According to an old Cambodian proverb, everything is born out of mixing water, earth, fire and air.
This, Cambodian architects and urban planners of the 1950s and 1960s kept in mind as they designed buildings and homes filled with natural light and cooled by natural ventilation in cities that made ample use of trees and gardens.
Cambodian architects have not forgotten the importance of allowing air and light to enter a structure, several said in recent interviews. But for an array of reasons, ranging from an infatuation with air conditioning, land prices and a dearth of construction standards and urban planning enforcement, contemporary architects have limited opportunities to build the homes and buildings they feel might be better suited to inhabitants.
The traditional Cambodian lifestyle has been one focused on the outdoors with people often doing little more than sleeping in their homes, as they work, cook and gather in the open air, said Nuon Ratana, a 31-year-old architect
Homes today should reflect this lifestyle, said Nuon Ratana, who works with “Heritage Mission,” a cooperation effort of the Ministry of Culture and the French Embassy which aims to preserve Cambodian culture and style in architecture.
“Life lived in a house without air flowing in and out seems like living in a hole,” Nuon Ratana said.
“When I go into some houses, the environment is so hot and dark-for a family to have happiness living in a happy house, the house must be built to let in abundant fresh air and light,” he said.
But nowadays, many wealthy Cambodians, he said, “just think of having thick [security] bars in their windows and forget to leave space for air flow and greenery.”
“The main characteristic of the architecture of [the 1950s and 1960s], both for government buildings and private homes, is that they were meant to reflect the spirit of the Khmer culture and Khmer souls,” he added.
At that time, the government led by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk not only encouraged but also initiated and applied urban plans and architectural innovations.
For example, in the Bassac Theater, Nuon Ratana said, “there was a water system in the center of the ground floor that kept the building quite cool even during the hottest months.” The cooling principle adhered to Cambodia’s millennium-old tradition of water basins in and around buildings, examples of which can still been seen at Angkor.
Yam Sokly, a 23-year-old student now in his fifth year of architecture at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, said Khmer architectural style goes beyond just decorating buildings with traditional figures such as the mythical bird Garuda.
The form and design of the Olympic Stadium was inspired by the Baphuon temple at Angkor and was set in a park setting, though not adorned with any traditional decoration, Yam Sokly said.
Today, however, little or no space is reserved for gardens or trees on the lots of government and private-sector buildings, Yam Sokly said.
There are, however, exceptions such as the new National Assembly grounds that includes garden features, and the Embassy of Singapore’s compound, which consists of a modern structure amidst greenery, he said.
Because of the escalating price of land in Phnom Penh and areas with promising development prospects such as Siem Reap town, some business people have tried to fit in as many apartments and business facilities as they can on their lots and left no room for green zones, said Phan Vanny, an architect specialized in residential homes now working for Canadia Bank PLC who will be 29 in December.
All that an architect can do is submit their designs to business people and developers, Phan Vanny said. “We cannot force them to agree to our recommendations—we need to do projects in accordance with the developers’ and clients’ wishes,” he said.
Prohibitive land prices have also led some private educational institutions to rent facilities ill suited for the purpose of educating students, Phan Vanny said.
Parking has become problematic around some of those institutions as well as in other parts of Phnom Penh where construction has boomed, causing traffic jams at peak hours, he said.
Architect and urbanist Ly Chin Torng, 71, said that giving free rein to developers has caused a clash of architectural styles and uneven construction standards in Phnom Penh.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he said, “design and urban planning was done without any influence and interference from other countries, and architects could freely use the concepts of their choice to adapt [structures] to the climate in which people lived.”
Today’s situation is mostly due to poor enforcement rather than a lack of policies, Ly Chin Torng said. For instance, the temporary construction regulations he wrote and which the Council of Ministers approved in November 1997 are unevenly applied, he said.
In 1996, the year Ly Chin Torng designed the Buddhist Institute, he also drafted an urban plan for Phnom Penh that clearly set residential zones in the city and the maximum height of buildings at 30 meters-it was never approved.
Until recently, tradition in the capital was not to allow structures that would dwarf Wat Phnom, where-as legend has it-the city began.
However, high-rise projects now include tall buildings near the Phnom Penh train station, just a few city blocks from Wat Phnom, which proves the need for a strict urban plan to preserve Phnom Penh’s historical zones, Nuon Ratana said.
Countries with skyscrapers such as Singapore and France, Ly Chin Torng said, “have experienced negative effects from those skyscrapers, which is why they now have stopped the construction of too high buildings,” he said.
Spontaneous and private development along with the pressure of a fast growing population has complicated the task of Phnom Penh’s urban planners, Phan Vanny said.
In the private housing market, some Cambodians value traditional construction materials such as wood and sandstone, Phan Vanny said. But convincing them to opt for an airy and open plan can prove difficult, he said.
For some people, air-conditioning has not only become part of life, but has also turned into a status symbol used to show one’s wealth.
Today’s architects should remember “to make buildings for people to stay and live in,” said Mam Sophana, whose 1969 design for the Electricite du Cambodge’s training center—now the National Technical Training Institute-had earned him a gold medal from Prince Sihanouk.
Cambodian architecture should, said Mam Sophana, “respect the environment” by including natural light and air, and good scenery.
By designing buildings sensitive to the Cambodian environment, the nation’s architects will not only design beautiful structures but will also “respect the ethics of the profession,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)