The anatomy of a city

In 1953, newly independent Cam­­­bodia found itself twice the size it had been 90 years earlier when King Norodom signed a pro­tectorate treaty with France to stop Thailand and Vietnam from assimilating its territory.

However, government services were scarce since France had spent most of its resources on Vi­et­nam and housed Indochina’s ad­mi­nistration in Hanoi.

“Phnom Penh stopped at Mo­ni­vong Boulevard, which was a ca­nal at the time, and the airport had a runway that could only accom­mo­date small planes,” said architect and urban planner Helen Grant Ross.

The country needed government offices, schools, universities, and medical facilities where Cam­bo­dian professionals would provide services once they were trained, she said. This led to “a large-scale architectural phenomenon that has ne­ver been seen elsewhere,” she said.

“Cambodia’s development following independence manifested it­self in buildings, infrastructure and new towns, all done with ex­tra­ordinary care and quality in ar­chi­­tecture as well as urban planning,” Grant Ross said.

As a result, the country’s archi­tec­tural heritage includes not only French colonial-style buildings of the early 20th century but also pub­­lic facilities constructed during the Sangkum Reastr Ni­yum government of then-Prince No­rodom Sihanouk, she said.

Urban development of the 1960s is highlighted in a series of panels that Hotel Cambodiana is now ex­hibiting in the foyer of its ballroom.

Through text and pho­tos from that time, the panels give the history behind landmarks in Phnom Penh and the provinces.


Designed by Grant Ross, the pa­nels are based on material compiled during two years of research on Cambodia’s architecture after in­dependence, which she conducted with art and architecture historian Darryl Collins, and architect and urban planner Hok Sokol. Their book on the subject is ex­pected to be released toward the end of this year.

Determined to build the nation, in the literal sense of the word, then-Prince Sihanouk enrolled, as soon as they returned, the few Cam­bodian engineers and architects who had studied abroad, Grant Ross said.

Vann Molyvann, the first architect to come back with his diplomas in 1957, became the country’s ar­chitect-in-chief, while Lu Ban Hap served as Phnom Penh’s mu­ni­cipal architect and was in charge of urban planning and housing for the country.

In the 1960s, Grant Ross said, the Cambodian team received technical assistance from two UN advisers who had worked with vi­sion­ary French ar­chi­tect Le Cor­bu­sier: Russian engineer Vla­­di­mir Bodiansky and French urban planner Gerald Han­ning.

Together they experimented, tak­­ing on projects that would have pre­sented a challenge even to lar­ger and more developed coun­tries, such as the National Olympic Stadium and Sports Com­plex in Phnom Penh, Grant Ross said.

Spread over 40 hectares, the com­plex was built in 1963 and 1964 for Cambodia to host the Third Southeast Asian Games, which were organized by non-aligned countries not au­tho­rized to compete in the Olympics.

One panel features a photo tak­en in the late 1960s showing, next to Hotel Cambodiana, the Water Sports Pavilion, which was also built for the games. It was converted to a casino around 1969 and was completely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era.

The Hotel Cambodiana project began in 1967 when then-Prince Si­hanouk created a public/private com­pany to build a hotel of international standards, something not seen be­fore in the country, Grant Ross said. Located at the confluence of Ton­le Sap and Mekong ri­vers, it was meant to stand among the public parks, housing and cultural fa­cilities being developed on the wa­terfront, which included Preah Su­ramarit (Nation­al) Thea­ter and Chaktomuk Hall.

Lu Ban Hap, who now lives in France, designed the hotel to stand on stilts so that people could see the rivers from the street, Grant Ross said. This lower section of the building was enclosed in the 1980s to house offices, said Pierre Ber­nard, the hotel’s general manager.

By the time the Cambodiana was completed, then-Prince Siha­nouk had been ousted from pow­er. The Lon Nol regime walled up the hotel’s balconies with concrete and turned the property into military barracks, Grant Ross said.

It was but a shell when Sin­ga­pore-based Aggressive Group de­cided to refurbish it in the late 1980s, Bernard said. From 1991 through 2000, the French firm So­fi­tel managed the hotel: It is now un­der private management, he said.

The hotel has decided to make Grant Ross’ exhibition permanent, Bernard said.

Grant Ross, who first came to Cam­bodia in 1997 to help reshape the Faculty of Archi­tec­ture and Ur­ba­nism at the Royal Uni­versity of Fine Arts, said she hopes the exhi­bi­tion will make young Cam­bo­di­ans aware of an important page in their modern architectural history.



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