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.

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