The long, faded buildings of Boeng Trabek High School on Monivong Boulevard look strikingly similar to those of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum on Street 113. The resemblance is no coincidence: Tuol Sleng was itself originally a high school. What’s more, both schools once served as detention centers in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 prison system.
Now Boeng Trabek is entering a new phase. In April, the Ministry of Education donated a plot of land, which includes Boeng Trabek, to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, to be used as the site of the Sleuk Rith Institute, a new permanent facility for DC-Cam.
With the help of architects from New York firm StudioMDA, 13 graduate students from Columbia University in New York City and five Cambodian students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh are developing possible designs for the institute.
The students are touring Cambodia this week, and in December, one of their designs will be chosen for use. According to Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam, it’s likely that Boeng Trabek High School will be incorporated into the winning design.
“The Minister of Education suggested that we should preserve one of the original buildings as a museum,” Youk Chhang said. “It’s a terrific idea.”
Unlike Tuol Sleng, Boeng Trabek is still a functioning high school. Of the school’s two main classroom buildings, Youk Chhang said it was likely that one would be converted into a museum, while the other would continue to operate as a high school.
Markus Dochantschi, a principal architect at StudioMDA, said that it was important to balance the past and the future.
“If you were to close all the schools that were used as prisons and turn them into museums, it would be a bad idea,” he said.
In addition to the museum, the institute is to include a genocide research center and a school for genocide and reconciliation studies.
“Everywhere I go, it’s either a memorial or a museum,” Youk Chhang said. “I want to make something for the living.”
With the help of a $2 million endowment from USAID, construction should begin within the next three years, Youk Chhang said. He added that he is also seeking funds from private donors and European governments.
On Monday, the architecture students met with renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. He advised the students not to seek solutions in visual symbols alone.
“It’s not so much a question of design,” he said. “This center has two questions. First, there’s a scar: the genocide erased millions of people, a culture, a whole generation. But it’s just as much about the challenges of the future. This is a country that’s redefining itself.”
Youk Chhang agreed: “Cambodians have to get out of this survivor mentality,” he said. “The center will help turn survivors into educators.”