Zaha Hadid to Design Cambodia’s Genocide Museum

The fluidity of the structures designed by renowned Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid bring to mind the gentle waves of a river —her skyscrapers are never angular and block-like, her museums mimic the sprawling infinity of the ocean.

Now, Ms. Hadid—a two-time winner of the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, one of architecture’s highest accolades—will be bringing her vision to Cambodia. Her firm, Zaha Hadid Architects, has agreed to design the long-awaited new institute for the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam)—the country’s largest repository of information relating to the Khmer Rouge regime. 

People walk by an art installation in MAXXI: National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome—a building designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid that took home the 2010 Stirling Prize. (Bernard Touillon)
People walk by an art installation in MAXXI: National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome—a building designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid that took home the 2010 Stirling Prize. (Bernard Touillon)

The Sleuk Rith Institute, whose name refers to dried leaves historically used by religious leaders as writing paper, plans to be the leading center for genocide studies in Asia. DC-Cam will also use the institute—to be located next to the Boeng Trabek high school on Monivong Boulevard—as its home base to store, analyze and preserve information relating to the regime.

Ms. Hadid said that Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam, inspired her to take up this project, which has gone through several design iterations, with the final plans to be released in December.

“He has a very particular vision for this building which greatly inspires us: that beauty and optimism can heal and reconnect a country,” Ms. Hadid said by email. “We share [these] principles and we believed this is an opportunity for something very special and unique for the people of Cambodia.”

Ms. Hadid said that her firm is currently doing extensive research to incorporate “the richness of the Angkorian architecture,” and once Mr. Chhang is satisfied with the designs, they will move ahead with the construction—of which she declined to provide an exact timeline.

“[T]aking on such an important project is a great responsibility. Youk Chhang’s work is critical in documenting the event, but the work also aids the healing process by moving forward with education, understanding and inspiration,” said Ms. Hadid, who refers to all of her past designs as her children.

“We are privileged to be trusted with such an important task.”

The institute was Mr. Chhang’s vision. He was evacuated from Phnom Penh to his grandparents’ home Takeo province in 1975, before being moved to Banteay Meanchey province later that year. For him, all the memories of the Khmer Rouge, and the need to move past its traumas, are wrapped up in his grandparents’ home.

“This poor house, which has already been demolished, is full of bitter-sweet memories which gives me hope for a better future,” he said.

Designing the institute has been a difficult project. In a design competition held in January 2012, Cambodian architect Asasax was chosen as the winner, with his drawing of the Institute featuring a giant stupa in the middle flanked by two angular towers. In front of it would be elevated structures on stilts—bringing to mind Cambodian homes on the flood plains—that would house a school, library, ballroom and an amphitheater.

“I had several local design competitions but they do not meet global standards. I see genocide as a crime against humanity and I want to beautify it,” Mr. Chhang said. “It will be a totally new design by Zaha Hadid.”

In a concept note, Mr. Chhang said he selected Ms. Hadid because he does not want his museum to be dark and oppressive—a design undertaken by most genocide museums to signify the tragedy of such events.

“The gracious but powerful architectural legacy of Zaha Hadid, which focuses on curvilinear as opposed to the harsher geometry of rigidly intersecting hard angles…has the potential to shift the dominant design approach of war crimes facility architecture in an entirely new and more enriching direction,” Mr. Chhang said, adding that her distance from the issue could bring out more in the creative process.

He added that he wishes to connect the design ideals to a famous Angkorian-era temple—the Banteay Srey temple—located 30 kilometers north of its more famous counterpart Angkor Wat.

Ms. Hadid said she will be relying on Mr. Chhang’s expertise in the subject to drive her design forward.

“[A]s a Cambodian who survived the events that have so impacted Cambodia’s consciousness, he is very well-qualified to make this decision [of selecting a non-Cambodian architect],” she said, adding that a team of Cambodian and international experts will assist the project.

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