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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

Vann Molyvann returned to Phnom Penh in 1956, and he was one of a few architects in Cambodia with formal training. Cambodia had gained independence from France in 1953, but it remained a poor, rural country with no recent history of cities or urban planning. "Architecture was a strange concept in Cambodia. They did not know what it was," he said. He opened a firm but found little private work.

His fortunes changed when Norodom Sihanouk appointed him chief architect for state buildings and director for urban planning and habitat. With access to government commissions, he could begin designing civic buildings that combined the Modernist and Brutalist sensibilities he had learned in Paris with Cambodia's traditions and way of life.

Over the next decade and a half, Vann Molyvann built dozens of buildings in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in Cambodia. His crowning achievement was the Olympic Stadium, a sprawling sports complex that was built in advance of the Southeast Asian Games of 1963, which were never held. With a water-management system inspired by the moats and channels of ancient Angkor and soaring concrete overhangs, the design helped usher in a period of architectural and cultural creativity. He was in his early 30s at the time. "Imagine having the possibility to build such a thing when you are that age," Vann Molyvann said, his eyes twinkling.

Norodom Sihanouk viewed architecture as a way of expressing the aspirations for progress and modernity of the newly independent Cambodian people. He poured significant portions of the national budget into construction projects, and he deftly exploited Cambodia's Cold War neutrality to land aid from both the Americans and the Soviets.

"Sihanouk was extremely open to the outside world," Vann Molyvann said. "Cambodians had enormous enthusiasm to build the country, and fortunately for us, Prince Sihanouk shared this feeling."

Norodom Sihanouk's showpiece was the Russian Boulevard, which connected central Phnom Penh to its international airport. Lined with many of Vann Molyvann's most significant buildings, including the Teachers' Training College and the Council of Ministers building, the road was designed to impress visiting dignitaries.

But Norodom Sihanouk could not keep his country neutral forever. With the Vietnam War spilling over into Cambodia, Vann Molyvann left with his family in 1972, and the prince's cosmopolitanism eventually gave way to the savage xenophobia of the Khmer Rouge. Vann Molyvann spent the next two decades as a consultant with the United Nations at various posts around the world.

He moved back to Cambodia in 1993, but his second return has proved more difficult than the first. Although he was appointed head of the organization that managed the site of the Angkor temples, the current government of Prime Minister Hun Sen removed him from that post after he publicly complained about government corruption. "I felt that entrance fees for Angkor should go to the people, not to civil servants in Phnom Penh. They said, 'Get out, Molyvann,'" he said.

Out of favor with the government, Vann Molyvann has watched the urban landscape in Phnom Penh transform. Norodom Sihanouk's Russian Boulevard, that bellwether of Cambodia's aspirations, now swarms with trucks and motorbikes carrying goods and migrants into the city, and it is lined with the glass-and-steel office buildings and cookie-cutter housing developments of Cambodia's recent economic boom. The new Chinese-designed and funded Council of Ministers building, which replaced Vann Molyvann's, features a pyramid framed by what resembles an enormous drawbridge. It would not look out of place in a Chinese provincial capital.

"There's a very strong notion in Cambodia that a modern city should be like Shanghai or Bangkok, where the emphasis is on verticality," said Greaves of the Vann Molyvann Project. "Late Modern architecture is a little harder for the general public to love."

While the efforts of Greaves and others have raised Vann Molyvann's profile among Cambodians, the fate of his buildings ultimately rests with the current government, which came to power in 1979 after defeating the Khmer Rouge. "The government doesn't want to leave anything from before 1979, because it wasn't their achievement. History is completely manipulated," Vann Molyvann said.

Today, he has an official government title, but it is essentially an honorific. He is working on translating his PhD dissertation, about urbanization in Southeast Asia, into Khmer, the Cambodian language.

Beng Khemro, deputy director general of the country's Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, said the government is doing everything it can to preserve Cambodia's architectural heritage. "But economic development and modernization inevitably bring about changes in every country, and Cambodia is no exception," he said.

Young Cambodians like Yin Sotheara, a 21-year-old architecture student and volunteer with the Vann Molyvann Project, hope to play a role in that development. Back at the SKD Brewery offices, he took a break from measuring a rear-facing balcony to discuss his future after graduation.

"There are not many opportunities for Cambodian architects. Most of the new buildings are being built by Chinese and Koreans," he said. But learning about Vann Molyvann had for the first time provided him with a Cambodian architectural role model. "Vann Molyvann showed that you can take foreign concepts and mix them with Cambodian traditions to make new buildings," he said. "I want to make buildings that are suited to the Cambodian way of life."

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