Daniel Bruce writes about and photographs the stylish, angular buildings from the period of New Khmer Architecture
Soon after Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, Phnom Penh witnessed a surge of modernist architecture with a Khmer touch. In the 1950s and 60s, the city more than doubled in population and size. Under Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihanouk, architecture was charged with coping with this expansion, but it also assumed a significant cultural and political role, aspiring to forge a new, independent national identity. Grand projects like the Independence Monument, the National Sports Complex and the National Theatre were all built, capturing a spirit of national pride during the ‘golden years’ that followed independence.
These stylish, angular buildings, built by a new generation of young architects, still drew on French art deco, but they also embraced a modernism adapted to the country’s tropical climate, while exploring the possibilities of its traditional symbolism. Vann Molyvann (1926– ), the main architect of this Khmer modernism, was born in the southern province of Kampot. In 1946, he was awarded a scholarship to study law at the Sorbonne in Paris but switched to architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts after a year. Upon returning to Cambodia in 1956, he soon established himself as the country’s pre-eminent modern architect. Drawing inspiration from Le Corbusier, from the English garden city movement and from Cambodia’s Angkorian temple architecture, he developed a bold creative style that harmonised modern influences with a classical balance.
Many consider his masterpiece to be Phnom Penh’s magnificent National Sports Complex, which was completed in 1964 at breakneck speed, as was much of this new construction. By the end of the 1960s, a whole new tier of modernist buildings and infrastructure stood ready to serve the capital’s needs. However, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the brutal Khmer Rouge era, the civil war and the Vietnamese invasion during the 1970s and 80s put an abrupt end to what seemed such a promising era.
Despite the demolition of both Vann Molyvann’s National Theatre and his Council of Ministers in 2008, remnants from this period, known as New Khmer Architecture, can still be found in Phnom Penh. His Ecole Normal Supérieure is now the Institute of Foreign Languages, while the Institute of Technology, designed by a team of Soviet architects, still serves its original purpose. Though many are in a poor condition, these beautiful, weathered buildings stand as symbols of a progressive past. Around them, and in sharp contrast, skyscrapers are sprouting rapidly, swamping them amid one of the fastest growing cities in south‑east Asia.