Tours of Phnom Penh’s Architecture Celebrate a Bygone Era

Kicking up dust and snapping photographs, the group of expatriates and tourists strolled through the remains of Vann Molyvann’s 100 Houses project.

Some of the structures, built in the 1960s, have fallen into complete disrepair, while others have been renovated into modern villas.

But many of the homes still hold the charm of their original architecture.

Som Vuthy, an architecture student and assistant tour guide, took a couple of lingering group members aside. “See that house—it was the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “Ieng Sary lived there and then the Vietnamese [during the 1980s] used these houses.”

The 100 Houses were constructed during an era that culture aficionados are trying to preserve. Built between 1965 and 1967 as low-cost housing for employees of the National Bank, some say the collection of homes was created during the “golden age” of Cambodian architecture.

“The main interest I have includes the period between 1953 and 1970,” said architect Geoffrey Pyle. “There was a huge enthusiasm to modernize Cambodia…and architecture was part of a broader ex­perience to find Khmerness…taking on issues of traditional forms, climate and ways of relating to people.”

To share their interest in this rich architectural era, Pyle and landscape designer Bill Grant have begun to offer tours of its buildings—naming the presentation “Khmer Architecture Tours.”

Pyle said that, with the help of two groups of architecture students, he and Grant located and re­searched buildings from the 1950s and 1960s. Those who sign up for the tours are bused to each site, where they are given a history lesson and and shown points of interest about the structures.

The tours began with visits to several Phnom Penh universities. Guests explored the Institute of Tech­nology, the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Institute of Foreign Languages. A speech by Hel­en Grant Ross (no relation to Bill Grant), an ex­pert on contemporary Cambodian architecture, offer­ed further insight into the history of the urban designs.

Ross said she is not involved with organizing the new tours, but is in full support of them be­cause more people need to recognize the quality of architecture from the 1960s. “In the 1960s people [in Cambodia] didn’t just build buildings—it was an enlightened state of development,” she said. “It showed how competent people were in developing the country. It was incredible, prosperous.”

Architect Vann Molyvann played a large part in this “en­lightened state of development,” designing many of Cam­bo­dia’s landmarks during the 1950s and 1960s, including the Indepen­dence Monument, Chaktomuk conference hall, the National Sports Complex and the Council of Min­isters building.

“His designs were unique because he combined an international, modern style with a Cambodian expression of tradition and forms,” Pyle said, adding that Vann Molyvann was a favorite of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk because his designs fit in with the King’s vision of what Cambodia should look like.

Attendees of the latest Khmer Architecture Tour on Jan 25 got to explore the renowned architect’s 100 Houses project. Pyle explained that, in 1965, the National Bank of Cambodia decided it wanted to house its own employees in Phnom Penh. So the bank had Vann Molyvann design 100 homes, with an agreement to sign their ownership over to its employees after they paid rent for about 20 to 25 years, Pyle said.

“It’s nice to be able to come and have someone ex­plain it all in detail…. It is all kind of hidden,” said Mark Shephard, a Phnom Penh resident. “The streets are so chaotic here that it is hard to see the gems.”

After wandering through the 100 Houses project, the guests were bused to Grant’s house, built during the late 1960s. Grant, one of the tour’s founders, welcomed everyone to his home.While they finished their sodas and cookies, Grant’s guests admired his tangerine walls, blue doors, balconies and spiral staircases. “The paint’s new, but I tried to decorate in ’60s style,” he said. “The furniture is from the wrong era, but it works.”

Grant said he originally came to Cambodia about 12 years ago to work on the interior of a friend’s restaurant. He liked Phnom Penh and moved into the house about three years ago. Pyle said he met Grant through Ross, and then the two men came up with the idea for the tours.

Pyle said he hopes to have two tours the last weekend of every month. They are scheduled to take place in Phnom Penh and are offered only in English, but this could change, he said. The first two tours were very successful, Pyle said, adding that he had to turn people away for lack of space.

The Jan 25 tour ended with a trip to Tuol Kork’s health center, formerly owned in the 1970s by a doctor who wanted to use the villa as a movie set.

“Architecture from this era reminds me of Germany in the 1920s. They had a short period of social housing—then the Nazis destroyed it. It’s kind of like what happened here with the Khmer Rouge,” said Ylva Gustafsson as she wandered around the health center.

Gustafsson, an editor of the Swedish journal, “World and Image,” was visiting a friend in Phnom Penh and saw a flier for the tour.

“We were wondering what it was like here in the 1950s and 1960s. It is clear that it was a special era,” she said. For more information or to sign up for the next tour, send an e-mail to [email protected]


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