Sep 20, 2008

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.

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