My first visit to Phnom Penh happened at the beginning of this millennium, via the dirt road connecting the small town of Siem Reap with the Cambodian capital. At first I felt Phnom Penh to be anything but sleepy, with its busy boulevards named after Tito, Mao and King Sihanouk creating long perspectives and flanked with monuments, pagodas, street corners in Art Deco and 1960s concrete louvers hidden by enormous billboards.
But, off the big avenues, I found a contrary, almost rural dynamic: the pavement often stopped suddenly and elegant villas, traditional wooden houses or low-key apartment buildings appeared; grocery stores housed in little wooden shacks on the side of the road or on the ground floor of shophouses; chickens kept in gardens or on rooftops.
During those first trips, I knew very little about Phnom Penh: that it was originally laid out by French town planners during the protectorate and built on a former royal settlement; that more than 1 million refugees arrived after the U.S. bombardment of the northeast of the country in late 1960s, and that in 1975 the Khmer Rouge regime almost completely depopulated the city within a few days.
I remember two accidental encounters which no guidebook had prepared me for, and which sparked my interest in Phnom Penh’s architectural history. Near the city’s riverside, near the National Assembly, I was struck by a long-stretched residential complex, covering more than 300 meters and consisting of six distinct blocks connected by open staircases—the so-called White Building. It used atypical modern housing concepts for the region and was equipped with loggias, indoor kitchens and bathrooms. It looked like a vertical village.
The second moment was at the Place de la Poste, the former heart of the French district at the opposite end of the city to the White Building, where I was watched by an extended family of monkeys sitting on chaotic knots of electric wires. Large premises with abandoned or squatted-in villas and administration buildings characterized this district. Witnesses of Cambodia’s colonial past, their faded beauty, with lime-washed walls, wooden louvers and modest ornament astonished me.
When I moved to Phnom Penh in 2005, I became a fan of a small not-for-profit organization, Khmer Architecture Tours, founded in 2003, and joined its architectural visits on weekends. We went to interesting architectural sites, like the Olympic Stadium, inspired by Angkorian architecture, or university campuses with modern sculptural buildings designed in reinforced concrete.
These works were the masterpieces of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who had studied in Paris and became, after Cambodia’s independence in 1953, the head of town planning and housing at the Ministry of Public Works. I learned that he is the most prominent representative of “New Khmer Architecture,” an architectural movement that reflected a far-reaching cultural and social vision for Cambodia after its independence.
By the end of 2006, I became affiliated with Khmer Architecture Tours, and that was the moment I purchased the newly released “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970.” A handful of publications existed on architecture in Cambodia, most notably about the Unesco-classified Angkorian temples, and a few about Phnom Penh’s urban development, its colonial architecture and traditional wooden houses. About the “New Khmer Architecture” of Cambodia’s “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s, this book was the first and only publication, and therefore a real eye-opener.
Darryl Collins, Helen Grant Ross and Hok Sokol had carried out extensive research and laid the foundation for a renewed appreciation of this architectural movement. The book coined the term “New Khmer Architecture,” and comprehensively presented a countrywide and extensive building program that lasted only 17 years. It features numerous public buildings, such as university campuses, public sporting facilities, airports, government offices, social housing programs, community centers, factories and other infrastructure, as well as general town planning and private villas. The authors portray the key figures—Vann Molyvann among them—such as architects, engineers and town-planners, very few of whom survived the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The book embeds the architecture in its historical context and analyzes its unique forms, which integrated an international style with local traditions, materials and climate.
Ten years after it was published, “Building Cambodia” remains a profound source of knowledge for Cambodia’s architectural heritage from that golden age, and it became a key reference work, not only for Khmer Architecture Tours. During the six years I worked with this team of Cambodian architects and architecture students, it became the standard reference work for numerous student groups, scholars, architects, researchers and journalists from all over the world who visited Phnom Penh.
In recent times, Phnom Penh has become a popular place among such academics due to its special urban history and comparatively rapid development, starting slowly around 2007, going hand-in-hand with a weak legal framework, land speculation, forced resettlement and displacement, and also with the alteration and demolition of urban heritage like Molyvann’s Preah Suramarit National Theater and the Council of Ministers building.
Simultaneously, Phnom Penh had also become a popular place for foreign and local investors to build high-rise offices and apartments. Last month, it was announced that the White Building would be torn down to make way for a 21-story tower. Most of the new developments do not follow any standards, regulations or aesthetic, but they do provide comfort and prestige for those who can afford it. The principles of town planning in Phnom Penh seem to be blurred, and the traditional ways of incorporating the tropical climate into architectural design, which continued more or less until the “New Khmer Architecture” of the 1960s, seem to be nowadays ignored.
On reflection, Collins and Grant Ross’s book and the important legacy it describes, which is part of Cambodia’s national identity, might have been more influential in current Cambodian architecture if it had been published in Khmer. Nonetheless, it would help to have it reprinted, as it sold out quickly after its publication in 2006 and it is nowadays found only in private collections or libraries. At my hometown Berlin State Library, the bookbinder is currently repairing their only copy.
Stefanie Sellon is a German graphic designer who was the coordinator for Khmer Architecture Tours from 2007 to 2012 and is a co-founder of Space for Architecture Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to Cambodia’s architecture and urban heritage.
This article first appeared in the Mekong Review, a quarterly literary journal. The latest issue is available at Monument Books stores as well as Java, the 240 and TINI Cafe in Phnom Penh.