New Khmer Architecture Movement

White Building (designed by Lu Banhap).

White Building (designed by Lu Banhap).

Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann is the mastermind behind a string of the country’s most revered buildings and architectural feats, as well as a pioneer of the country’s social housing programme. ASEAN Forum takes a look behind some of his greatest works. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS


Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann

Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann

During the heyday of Cambodia’s golden age, enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s, the Kingdom was filled with modern architecture that combined European minimalism with traditional Khmer design. This New Khmer Architecture movement was kick-started by revered architect Vann Molyvann.

As the chief town planner and state architect during that time, Vann Molyvann was behind many of the iconic structures and buildings that have now been torn down to pave the way for modern yet arguably less aesthetically appealing structures.

Between 1957 and 1970, the mastermind designed and helped to plan almost 100 developments, ranging from the Arc de Triomphe-inspired Independence Monument and Olympic Stadium, to Chaktomuk Conference Hall and the White Building, a large cubist apartment complex that was one of Cambodia’s first public housing projects.

However, his career was to be short-lived – 13 years to be precise – with Vann Molyvann retreating into exile with his wife and six children in 1971 as his homeland descended into chaos ahead of the war that was to follow. He returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s and continues to champion his homeland’s creativity.

Library of the Institute for Foreign Languages, now part of the Royal University of Phnom Penh

Library of the Institute for Foreign Languages,

Olympic Stadium (indoor court).

Vann Molyvann’s Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh.

As a man ahead of his time, Vann Molyvann was responsible for creating his unique signature-style, combining the influence of Le Corbusier’s austere modernism with the ancient idiosyncrasies of Cambodian architecture. However, many of his finest works have been bulldozed into the history books, such as the Council of Ministers building, which was demolished in 2008.

Another of his legacies was destroyed in the form of Bassac Theatre, or the national theatre. Designed in 1966 and opened in 1968, the theatre was built to resemble the ships on the Bassac River. During renovation in 1994, the building was destroyed by fire.

Despite leaving his legacy and organisatons such as The Vann Molyvann Project, which is currently seeing students study and reconstruct the designs and buildings of Vann Molyvann, being established to preserve his unique work and forward-thinking vision, many of his creations are at threat. The White Building, which was designed by his peer Lu Banhap, has become akin to a slum, with campaigns launched to stop the once iconic but now crumbling creation from being pulled down. Plans to reinvent Olympic Stadium would also see one of his prime projects destroyed.


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