Cambodia’s golden-age architect looks back in wonder

Much of Asia’s architectural heritage is under threat as countries pursue rapid economic growth and often eschew preservation in favour of rapid modernisation. In Cambodia the threat is particularly acute, extending from the World Heritage-listed ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat to the buildings of the 1950s and ’60s, when the newly independent kingdom began forging its own identity through a fantastic programme of public works.

As the kingdom’s first qualified post-independence architect, Vann Molyvann was a key creative force behind many landmarks, ranging from the National Sports Complex to the Independence Monument and experimental low-cost apartments. For our weekly Asian Lives series, Phnom Penh Correspondent Samantha Brown talks to 78-year-old Vann about his tumultuous career and his vision for Cambodia in the 21st century.

PHNOM PENH – Vann Molyvann, 78, sits with his pen hovering above crisp white paper and pounces on an opportunity to sketch one of his characteristically ambitious architectural projects for Cambodia.

As warring Cambodian factions edged towards peace in the 1990s after years of bloody battles that persisted after the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, Vann designed a parliamentary complex with the new democratic constitution as its physical centrepiece.

He presented the orginal to then-King Norodom Sihanouk but, unlike his prolific and striking designs of the 1950s and ’60s which pepper the capital and still lend it much of its flavour today, this was one vision not realised.

Vann’s sketch reveals a complex with a grand hall as its entrance, the National Assembly to one side, the Senate on the other and Supreme Court opposite, all linked to a central congress hall and designed to sit on the banks of the Mekong River.

"Maybe it was too ambitious," Vann says, gesturing in the geometrically-inspired home he built around 1967 on one of Phnom Penh’s main boulevards. Airy, spacious and austerely decorated, it’s classic Vann Molyvann.

A slim man who easily breaks into a smile surrounded by a sparse grey-whiskered beard, he intermittently rises to fetch a book or look for plans he wants to discuss, taking his large reading glasses on and off as he does so.

"Out of about 100 designs, if an architect can realise 10 he would be pleased," he says.

Judging by the number of landmark buildings of his design standing in the capital Phnom Penh and other urban centres in Cambodia today, Vann looks to have at least had that strike rate during the heyday of his career.

From the imposing Independence Monument commissioned by Sihanouk to the National Sports Complex inspired by the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, Vann’s visionary buildings were symbols of a new Khmer national confidence in the wake of Cambodia’s 1953 independence from colonial master France.

"The buildings he designed in the 1950s and ’60s profoundly marked Cambodia, helping to drive the imagination, aspirations and the dynamism of a country that was at once very young and very old," academic Ashley Thompson writes in the foreword to Vann’s 2003 book "Modern Khmer Cities".

But Vann’s architectural and urban planning career very nearly didn’t take off.

Vann was one of just two Cambodians to graduate from the kingdom’s only high school — administered by the French — in 1944. It was during his first visit to Angkor Wat while he was in high school that he came across a book on the temples by French historian George Coedes.

"It was the history of Angkor presented in a very, very scientific and professional way instead of … (by the) oral traditions that any Cambodian knows from his parents, from his ancestors," he says.

"This was an illumination to me."

He won a scholarship to France’s Sorbonne to study law but found the course too difficult, so he sought a place at the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the renowned arts school, and was accepted.

"It was the beginning of Jean-Paul Sartre, it was the starting of the construction of Paris, jazz was coming from the States into Europe … I was completely an enthusiast," he says of Parisian intellectual life at the time.

He threw himself into his studies. His most influential teacher was famed Swiss architect and city planner Le Corbusier, who was both admired and maligned for his bold architectural visions for the world’s new industrial age.

"I was obliged to completely clear out of my head any Asian reminiscences … I had to forget what I felt and what I knew from my own country," Vann says.

"When I came back to Cambodia, when I saw Angkor for the second time, it was a completely new vision. I was extremely thankful for this very, very strong training I received from the French."

Vann returned home as Cambodia’s first qualified post-independence architect. But the idea of architecture as a profession was so foreign it took him months to find work, with the Ministry of Public Works finally hiring him.

Sihanouk promptly asked him to oversee construction of pavilions and temples, which were used by 10,000 monks for traditional religious ceremonies to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth.

"Of course, I was extremely afraid to have in hand such a programme," he recalls.

It was the beginning of his collaboration with the highly revered and charismatic Sihanouk, four years his senior, who commissioned scores of works from him, including state residences across the kingdom, universities, hospitals, government ministries and even a brewery.

Vann nowadays finds it difficult to speak about the period, which many older Cambodians hail as the war-torn country’s golden age.

"Sihanouk tried to give the necessary energy for the birth of this country," he says. "I don’t like talking about the past. It’s too emotional."

The French left behind a Phnom Penh of broad boulevards built on dikes in concentric arcs radiating from the Mekong and Bassac rivers. In the 15 years after they left, the area of the city doubled as its population soared.

Vann became the best known of a burgeoning troupe of young architects who revelled in the freedom of their brief from Sihanouk and created a unique style dubbed "New Khmer Architecture".

Helen Grant Ross, a Phnom Penh-based architect and city planner, describes the results in one article: "Roofs fly, weights lift off the ground, and concrete, crazy paving, louvred walls, light and shade play in the tropical climate."

Perhaps the most striking emblem of the audacious style was Vann’s 80,000-seat National Sports Complex.

Its composition was derived from the temples of Angkor while "a series of water surfaces recalled the characteristic moats of Khmer settlement and assured the required drainage," Vann says in his book.

The jubilant 1964 opening of the distinctive golden spire-topped stadium was a triumph, not just for the tiny developing country of Cambodia, but for a region intent on showcasing its talents to the new post-colonial world.

Like Le Corbusier, Vann was also drawn to city planning, and undertook building the "Front du Bassac", experimental apartment buildings which were a new concept for Phnom Penh.

Two years after Sihanouk was deposed in a 1970 coup by Lon Nol, Vann headed to Israel and then Switzerland, where he worked privately as an architect. In 1979 he joined the UN Human Settlements Programme, or Habitat, in Kenya, also taking postings in Burundi and lastly Laos.

He returned in 1993, having missed the brutal 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, who wrought devastation which left up to two million Cambodians dead.

"I thought, and I think, that all the Khmer people had been completely broken by the Khmer Rouge," he says. "And it will take at least two or more generations to recuperate from this. I’m still pessimistic."

The Khmer Rouge destroyed several of Vann’s buildings, but for the most part the structures survived, as the ultra-Maoists herded Cambodians out of cities and into the countryside in their tragic quest to create an agrarian utopia.

Vann, who was named minister of fine arts in the 1993 Royal Government of Cambodia — and later headed the authority overseeing Angkor, is instead heartbroken about more recent changes to his designs.

For example the stadium, which architect Ross compares to Sydney’s Opera House in terms of its historical legacy, had its surrounding parks sold off in 2000 to a Taiwanese company which was supposed to refurbish the buildings in return.

Besides ravaging an integral part of the stadium’s design by constructing retail outlets on key drainage areas, the refurbishment never took place.

"It’s a complete scandal that they did not fulfil their obligations to repair the stadium," Vann says.

The local press reports with increasing frequency the sell-off of historical buildings in shady deals.

The stadium scandal was an insult on top of the Front du Bassac’s "renovation" in the early 90s, which closed off the open spaces in the building Vann had deliberately designed to both capture the breeze and leave the riverfront visible to those passing behind it.

"Here is the most criminal thing," he says, stabbing a finger into a photograph of the building today, complete with a shantytown out front. "That is the worst thing which I consider has been done against the town."

Vann was also horrified at encroachment around Angkor, which he was obliged to protect as head of the Apsara authority, created as part of the Cambodian government’s obligations for having the ruins listed as a World Heritage site.

He staunchly defended a rule aimed at limiting construction in sensitive zones. For his efforts, he was dismissed in 2001 as a new, more investor-friendly decree was passed.

His retort was his book, a comprehensive blueprint for urban planning in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the port town of Sihanoukville. Published in Khmer as well as English, he says it is his legacy for Cambodian students.

Vann, who remains an advisor to the government and the new king, Sihanouk’s son Norodom Sihamoni, today spends his time writing and lecturing. He says young Khmer architects need to be trained — but no more than students in every professional field in the wake of the devastating war years.

"It’s a disaster everywhere," he says, referring to a society wracked by poverty, violence and endemic corruption. "So I think that Khmer architects are very far behind on the list of people who are able to do something."

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