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.