Khmer Architecture Tours, Cambodia
The historical architecture of Cambodia is said to be divided into three broad categories:
1) The ubiquitous ‘Chinese shophouse’ style structures, some as old as the late 19th Century but most from later periods,
2) Late 19th/early 20th Century French Colonial buildings incorporating a range of influences and styles, and
3) ‘New Khmer Architecture’ of the late-1950s/60s, built in the post-Independence ‘Golden-era’ and displaying a modern but distinctively Cambodian form.
A small association called Khmer Architecture Tours was established 12 years ago to provide tours which focus on this latter group, of the ‘New Khmer Architecture’ style, setting these buildings within the historic context of Phnom Penh.
After gaining independence from France in 1953, Cambodia experienced a cultural renewal with new creative movements emerging in art, design, film and dance. The driving force behind the movement was Norodom Sihanouk, King (1953–1955), Prime Minister (1955–1960), Head of State (1960–1970), a ruthless leader beloved by his people, composer, writer, poet and lyricist, filmmaker, interior designer, and patron of the arts. The period is said to have been a time of both optimism and experimentation. At the centre of this movement was a building boom out of which the New Khmer Architecture emerged.
This so called “golden age’ in modern Cambodian architecture of the 50s and 60s was led by Cambodian born architect Vann Molyvann, who had studied at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. Molyvann’s work includes some of the nation’s most iconic architecture such as the Olympic Stadium built in 1963 for the canceled games of the new merging forces, the Ministry of Finance, the White Building, the Institute for Foreign Languages, the Independence Monument and the fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall hugging the banks of the Tonle Bassac River. Andrea Black writes how his structures “reinterpret European modernism mixed with Khmer elements, incorporating local tradition, materials and taking the climate into account”.
Along with the Olympic Stadium, Molyvann argues his house in Phnom Penh is his most important work. Flanking the monolithic Tonle Bassac restaurant on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, the house, veiled by vines of purple Bougainvillea, is a prime example of New Khmer architecture. The roof is considered a feat of engineering which required painstaking calculation by his engineer brother-in-law, Walter Amberg. While its influence seems to lean towards the oriental, concave domes characteristic of Japanese pagodas, Molyvann says he was inspired by the traditional jungle huts of Brazil and rural Cambodian thatched roof huts, “for ventilation purposes”.
The movement was short-lived coming abruptly to an end in 1970 with the US-backed overthrow of Norodom Sihanouk by General. Lon Nol. The Khmer Rouge forcibly depopulated the capital with residents fleeing to the countryside. Molyvann spent 20 years exiled in Europe.
Many of New Khmer Architecture’s important buildings, having managed to survive a civil war, American bombing, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation, are now threatened by the rapid and chaotic development of Phnom Penh. In 2008, two of Mr. Vann’s greatest buildings, the Preah Suramarit National Theater and the Council of Ministers, were demolished. No comprehensive record of the works exist.
In response to this threat The Vann Molyvann Project was established “to call attention to one of the most important collections of modern architecture in the developing world; to rigorously document it; and to inspire a new generation of architects, American and Cambodian, to create a contemporary architecture that responds to the demands of context, climate and culture.” To find out how you can help please click here to connect with the Project’s website. .
We encourage you to include this experience in your next trip to Cambodia in support of these important buildings under threat.
According to the association’s website, Regular public tours take place on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. Private tours are also available 7 days a week. All tours are conducted in English and are led by Cambodian architects and students of architecture.
Click here for rates and further detail.