Sep 24, 2008
Sep 23, 2008
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
Vann Molyvann, presenting from the Senate’s Chambers he designed in 1966.
Today Vann Molyvann, with assistance from the French Cultural Institute here in
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
Former Pepsi Bottling Plant, 1960's, with its last employee
I am not clear on the political relationship between the two cities, located a solid 5 hour drive apart. I do know that Battambang was the origin of Lon Nol’s coup d’état in 1970, which sent King Norodom Sihanouk into exile and effectively marked the end of the New Khmer Architecture movement. The city is considered by
On my way to Vann Molyvann’s factory I came upon this old Pepsi Bottling Plant which also seemed to be a bridge between movements, only the two later ones. It featured some of the details common of the New Khmer, while its expressive elements were Art Deco. I don’t know anything about the story of the building. However, there was an old man sweeping the grounds, and when I asked him if I could go inside he politely said no, but gave me some of his story instead. He had been working there for 45 years since it was first built as an ice factory. Now, the plant is closed down and he is the last one left on the payroll. He sleeps in a shed alone and tends the gardens and grounds while the building itself has not been occupied for almost 10 years. I didn't follow what happened to the factory during the Khmer Rouge years, but not all of the factories were shut down then and it’s possible that he had just worked through it.
Now the building will likely meet the fate of many of the factories in this city, which were torn down by land speculators. Again, you wonder what will be put up in their place, but it likely won’t be the manufacturing that provided jobs for the residents here. This is just one more example of the government chasing foreign cash while its people are left to suffer.
Sep 18, 2008
Central Bank Branch in Sihanoukville, left, Staff Housing, right. Vann Molyvann, 1968.
Sihanoukville, planned (if not executed) by Vann Molyvann, is also home to two of his better works. Perhaps because of their distance from the better known buildings in
Because the paper notes for Cambodian Currency were made in
The most striking element of the bank is the huge roof top pergola, a sculpted form made from reinforced concrete. From the ground it looks like it is the roof of a set back upper story but in fact, characteristic of New Khmer, it is raised off of the actual roof of the building, protecting it from the sun and providing a shaded outdoor space accessible from the top floor. It is most probably the largest example of this kind of pergola in the country.
The bank is actually part of a complex of houses and apartments for bank workers. Here again we see Vann Molyvann incorporating traditional Khmer ways of living in a modern home. The exterior brick wall breaks down to become a screen where there is an interior courtyard. The expressive roof form slopes to a gutter that runs along the centerline of the house.
If Architecture represents the triumph of man over wilderness, order over disorder, often it seems that in
Sep 17, 2008
In 1953 following independence from
I was interested in contrasting these two boom periods; who is doing the building now, how have the goals changed, and what is the paradigm that is driving these new plans? What I have found is that the two periods couldn’t possibly be more different. Prince Sihanouk’s plan was to both spur and structure further development through investment in the public realm. Today, Hun Sen believes his government’s role is to sell off big pieces of the country to private investors hailing mostly from
The most notable physical markers of this speculation are the walls that were built to contain these large swaths of purchased property. They are present particularly outside of
Judging from the few renderings I have seen posted, the walls will contain residential subdivisions that could be anywhere, and likely won’t have buyers for years. Others will likely be factories as there are quite a few textile manufacturers here, outsourced from
Sep 16, 2008
Sihanoukville Station, 1960.
Sihanoukville was a sleepy fishing village on the
Vann Molyvann helped plan the port, a large part of which was constructed on land-fill, and designed the master plan for the adjoining town. He designed separate areas for tourism, downtown commercial and administrative districts, high and lower density residential zones, open space and an industrial zone by the port. The zones were connected by a roadway system that was phased to feed future expansion and incorporated separate bicycle and pedestrian paths. This plan was an example of the advanced zoning principles which Cambodians have still not put into effect in their cities today.
The political turmoil which started in 1970 brought these plans crashing down and they would never become a reality. Until 1979 the port served as an entry point for weaponry, after that it was occupied by squatters, eventually becoming an undistinguished beach town favored by backpackers looking for a cheap place to crash. It still has that feel, although there are plans for future development and positive signs like the renovation of the Independence Hotel.
There are still lingering symbols of what was lost. Sihanoukville Station is certainly one of them. There is no longer passenger train service to the city, and the freight containers dropped off at the port are transported by trucks. The station is abandoned and deteriorated, left to languish much like most of the better laid plans of its day.
Sep 13, 2008
Municipal Apartments, 1963. Lu Ban Hap.
Both buildings shared key design elements. They were oriented parallel to the river, and with their enormous size, could have become solid walls cutting off the city from the river front. Thus, open terraces were used to break down their volume, each located adjacent to the kitchen.
The Municipal Apartment building is made up of 468 units, each span the full width to allow for cross ventilation. It is broken into six equal parts, that are connected by catwalks and staircases. These breaks are physical and visual access points to the river. The structure is reinforced concrete with brick infill. Typical to the style, faceted concrete tiles form small openings that regulate the light entering the apartments and the interior stairwell, only now in places they seem to only be containing a jungle of foliage growing from the spaces within the walls.
The government financed project has been occupied by squatters since 1979. It is clear from their state of advanced decay that the complex’s current residents are impoverished and without the means or power to fight demolition plans. The National Theater, designed by Vann Molyvann as part of the master plan, was destroyed last year to make way for a shopping center. It may not seem like such a bad way to provide better living conditions, but recently people displaced by development have been moved far outside of the city proper and have not been compensated. This is a recurring theme as plans for building up the city progress and have already been the cause of violent clashes between residents and strong-men in the employ of the developers while the police look the other way.
Sep 10, 2008
So as not to start at the end and give it all away, I will write about Vann Molyvann’s
The influence of ancient Angkorian Temples is clear in the raised walkways, moats and Barays (pools of water) that cool while retaining storm water, and the monumental entry guarded by concrete Nagas. These buildings also give the clearest indication, however, of Le Corbusier’s influence in Vann Molyvann’s work (more on that later).
The buildings are now the
Brick is the most common building material in the country. Easy to make, there are literally piles of it everywhere. While concrete was also commonly used by the 50’s, it was the influence of international engineers that would help raise its use in construction to an art form over the course of the development of the New Khmer style. Still, Vann uses brick liberally here, paying homage to a traditional building material while adding a contrasting element to the concrete that helps also to tie all of the wildly different buildings in the Institute together.
The main building, pictured above, is a striking composition of near Brutalist form. Each floor overhangs the one below, giving the building incredible weight, and creating strong shadow lines. The practical purpose is to provide shade for the windows below. Its surface is heavily carved by the big reveals at the louvered openings between brick panels and the vertical louvers that march across the façade in a composition that alternates from one floor to the other. The honey-combed reinforced concrete roof allows for ventilation of the interior spaces, primarily the cavernous interior hall at the heart of the building. Within the hall a grand scissor stair provides circulation to the three levels above, while a big study room carved out of the second floor provides indirect light to the interior.
In addition to this main building, the institute is made up of a bar of small lecture halls and a library which looks a bit like the orphaned volume knob of a stereo. Each will get its own installment.
Sep 9, 2008
In the architecture one sees the white bones of the city’s former glory. The better examples of the French Colonial style are beautiful. The later fabric of buildings built from the 30s to the 60s, from Style Moderne to Bauhaus Modern is solid and still imposing if also frayed at the edges. These buildings are defined by deep balconies, horizontal and vertical brise soleil, sculptural concrete roof pergolas and unglazed screens made up of geometrically interlocking patterns of concrete or brick tiles.
The residents of
One Hundred Houses, Vann Molyvann 1965.
Following this affecting experience I sought out the 100 Houses Development, located closer to Phnom Penh proper. This was a development of identical houses designed by Vann Molyvann for National Bank of Cambodia staff in 1965. Built of cast in place concrete and pre-fabricated components this was a first for Cambodia of a housing type which has become ubiquitous in suburban America, starting with Levittown. Mass-produced to identical specifications, the design drew from the vernacular with a raised floor and a distinctive roof shape that allowed for air circulation within. Vann Molyvann built the floors of the “wet” areas (the kitchen and bath) out of concrete. This gave the houses a life span far beyond their all-wood traditional counterparts, although most are now heavily modified and recognizable only by their roof lines. House 43, pictured to the left above, was the only one I found still in its original state.
I was struck by the contrast with my earlier stop, how only a little over a decade after One Hundred Houses was built the social pact which provided this quality and comfortable mass-produced housing for bank workers was transformed so completely to the point where most of the trained workers who dwelled there were probably killed or driven out into the country side. Instead of seeding a continued effort toward modernization, the development now is an artifact representing only what might have been.