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Vann Molyvann: Cambodia's forgotten architect

In the 1960s, he redefined the look of his homeland architecturally. Now his works are being lost to redevelopment. Admirers are working to highlight his importance.

November 14, 2010|By Dustin Roasa, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sihanoukville, Cambodia — — Architect Bill Greaves stood on a bluff outside the city 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 cowrote 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.

Greaves had traveled from his base in Phnom Penh to the brewery in Sihanoukville with a team of volunteers working with the Vann Molyvann Project, an organization he established in 2009 to document the architect's buildings. Nearly all of Vann Molyvann's blueprints were lost during Cambodia's years of turmoil, so Greaves and his volunteers are re-creating them from scratch to leave a record for future generations.

As the sun burned off the morning mist and lipstick-red trucks roared by full of Angkor beer — the SKD complex remains a functioning brewery — Cambodian and American volunteers in their 20s moved methodically through the space, hand measuring doorways, columns and anything else they could get their tape measurers on. They would spend the better part of three days sizing up the building before heading back to Phnom Penh, where they were creating scale models and drawings for the first major exhibition of Vann Molyvann's work, which opened in Phnom Penh in late September.

Greaves first encountered Vann Molyvann's buildings when he was visiting as a tourist in 2004. "I was astonished. I didn't know anything about architecture in Cambodia in the 1960s," he said. He was struck by the architect's daring use of concrete to create massive, expressive forms, "the kinds of things you could never convince a structural engineer to do nowadays," he said.

The buildings ingeniously used what might now be called green technology, including ventilation, natural lighting and drainage systems, to mitigate Cambodia's harsh climate, which alternates between periods of torrential rain and extreme heat. The buildings also referenced objects from Cambodian culture, such as mystical Buddhist serpents called nagas and the straw hats worn by peasants working in the fields.

After returning to Cambodia several times, Greaves quit his job at Steven Harris Architects in New York and moved to Phnom Penh to found the Vann Molyvann Project, which has consulted extensively with the Cambodian architect in its work. "I am extremely grateful for what they are doing," Vann Molyvann said of his foreign admirers.

Vann Molyvann's life has been shaped by the twists and turns of his country's tumultuous history. Born in 1926, he attended Cambodia's only high school during World War II. However, his studies were interrupted by Japan's takeover of the country during the war, but he managed to graduate and in 1945 won one of two scholarships that year for Cambodians to study in France.

At the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he received architectural training from disciples of Le Corbusier, who taught him the influential French architect's "Le Modulor," a system of proportion that Vann Molyvann later used as the basis for his designs. He thought little about his home country and "drowned in French culture completely," he said. Meanwhile, his compatriots in Paris at the time, including a young Pol Pot, soaked up the Marxism and Stalinism that would form the ideological basis of the Khmer Rouge.

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