Vann Molyvann looks out on the crisp new fence going up around the Olympic Stadium sports complex he created nearly four decades ago. “That’s awful! Awful!” he blurts out.
The new fence does not encircle the entire property of the complex-a masterfully integrated, beautifully landscaped work conceptually modeled on Angkor Wat.
It goes only around the buildings, cutting them off from the surrounding moats and open space. According to the world-renowned architect as well as international experts, it is defacing one of Cambodia’s most unique and priceless works of art, and it could ruin the city’s drainage system in the process.
“They have no right to take this land that belongs to the stadium,” Vann Molyvann says, staring sadly at the workers painting the fence’s concrete posts. “These boundaries are all false. These boundaries should be removed.”
Next week the Yuan Ta Group, a Taiwanese developer, is scheduled to hand the renovated Olympic Stadium back over to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. It will have new seats on the bleachers, new scoreboards on the courts and fields.
But the stadium the government will get back will be only a fraction of what Vann Molyvann created. According to illustrations provided by Yuan Ta, the government will get a fenced rectangle enclosing the 60,000-seat stadium, pool, grandstands, indoor arena and outdoor tennis, volleyball and basketball courts.
The surrounding area will remain in the hands of Yuan Ta, and piece by piece, over the next four to five years, what is now open, green space punctuated by rectangular pools will be filled in, paved over, and built up.
The majestic view of the stadium, rising out of the center of the city from an idyllic natural plane, will disappear; instead, drivers along Sihanouk, Polish People’s Republic and Charles de Gaulle boulevards will pass long, uniform three-story brick-and-concrete buildings filled with shops and apartments. The beginnings of these can already be seen on the site.
In the northern portion of the complex, the two largest ponds-currently an integral part of the municipal drainage system-will eventually give way to a shopping mall, parking garage and five-star hotel, company drawings show.
“We want to respect the original idea of the designers,” Yuan Ta General Manager Hong Chuang Ming says. “Because the stadium is historical, we have followed the original idea [in renovating it]-original color, original material, original style. We don’t change it, just renovate.” He said the company has spent more than the $3.6 million it budgeted for the renovations alone.
Hong Chuang Ming does not see the space around the stadium, the gracefully asymmetrical grounds dotted with palm trees and tranquil pools, as part of the structure. “The ponds around the stadium have been [neglected] for a long time already and no one maintains them,” the manager says. “They are full of mud and sewage, and in the summer they smell bad.”
Getting rid of them, he says, will improve the stadium. “Now we combine the modern style and the historical style to make the new center of Phnom Penh,” he says. “We will make the historical [stadium] come to life. We will make this a tourist place.”
The stadium’s history is a grand one. It opened in 1964, inaugurated by then-prince Norodom Sihanouk as a symbol of the self-sufficiency and neutrality of post-colonial Cambodia.
“Yes, despite the criticism and slander of some of our neighbors and their imperialist masters, we have proved our capacity to transform our ancient Kingdom into a modern nation,” he said at the stadium’s opening. Except for the advice of a few foreign experts, the stadium was built entirely with Cambodian funds.
As many as 100,000 people are said to have attended the stadium’s inauguration and the Games of the New Emerging Forces in 1966. Another symbolic event, the Ganefo gathered the world’s “non-aligned” countries-Third World nations seeking Cold War neutrality.
Also in 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle gave a landmark speech at the stadium, lauding Cambodia’s neutrality and calling for peace in Indochina. “France’s stand is taken,” he said-the US must pull out of Vietnam, whose people are entitled to self-determination.
For Vann Molyvann, then a rising star in his 30s, the opportunity to undertake such a massive project was exhilarating. It was the perfect chance for him to explore his central idea-the marriage of a modern aesthetic with traditional Khmer forms and techniques.
He sought a continuity between the sacred shapes of the Angkor temples, the simple grace of traditional rural construction and the sleek, minimalist international style of the day. This idea resulted in individual touches like the flat-roofed grandstand, the breathtaking indoor arena-slats between the seats let in enough gentle light and air to illuminate and cool it-and the pools of water, small ones near the main building and large reservoirs in the surrounding grounds.
But Vann Molyvann’s inspiration was more holistic than that. He wanted to reproduce the remarkable effect of Angkor Wat, whose builders created not just a structure but an experience: They determined what the view would be from every doorway and causeway, leading the viewer through a series of perfect vistas.
“We know the Khmers calculated everything in building Angkor Wat. All the dimensions have meaning,” Vann Molyvann says. “The eye walks through the promenade, through shadowy spaces. Then this explodes into light. You look up and you are in the open.” The same near-transcendental effect occurs as you enter the stadium.
The stadium is functional as well as beautiful, of course, from the compact form that allows it to occupy a relatively small footprint to the reservoirs that serve to absorb rainwater and process sewage.
Bou Chum Serey, undersecretary of state responsible for sports in the Ministry of Education, admits that the original contract with Yuan Ta did not take the pools into account. “We did not understand why the ponds were built around the stadium,” he says. “But now we know that they built it to prevent water from flooding the city.”
He claims the ministry and the developer have found another solution to the drainage problem. “We have another way to prevent floods and develop that land for economic benefit,” he says.
Hong Chuang Ming said the company has devised “a system” involving digging tunnels under the entire site. “We will fill [the ponds] and then make new drainage,” he says.
Neither Hong Chuang Ming nor Bou Chum Serey sees the ponds and green space as aesthetically significant. “There are a few people who understand [Vann Molyvann’s] master plan and why he built the ponds around the stadium,” the undersecretary says. “What good are they?”
One of those few people is Etienne Clement, country representative for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, who says he is “very concerned” about the stadium. “Unesco has expressed concern several times” to government officials responsible for the stadium, he says.
In addition to depriving city residents of exercise facilities by closing the stadium for so long, the stadium development process has not been transparent, Clement claims.
Surrounding the stadium with new buildings exasperates Clement-“The stadium needs to have space!” he says. The stadium’s plight will be highlighted in an upcoming conference on protecting Phnom Penh’s 20th-century heritage, he adds.
To Helen Grant Ross of Architecture Research Khmer, which has mounted a campaign against the stadium development, “It’s a tragedy.” The stadium, she says, is unique in the region and could be used to host major sporting events-if it weren’t being transformed.
“What they are doing is making the building dysfunctional,” she says of the developers. “To our mind this is architectural heritage like the Sydney opera house. It is absolutely remarkable.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)