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.

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