Piecing Together 1960s Cambodian Architecture: A Lifeline to the Past

Just who is responsible for the initial design of Independence Monument is the subject of some debate.

Blueprints dated from 1956 and 1957 found in the National Archive show the engineer as Du Ngoc Anh from Saigon. Drawings by Cambodian engineer Ing Kieth and chief Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann dated from 1957 also fit the design.

Why the monument wasn’t inaugurated until 1962, nine years after independence, is yet another mystery-perhaps one, as the recently-published “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, 1953-1970” suggests, to which only retired King Norodom Sihanouk holds the key.

Despite the far-reaching detective work conducted by authors Darryl Leon Collins and Helen Grant Ross for “Building Cambodia,” some secrets remain surrounding Cambodia’s post-independence coming of age.

Still, and more to the point, the 334-page book, chock full of lively pictures and diagrams, extensive descriptions, interviews and biographies is as comprehensive an account of the architectural development of Cambodia in the 1960s-widely labeled New Khmer style-as exists.

New Khmer architecture “blended modern techniques with Cambodian tradition,” according to the book.

Trademarks of French architect Le Corbusier’s modernism-like reinforced concrete and assertive structures-meet elements distinctly Khmer, such as the pointed roof, free spaces under buildings and the ancient construction lines of Angkor.

Key players like Norodom Sihanouk, an enthusiastic patron of architecture at the time, helped harness the energy of architects like Vann Molyvann who had recently returned from studying in France and was appointed chief Cambodian architect from 1956-1962.

The movement is responsible for such Phnom Penh masterworks as the Cambodiana Hotel and the Chaktomuk Conference Hall as well as Battambang University and Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville.

Because there was no pre-existing publication that went into any depth on New Khmer architecture, the authors, with the help of Cambodian architect Hok Sokol, trekked near and far to pull together materials into what Collins calls a “bit of a jigsaw.”

Norodom Sihanouk’s speeches, which dated and documented the inauguration of various buildings throughout the country, provided a framework for the research team. Later, they stumbled upon helpful black-and-white photographs from the 1960s, which had been tossed casually into a cupboard in the library at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Trips outside the city to Battambang and Sihanoukville led to people who remembered certain structures being built and could provide hitherto unknown details.

Grant Ross spent months in France flipping through the local phone book and cold-calling architects such as leading Cambodian architect from the 60s Lu Ban Hap who worked closely with Vann Molyvann and is best known, perhaps, for designing the Cambodiana Hotel.

Testament to the period’s achievements, many of the buildings are still in existence and completely functional. The beautifully renovated Chaktomuk Conference Hall, which made the book’s cover, is a pristine example of a building from the 1960s that still serves the purpose it was intended to serve.

To Collins, Chaktomuk is “function and beauty combined in a very comfortable way.”

The acoustics are superb and its practical fan-shape is inspired by the ridged palm leaf found in Cambodia.

Other buildings from the period like the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh are examples of what Collins calls “architectural vandalism,” so far have they come from their intended design and function.

According to Collins, the Sports Complex has been all but “strangled by unsympathetic development.” It has essentially “disappeared from the urban landscape,” adds Grant Ross.

“It’s boxed in,” she said.

Whether by insensitive development, neglect or accidental destruction-as was the case with burning of the National Theater in 1994-many of the buildings from the 1960s have suffered.

But it is perhaps the threat of oblivion that most forcefully propelled the book project.

“No one knew what these buildings were,” when I first arrived in Cambodia in 1997, Grant Ross said. “They didn’t have a known style and you couldn’t identify them,” she added.

“People said we wouldn’t find anything,” recalls Collins, “but they were wrong.”

For Sok Li, a 23-year-old architecture student at RUFA, “Building Cambodia” has provided a lifeline to a near-forgotten time.

“I had seen many of [the buildings profiled in the book], but didn’t know anything about them. I had never heard of Lu Ban Hap,” he said.

“You need to know your own history,” Sok Li said. “Of course there is Angkor Wat, but there is also the golden age of the 60s and some of the buildings are so wonderful.”

“Building Cambodia” is available at Carnets d’Asie and by emailing [email protected].



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