Rediscovering Cambodia's brilliant Modernist architect
Architect Bill Greaves stood on a bluff outside Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and admired an elegant white and peach building perched high above the beaches and guesthouses that have made this seaside spot into a tourist boomtown. Inspired by the dong raik, a pole used by rural Cambodians to carry loads on their shoulders, the building seemed to float in the air, its concrete-and-brick second floor held aloft by a complex web of hidden beams.
“It’s a gem, but it’s not very well known,” Greaves said of the SKD Brewery offices, built in 1968 by Cambodia’s most gifted and visionary architect, Vann Molyvann.
In the 1960s, under the iron-fisted patronage of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Vann Molyvann helped transform Cambodia from a sleepy former French colony into one of the most architecturally arresting countries in Asia. But after surviving decades of civil war and the terror of Khmer Rouge rule, the architect’s buildings are being demolished as Cambodia seeks to rebuild.
Although Vann Molyvann, 83, is back in Phnom Penh after years of living overseas, there is little he can do to prevent his work from disappearing. In 2008, two of his greatest works, the National Theater and the Council of Ministers building, were demolished. In 2001, the government sold his Olympic Stadium to a Taiwanese developer, who altered the complex’s drainage system to the point that it floods frequently.
In response, admirers such as Greaves, art historian Darryl Collins, who co-wrote the only book in English about 1950s and 1960s Cambodian architecture, and architect Geoff Pyle, who founded an organization that offers guided tours of Phnom Penh’s notable buildings, are working to highlight Vann Molyvann’s importance. He remains virtually unknown in Cambodia, where he is not taught in the country’s high schools and universities, and his international profile is low.
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— Dustin Roasa
Photo: Chaktomuk Hall on the banks of the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, completed in 1961. The 570-seat auditorium's structure, inspired by an unfolded hand-held fan, is still in use as a performance space.
Credit: Courtesy of Vann Molyvann