May 18, 2009

An Interview with Vann Molyvann

Vann Molyvann at home

Before sitting down to talk I told Molyvann about my travels around the country, from Sihanoukville to Battambang, documenting his work. He seemed both impressed that someone would undertake a project based around his career and curious to know how his buildings were holding up. He usually met the news with mixed feelings; happy that his works were being cared for, but unhappy with some of the small changes. He was happy to know the chapel in Sihanoukville was still being used, but not so when he heard that the grey brick and mortar cladding had been painted orange. He was happy to know that the National Bank in Sihanoukville had been renovated, but not so pleased that the staff housing was being rented to vacationers. He would say later:

the main idea behind the habitat sociale is that the user of the habitate social must not be a renter, must be an owner of the apartment because they take charge much more of the property that someone who rents.
More to come...

Sep 24, 2008

At the Vann's

Vann Residence  Phnom Penh, 1966

I met the Vann's this morning, Trudy and Molyvann, at their home set behind a tall white fence on the busy street 163 in Phnom Penh.  They were able to build the large house, which was also home to Molyvann's office for the years he practiced, with the commissions he earned designing his two major private projects; The SKD Brewery and the Bank of Cambodia complex, both in Sihanoukville.

Vann Molyvann was influenced by two masters when designing this house.  Entered from the car-park under the raised first floor, the references to LeCorbusier’s Ville Savoye would probably have been more obvious when the house was first built and sitting alone in the countryside.  Now it is surrounded by dense commercial construction in one of Phnom Penh’s busiest districts.  But the influence of Paul Rudolph is obvious in the way the spaces interlock in section like puzzle pieces around a central stair core, with program differentiated on the interior by changes in level.  Part of the living room is sunken to differentiate the sitting area from the informal living room and library. This is reminiscent of the multi-levels that separate studio spaces from the meeting spaces at Rudolph's Art + Architecture Building.  Molyvann credits Rudolph for showing him the beauty of "expressing structure and the truth in materials."

This must be the most striking private home in the country, particularly because of the unorthodox construction methods Vann Molyvann used.  For example, the roof is constructed of reinforced concrete forming a parabolic structure.  This allowed the corners of the square roof to be turned upward and self-supporting, meaning only four columns located at the middle of each side are holding it up.  Molyvann noted that these kind of structural experiments weren't something that he would have tried with a private client.

I should say that it is probably the most important and difficult task in my profession to convince people about your ideas.  I was so afraid to impose an idea which are not the ideas of these people, the example of this parabolic roofing, it is an experiment that I can not impose so I try to do this with my wife to see if we could easily work under this space.

Thanks to Trudy's connections at the UN, the Vann's were able to leave the country in 1971 before civil war would engulf the country.  The house was left abandoned throughout the Khmer Rouge's occupation of Phnom Penh but was later used by the Department of Urban Planning and Construction.  In 1993, when Vann Molyvann was asked to return to oversee projects like the restoration of the ancient temples, it was partly on condition that he be able to return to his home.  The Vann's were finally able to come home when Hun Sen agreed.  Trudy noted, presciently perhaps considering the capricious nature of the current regime, that they have the agreement in writing.

Sep 23, 2008

Teacher Training College, Part 3: Lab Building

The lab buildings at the Teacher Training College, with a view from the interior hallway to the right.

This complex of classrooms represent the culmination of the ideas explored during Vann Molyvann's career. Material, structure and light all collaborate perfectly toward the execution of striking form that performs its function wonderfully. The four classroom pods are suspended on canted piloti which somehow make the structure simultaneously static and dynamic. They balance the sloping floor which supports the stepped seating, while giving the building a coiled, animalistic energy.

The classrooms themselves are studies in how to make a space that perfectly lends itself to focused study. They are relatively small, probably able to accommodate about 35 students. The vertically louvered sidewalls glow with natural light while blocking the view to outside distractions. The glazing itself is constructed of operable louvers, allowing for the room to be naturally ventilated. The light cannons at the roof, similar to those in the main building, once focused the light onto each lab desk. But when the function of the rooms changed a false ceiling was installed allowing for florescent lights and ceiling fans. That's progress. I should note that no lights were on while I was there, but despite M. Vann confounding direct sunlight at every turn, each space was lit perfectly to compliment its use.

The classrooms are connected by a hallway which has a masonry screen wall on one side that is unglazed and open to the air. Opposite the pods, the hall is lined with more conventional classroom spaces. Still, they are lit by a louvered wall and skylights which employ sculptural concrete sunscreens to reflect the sunlight to the interior. These reminded me of the technique Renzo Piano used at his Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston, some 25 years later.

The complex of buildings at the Teacher Training College are composed around a central courtyard. Sitting within it is a beautiful old tree with an incredibly wide canopy that drips with Spanish Moss. I think that the tree has to be older than the 35 year old campus, meaning that the buildings were composed around it. The lesson here, working with the existing to make a meaningful place, doesn't need to be spelled out. But it is a lesson that those currently building Cambodia need to learn.

Sep 21, 2008

Sur les traces de la “Nouvelle Architecture Khmère”

Vann Molyvann, presenting from the Senate’s Chambers he designed in 1966.

Today Vann Molyvann, with assistance from the French Cultural Institute here in Phnom Penh, hosted a tour of four of his major works. I tried signing up for it as soon as I got here (some two weeks before the tour was given) but it was already full. Luckily, I was able to contact the Vanns and Trudy, Molyvann’s wife, offered me a spot in one of their cars. So we toured; a motorcade of two entirely packed buses, at least four cars worth of reporters, two tuk-tuks and countless motos.

It was not, truthfully, the best way to see his work, moving through buildings in a mob of almost one hundred people, trying to hear M. Vann’s comments as he struggled to use the megaphone. Luckily I had toured the Teacher’s Training College, the National Sports Complex and the Chaktamouk Conference Center on my own. The tour did present the opportunity to see the Chamkar Mon Compound, Sihanouk’s seat of power which was completed in the mid 1960’s and is still hosting the senate and official receptions. The compound is tightly guarded, as you could guess, and I never would have been able to gain access on my own.

The spectacle of the tour itself was fascinating. Even though Vann Molyvann is often described as a national hero, you get the sense that this intense interest in his work is a new development. M. Vann is predictably pleased. When Trudy was telling me how unhappy he was when his buildings were being destroyed to make way for new development, she said “He wasn’t saddened because they were his. He was upset because no one noticed.” Not to say that his structures are not still threatened. He thinks that the National Sports Complex’s days are numbered, saying that the land it is sitting on is simply far too valuable for the government to miss an opportunity to cash in. There is also the feeling that the destruction is politically motivated, with Prime Minister Hun Sen doing everything he can to erase any positive traces of Sihanouk’s reign.

As we walked I asked Trudy what she thought would be the best way to ensure that this valuable architectural legacy be maintained. She shook her head. No matter what you do, she said “Hun Sen is a man who is capable of changing his mind.”

Sep 20, 2008

The National Sports Complex: Indoor Stadium

The Indoor Stadium, left, a detail of the exterior cladding, right.

The roof of the indoor stadium is a true feat of Engineering. It is built from four giant reinforced concrete umbrellas, each structurally independent, each spanning nearly 90 feet. In the view above you see one of the four pillars supporting the deeply coffered concrete ceiling, and the daylight in the space between the umbrellas. Vann Molyvann uses a number of different techniques to block direct sunlight from entering the space. The bleachers are open to the outside, and light filters in from the evenly spaced openings between them. The exterior cladding is made up of extruded aluminum v-sections that interlock to reflect the light to the interior. The effect during the day of these softly glowing verticals and the points of light at the seating is really pretty spectacular. The coffers provide a nice home for bats, too, which made sitting at the top level of the bleachers a bit uncomfortable, for me at least.

National Sports Complex: The Sports Palace

National Sports Complex, 1964. Vann Molyvann.

Originally built for the Southeast Asia Games in 1963, which were later canceled, the stadium became a political focal point for the country. Its very construction was a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization and rise to international notice after independence, while it hosted political rallies that were impressive demonstrations of intense nationalism.

It follows, then, that Vann Molyvann would take this occasion to express most clearly his ideas for fashioning a distinctly Khmer style from the modern architecture he admired. The Khmer are proud of the ancient wats at Angkor, they are a ubiquitous symbol of national pride, present everywhere from the Cambodian flag to the label of the national beer. Vann drew his inspiration from these temples though not from its iconography but in its fundamentals. The complex’s arrangement on an east-west axis mirrors the more symmetrical array of buildings at Angkor. Just as those temples were often surrounded by water, Vann used giant pools, or barays, to control water run-off and to recall the lake which was once present on the site. The outdoor stadium bleachers are built on great earthen mounds (you see the start of them to the left of the picture above) giving them a low-slung profile and making the sports palace itself the most prominent edifice on the site. The effect is, unfortunately, heavily diluted by surrounding development that was the result of the government selling off most of the land the stadium was sitting on. Where once you could get a clear view of the hill rising in the middle of the city, you can really only see it from inside the complex itself. From the street you see only the poorly conceived faux French colonial apartments that sit where the barays once did.

80,000 people can watch an event at the stadium. The Palace itself nests outdoor seating with the indoor stadium where boxing, basketball and volleyball events can be held. Despite there being few organized sporting events, these facilities are still being used today. Badminton players use the outdoor courts, the swimming and diving pool is teaming with jubilant kids, kites were being flown from the upper bleachers, and there were a few runners on the track. The stadium served a nation that changed drastically after the Khmer Rouge regime, one that exhibited a forward thinking which seems to no longer exist here. But when Phnom Penh was repopulated in 1979 doubtless these facilities, as well as others built as part of the New Khmer Architecture movement, served as invaluable benchmarks for regaining some sense of the society that was lost.

Sep 19, 2008

Teacher Training College. Part 2: The Library

Library, Teacher Training College, 1972. Vann Molyvann.

This is the embodiment of the idea that the structure become integral to the look of the building, as here the columns are ribs that ring the exterior, with the glazing layer set inside from them. The ground floor is mostly offices set into the core of the circular building, with a curving stair that runs along the inside face up to the second level which houses the library. The ceiling is as sculpted as the exterior structure, allowing you to understand the radial roof form which is imperceptible from the outside. Van Molyvann intended that you could enter the library directly from the second level catwalks that ring the campus, but the entrance which is pictured above is now kept locked. It’s a good thing, as the entry sequence, from the darker and more confined lobby and stair up to the light-filled and airy reading room is effective.

Vann Molyvann himself has said that he based the design of the Library on a traditional Khmer straw hat. This sounds suspiciously like post-rationalization to me and his architecture doesn’t need to be rationalized; it stands as a work of art on its own. This work, in particular, is singular. There aren’t any “typical” New Khmer Architecture details, any real references to the stuff that was being built in the city in the 1950s and 60s, or as far as my untrained eye can see any overt references to the ancient temples. For one of his final buildings in Phnom Penh, Vann Molyvann took his ideas to another level and offered clues to the direction he might have taken had he been able to continue his career in this country.