, separated neatly from the old city by a moat.

  Such sensibility wasn’t appreciated at the time, nor has Vann gotten the recognition  he deserved. But, now that safety has returned to Cambodia, and tourists are flocking to the capital, that is changing.

  Khmer Architecture Tours offers a selection of tours guided by local architects and students. Colonial architecture still gets much of the attention, according to director Stephanie Irmer, but several tours are devoted to Vann’s work and New Khmer Architecture. “He’s a master,” she says. “More and more, people realize he’s a National Treasure.”

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 1991, and visiting Cambodia since 1993. From mid-2005, he has been living part-time in Phnom Penh. He wrote this piece for Urban Land Institute in March 2008.

All pictures by RON GLUCKMAN

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