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Cambodia’s disappearing modernist architecture

Cambodia’s disappearing modernist architecture

Rampant development in Phnom Penh threatens to destroy important buildings – and with them, all traces of the past

Rampant development in Phnom Penh threatens to destroy important buildings – and with them, all traces of the past

Eve Watling | August 2nd 2017

It’s late July in Phnom Penh, and Kavich Neang is filming the bulldozers sinking their claws into the walls of his childhood home. The 30-year-old had planned to shoot his first feature film in the dilapidated apartment block, about a young boy who dreams of entering the popular TV show “Cambodia’s Got Talent”. Now that the building is being demolished, he must complete the film using sets. 

The White Building (above) wasn’t just an any old block of flats: it was a landmark, one of the last major examples of New Khmer Architecture, Cambodia’s version of modernism. Built in 1963, ten years after Cambodia had gained independence from France, it was part of a redevelopment by Vann Molyvann, a young Cambodian architect who had studied in Paris under Le Corbusier. He had been commissioned by King Sihanouk, a self-proclaimed “Buddhist socialist” who wanted to build low-cost housing for Phnom Penh’s rapidly growing population.

Six low-rise concrete blocks were connected with open staircases, letting light filter into a central corridor. Molyvann found simple and elegant solutions for Cambodia’s heat and rain: a lattice of air-vents in the exterior wall was a natural alternative to air-conditioning, and the building was partially raised on stilts to create a shaded social space on the ground floor.

The artists and civil servants for whom the bulding was designed did not have long to enjoy it. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and sent its inhabitants to labour camps. After Vietnamese forces invaded the city four years later, survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime began to rebuild their lives amid a protracted civil war.

As people moved back into the White Building, they planted banana trees and vegetables outside, and opened up businesses in their apartments. In the absence of regulations DIY extensions jutted out of the side of the building, and balconies were closed up with bricks and corrugated iron. The ventilation shafts sprouted bushy plants, which clung onto the blue plastic water pipes that comprised the building’s makeshift plumbing.

Vernacular style The Institute of Foreign Languages, completed in 1972

Kavich grew up there in the Eighties and Nineties, and only moved out a few years ago. His father was a sculptor, one of the many creative types the building was home to. He remembers a loving community which would throw parties, and care for people when they were sick. When his parents left him at home when they visited the countryside, neighbours would cook him food. Once a daring vision of Cambodia’s future, the building had became a monument to Khmer resourcefulness. But Kavich was too embarrassed to tell his schoolfriends where he lived.

While the building was alive on the inside, on the outside it was decaying. Decades of neglect by governments for whom heritage preservation was not a priority, combined with the structural damage caused by the residents’ alterations, meant that the building was eventually damaged beyond repair. Many of its inhabitants lived in poverty, and prostitution and drug use were rife.

It also symbolised a period of history that city officials are keen to forget. Cambodia’s GDP has more than doubled in the past decade, and Phnom Penh is once again undergoing a population boom. But the egalitarian vision and vernacular architecture of the 1960s are a distant memory amid the scrabble to develop increasingly valuable land. New developments, many of which are foreign-funded, use cheap materials and fail to consider the cultural and environmental context, as well as being too expensive for ordinary Cambodians to live in. Rampant speculation means skyscrapers are sometimes left half-finished as project money dries up. 

Under threat The National Sports Complex, built in 1964

The White Building is the third high-profile Vann Molyvann building to be demolished since 2008. Although a few of his buildings, such as the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh are well maintained, his National Sports Complex risks being engulfed by surrounding developments. The Vann Molyvann Project, founded in 2009, aims to raise awareness of New Khmer Architecture, particularly among Cambodian architects. Yet his buildings do not attract many tourists, meaning the government is unlikely to step in. Like much modern architecture around the world, Vann Molyvann’s buildings are old enough to be in need of repair, but too young to be valued outside a design-conscious minority.

Taking the White Building’s place will be a 21-storey, mixed-use complex designed by a Japanese firm. Before the demolition, the mood among the 492 families living there was accepting, says Kavich, “but everyone is still really sad and emotional…Now the community is scattered. It can never come back.” But he adds that people who only knew the building as a drug den might not miss it as much as he does. “With all these new developments nearby, maybe Cambodians are looking for something different.”

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