Sep 9, 2008

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.


Gene said...

The "100 Houses Development" essay is fascinating. Do you think that these are 'successful' in terms of combining some Western techniques with Cambodian needs? Who lives there now?

Rémy Bertin said...

Hey Gene! I would say these are successful in the sense that they are still being lived in today, and although most are heavily modified, they still seem comfortable enough. But they are private homes now, and the ideas here were never integrated into a larger national program for affordable housing as was, I think, the intention. Now money talks, and I have yet to find a major project undertaken by the government here for the greater good. The Japanese government is financing a major improvement in the drainage infrastructure along the waterfront of Phnom Penh, and they had to pay the Cambodian government handsomely (I have heard something around 10% of the total cost of the project) for the privilege.