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.

Greetings from Battambang

Former Pepsi Bottling Plant, 1960's, with its last employee

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city and is in many ways a smaller scale doppelganger for Phnom Penh. It also has an Art Deco central market, just smaller. It has wide avenues on axis with monuments and the beautiful French Colonial Governor’s Mansion; those streets are just less crowded. The main avenue even features a grouping of school complexes, as does the capital, only instead of housing the country’s top universities the well designed buildings are a local high school, a primary school and a teacher training center.

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 Phnom Penh folk as part of the backwards “provinces” mostly because of its relative somnolence. Its examples of New Khmer architecture are few and far between, although it does sport a clever design for a jute mill by Vann Molyvann and Battambang University, a design by Ung Krapum Phka which draws from the university complexes in Phnom Penh. However, the city has many fine examples of French Colonial architecture and some examples of Art Deco buildings which seem to be early bridges between the two styles; mixtures of Art Deco and the roof forms and covered porticos common of the French Colonial style.

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

National Bank of Cambodia

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 Phnom Penh, M. Vann’s National Bank of Cambodia Branch and his St. Michel Church are not high on the Molyvann canon. However, they were well worth making the trip down south for.

Because the paper notes for Cambodian Currency were made in France and shipped over, it made sense to build the central bank branch for the Cambodia Bank close to the shipping ports. The story goes that when the Khmer Rouge took over the port they attempted to blow up the bank but could do nothing but damage the vaults. They had been designed too well, modeled after the construction of Swiss Banks. However, the blasting left the foundations unsound, and before the bank could be up and running again, extensive repairs had to be executed some time in 2000.

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 Cambodia the architecture gets lost in that battle. This is not true of the Bank Complex. Its buildings are composed of sharp geometries, its grounds carefully manicured, and sitting up on a hill overlooking the beach it could not be further from the motos buzzing Sihanoukville’s streets. It was an oasis on a trip where often the senses are overloaded by stimuli.

Sep 17, 2008

Empty Development

In 1953 following independence from France, Prince Norodom Sihanouk initialized a program of building that would result in over one thousand public buildings and infrastructure projects produced before 1970. It was an unprecedented period of optimism for the country; with the goal that Phnom Penh rival the major capitals of Asia, and Cambodia become a respected actor on the world stage. Starting in the last few years the nation is seeing another huge boom in investment, with virtually all of its major cities undergoing significant expansions.

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 China and Korea. It is illegal for a foreigner to own property in Cambodia, a law which has provided the government ample opportunities to profit from these transactions. So land speculation and prices around Phnom Penh are booming, but building is not. Or at least not as much as one would think given the amount of investment.

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 Phnom Penh, where the planned developments reach out from the city like spider’s legs following the major roadways. The walls are often significant constructions, about 12 feet in height, going on seemingly forever, following the contours of the land. It isn’t always clear if these containers mark where buildings once were or if they have only ever contained empty land. But the emptiness serves as sharp contrast to the period of building that birthed the New Khmer style.

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 China. There are a few notable exceptions to this sprawl, including a much criticized and unattractive 45 story tower going up in the city center. Most of what is built now speaks the anonymous and non-contextual language of global commerce, while Phnom Penh looses the character that defined it since the French colonial period.

Sep 16, 2008

Greetings from Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville Station, 1960. 

Sihanoukville was a sleepy fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand when its coastal waters were identified some time in the early 50s as ideal for a deep-water shipping port, one that could help fuel the further modernization of the new nation. The United States provided money and engineering expertise to carve National Route 4 out of the Cambodian jungle, connecting the capital Phnom Penh to this new town, which was named after Prince Norodom Sihanouk, naturally. Wealthy Cambodians used the new highway to visit Sihanoukville from the capital making its beaches part of a new “Khmer Riviera”.

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

Bassac River Front

Municipal Apartments, 1963. Lu Ban Hap.

As part of the new program of building within Phnom Penh, Norodom Sihanouk sought to improve the housing options of the growing population by expanding the city along the Bassac River with modern low-cost housing projects. Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap formed part of a team of international planners headed by the Russian Engineer Vladimir Bodiansky to design the master plan. They were inspired by Le Corbusier’s “Ville Radieuse” to surround the complex of apartment buildings with generous open space. Though both Lu Ban Hap and Vann Molyvann designed housing blocks within the complex, Vann’s was renovated beyond recognition.

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

Teacher Training College, Russian Boulevard. Part 1.

Main Building, Institute of Languages, 1972. Vann Molyvann

So as not to start at the end and give it all away, I will write about Vann Molyvann’s Teacher Training College on Russian Boulevard, his best and last work in Phnom Penh, in several parts. The building was actually inaugurated in 1972 after Vann Molyvann had already left the country for Switzerland, the home nation of his wife Trudy.

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 Institute of Languages, part of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, which is kind of the Harvard of Cambodia. Class was in session when I visited, and it was absolutely packed with students. It made me wonder how these buildings survived the Khmer Rouge. I would say, without too much to go on, that more major school buildings have been recently demolished to make way for the heavy development along the Boulevard than during Pol Pot’s rule from 1975-79. At least, I have heard of two that were demolished in the last two years. To be fair, many have been restored to their former glory as well.

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

Phnom Penh: Paris of the East

Central Phnom Penh: Apartment buildings built in the 1960’s

When Phnom Penh became a player on the international stage around 1950 it was commonly referred to as the “Paris of the East”. This should not be interpreted, I think, as a reference to Cambodia’s French Colonial past or the architecture which represents it. It is palpable still in the design of the city itself. Paris is felt in the wide boulevards on axis with major monuments, smaller scale narrow streets bordered by three to four story shop-houses, apartment blocks with interior courtyards, and heroic buildings at intersections often marking the corner with a curving façade.

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.

Unlike Paris, Phnom Penh in its current state is not at all a pedestrian friendly city. While the streets teem with activity, there are few traffic lights at intersections and where there are they are barely used. The patterned terra cotta sidewalks are fair game for parking, cooking, eating, sleeping, painting, smelting, welding, and selling, which makes things challenging if you happen to be walking. Whether on foot, on bicycle, or on moto, the only way to get around is to hurl yourself into the barely controlled chaos.

The residents of Phnom Penh live their lives on its streets; in the ground level shops, on the sidewalks and on their balconies. This is an energized public realm which belies the Khmer individual’s laid-back persona, and chaotic as it is, it works. Until the streets flood with nearly knee-high water but I’ll have to get into that later.

One Hundred Houses

One Hundred Houses, Vann Molyvann 1965.

On my first full day here my first stop was the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a site where some 17,000 people were killed and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge. Half of those graves were exhumed in 1980, the rest left untouched. Besides the gaping holes left in the earth, the site is marked by what can only be described as a tower of skulls encased in the ornate Memorial Stupa built in 1988. The skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind operable glass panels set in wood frames within the structure, which I would estimate is over four stories in height. The memorial is characteristic of the Khmer people in its bluntness. No metaphorical presentation, you are looking at over 8,000 skulls of people who were killed 30 years ago for doing nothing more than wanting to live their lives free of a regime which saw being educated, being curious and being modern as a threat to the way of life they wished to impose.

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.

Sep 4, 2008

Press Booth at The National Sports Complex, Phnom Penh. Vann Molyvann. 1964.

Not much is known about the architectural movement known as the New Khmer style, which produced work of startling innovation and striking sculptural form. The work has roots in European Modernism in both style and social ambition, however it is distinctly contextual. Its often playful and eccentric expression is markedly Khmer and the result of a self-conscience desire to be non-western. The New Khmer Style refers to Cambodia’s ancient temples in its ornamentation and its planning strategies. The buildings responded to the country’s climate by elaborating on traditional means for natural ventilation and drew on ancient methods of irrigation to contend with periodic flooding. The Architects that practiced this style formed what could be described as a Bauhaus Asia, one that sought to provide the newly independent country with an architectural identity of its own.

On September 5th I will be leaving for Cambodia for a study of the New Khmer architectural style. Sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, this three month trip will take me through Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap and Battambang. Along the way I will document what I see, write my report, and interview people who produced and studied the work. Much of that will end up here. So stay tuned.