Legendary Architect Concerned for City’s Future

It’s been two years since Vann Molyvann last stood here.

Cambodia’s most influential living architect doesn’t like to look at his masterpiece “because of all this,” he says, pointing with an air of disdain to a nondescript concrete box of a building standing on what should have been the 40-hectare, green grounds around the Olym­pic Stadium. Now that much of the land has been sold off and built on, Vann Molyvann feels his vision for the sports complex, which he built in 1963 and 1964, has been com­pro­mised. So he stays away.

Narrating a tour of Phnom Penh organized by the French Cultural Cent­er on Sunday, Vann Moly­vann—the figurehead of the New Khmer Architecture movement of the 1960s—expressed deep concern for the state of urban development and the future of the capital.

“I am very worried. Look at the catastrophe that is happening here,” he says, looking around the stadium grounds.

“It is in danger of disappearing—this stadium,” he says, adding the land there could go for $1,000 per square meter.

Asked if he thinks the stadium might ever be razed to make way for development, Vann Molyvann adds, “They are capable of destroying everything.”

Yet, while in the stands overlooking the football field, he points—with the knowing smile of a man who has seen what is now history—to the spot where General Charles de Gaulle made his 1966 Phnom Penh speech. He reminisces about the buffalo carts that carried the earth to build the stadium mount and the shaky introduction of motor vehicles. (A man flipped a construction truck into a pond and had to leap out “like a frog.”)

At every one of his works visited on the circuit-the Foreign Language Institute, the Olympic Stadium, the Chaktomuk Conference Hall and the Senate-he speaks with pride of his creations.

“He is someone who is fascinated and fascinating,” said Alain Arnaudet, director of the French Cultural Center, by telephone Friday. “It is rare to have the chance to bring together in the same place an architect and his work.”

The rarity of the occasion wasn’t lost on many: When the two planned buses quickly filled, Vann Molyvann enthusiasts took to motos and tuk-tuks, forming a motorcade of sorts for the 81-year-old architect.

“Vann Molyvann is my superstar,” said Yam Sok Ly, a 24-year-old architecture student at the Royal University of Fine Arts who found a seat on a bus. “It’s not because he is famous; it’s because of his ideas,” he said, adding he was inspired by Vann Molyvann’s use of natural ventilation and hoped to create “a building that’s really suitable for Cambodia, not a building that’s suitable for air con.”

But in most of the buildings shown, natural ventilations had been cut off with glass windows and open spaces filled up with more construction. At the Foreign Language Institute, for instance, Vann Molyvann had designed science labs with openings in the ceiling to shine natural light on each lab bench. With the room transformed into a language classroom, the architect’s choice now makes little sense.

With humor, Vann Molyvann apologizes for such modifications. He laughs off the destruction of his building for the Presidency of the Council of Ministers-”Here is the New Khmer Architecture,” he said jokingly, pointing to the glass structure of the new, Chinese-made building.

But his smile fades when the conversation invariably returns to the current evolution of the capital.

“Everywhere [in the world] you have parks that are not sacrificed to build Chinese blocks. That doesn’t exist in civilized countries,” he says of the controversial filling-in of the capital’s Boeng Kak lake. “Internationally, there is absolutely no government that expropriates land to serve private interests.”

Things could be different, Vann Molyvann argues. In the doctoral thesis he recently defended at a Paris university and that he is making into a book, Vann Molyvann presents a development plan for Phnom Penh, Siem Reap-Angkor and Sihanoukville that centers on water: irrigation, potable water distribution, flood control and the development of coherent cities around their water points. (Vann Molyvann will present this thesis at a lecture in French and Khmer at 6:30 pm Thursday at the French Cultural Center.)

“We tried, for the city of Phnom Penh in particular, to develop normally with an urban plan…. We thought we were going toward a strong democratization of Cambodia,” he says of the early 1990s, when he returned from exile and helped draft building and zoning codes that could improve and preserve capital. But, “there’s no political will to enforce them.”


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