The Architect of Phnom Penh

Text and photo by Dene-Hern Chen

At sundown everyday, hundreds of Cambodians head to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for their daily exercise. Under the diminishing daylight, rival teams face off in football, while students laze on the concrete steps. The young jog steadily up and down the bleachers, while women dance out aerobic routines led by an instructor touting a boom box.

The iconic Olympic Stadium may be an integral part of the average Cambodian’s day, but for its creator Vann Molyvann, it is a painful reminder of how much the city has changed, and what he has lost. Today, abutting up against the northern end of the sports complex are four behemoth structures, which will be a mall and a condominium when completed.

“I regret sincerely that what I have done with my life is being completely cast away by the present government,” Vann, 89, said.

Almost 60 years ago, Vann had just returned to a newly independent Cambodia after studying architecture in France’s esteemed Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. As the only Cambodian educated in urban planning, the 31-year-old was appointed in 1956 as the city’s chief architect and planner by King Norodom Sihanouk. What followed was a period of great productivity: the government commissioned the construction of universities, theaters, and national buildings, all of which embodied Vann’s ideals of urban existence within Cambodia’s tropical environment.

From 1956 to 1970, he worked on about 100 commissioned works all over the country, earning him the title as the father of New Khmer Architecture. Although each of his buildings is unique, many share similar characteristics –raised parabolic roofs, clean lines, and floor plans that allow for cross-ventilation during the hot seasons.

“Instead of making air-conditioned boxes, I was creating architecture from earth, using water, using natural ventilation,” Vann said. “This is modern architecture.”

King Sihanouk’s reign was brought to an end by a coup in 1970, and Vann found himself out of favor with the next government. He and his family escaped to Switzerland and watched from afar as the country fell under control of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The ultra-Maoist group, which murdered roughly two million Cambodians during its time in power, held a deep hatred for intellectuals, and Vann’s architectural records were completely destroyed.

He returned to Phnom Penh after the war, and was immediately appointed as a senior advisor to the new government. But Vann found the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – led by Prime Minister Hun Sen – to be an entirely different beast.

“It is like night and day,” Vann said. “During Sihanouk’s regime, everything we built, we would have planning. All have been studied and correctly designed. It was all up to international standard.

“With the present government, they are building with no plans at all.”

In the last 20 years, the lakes of Phnom Penh – so crucial for runoff storm water to prevent floods – have been slowly filled up for new developments. Land prices have risen, and major construction projects are taken on with no public bidding or transparency. While many of Vann’s creations survived the Khmer Rouge, few have escaped the threat of the property boom. The Preah Sumarit National Theater, designed to resemble a ship on the banks of the Bassac River, was sold to a local tycoon who demolished it in 2008 — as was the Council of Ministers government building. The White Building, which was originally planned as a low-cost housing project and surrounded by lush gardens, now sits in disrepair.

Not all have perished. The Independence Monument, considered to be the centerpiece and symbol of Phnom Penh, remains a local tourist attraction. Down by the riverfront, Chaktomuk Conference Hall is still a venue for conferences, cultural performances, and political gatherings.

Vann considers the Olympic Stadium his favorite creation. Completed in 1964, it was constructed in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games, which never ended up happening. “I met my wife during the conception of the stadium…. Coming up with the design] was an extremely difficult challenge for me.”

The stadium was to have enormous swimming pools around, a feature inspired by the reservoirs surrounding ancient Angkorian temples to facilitate water management. But those pools have long been filled up for development, and the area by the stadium is regularly inundated by floodwaters during the rainy season.

Today, Vann lives in Siem Reap with his wife; locals, many who regard him as a legend from Cambodia’s Golden Era, all seemed to know where his home is, despite his recent move in August. After decades of tussling with the government — over urban planning, restoration, corruption, regulatory frameworks for city developments — he now wishes to be left alone.

“If they agree to let me die in peace, that’s what we want, my wife and myself,” he said.

***

Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at serenechen@smu.edu.sg.