Educated in Phnom Penh and Paris, Vann Molyvann is undeniably the most important Cambodian architect of the twentieth century. Becoming the country’s State Architect at the tender age of 30 in 1957, shortly after Cambodia’s independence from France, he went on to design more than 100 buildings, while supervising and commissioning many more. Combining a certain Corbusier-like high modernism with local materials and knowledge, he was the leading figure in what later would become known as New Khmer Architecture. Yet today, his important legacy of key public buildings in Phnom Penh is under threat from rampant development. To help highlight this issue, uncube invited Haig Balian‚ one of the producers of the forthcoming documentary “The Man Who Built Cambodia”‚ to write about the building which he considers to be Vann Molyvann’s masterpiece: the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh‚ completed in 1964.
When the Canadian architect William Greaves walked past the National Stadium for the first time‚ he could barely believe what he was seeing. “I had not come to Phnom Penh expecting grand‚ sophisticated architecture like this‚” he says when we interviewed him for “The Man Who Built Cambodia”.
It was a construction project that took just two years to progress from first sketches to completion. The giant complex‚ with a capacity for 70‚000, was built to Olympic standards at break-neck speed in anticipation of the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in 1963. It was a massive effort‚ made all the more amazing by the fact that when construction began workers were using traditional Cambodian ox carts to move earth, before bulldozers became available to assist. However the games were eventually awarded to Indonesia instead‚ and so the stadium was only inaugurated in 1964, but it is still referred to locally as the Olympic Stadium.
Like many public projects in Cambodia‚ the National Sports Complex‚ of which the Stadium was a part‚ was the brainchild of King Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012). His reign‚ between independence from France in 1954 until General Lon Nol’s coup in 1971‚ is now thought of as Cambodia’s “Golden Age”.
In 1957, King Sihanouk appointed the 30-year-old Vann Molyvann as State Architect and Head of Public Works. Vann was born in Kampot province in Cambodia’s south in 1926. Overwhelming rural‚ even now, his childhood home grounded him with an appreciation for his environment‚ both natural and cultural. He earned scholarships to attend schools in Phnom Penh and then in Paris‚ where he studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts.
It was in France that Vann became an acolyte of Le Corbusier and Paul Rudolph‚ two giants of modern architecture. His work can be seen as a union of the old and the new; distinctly modern‚ yet rooted in Khmer history‚ culture‚ and environment. As Cambodia’s State Architect he had a hand in designing over a hundred buildings‚ including Phnom Penh landmarks like the Chaktomuk Conference Hall‚ the State Palace‚ and the Teachers’ Training College.
Over a span of 15 years he completely transformed architecture in Cambodia‚ giving the newly independent nation a modern makeover. The unique style of architecture‚ that he and other Cambodian architects developed‚ became known “New Khmer Architecture”. The National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh is considered by many to be Molyvann’s masterpiece.
The Indoor Stadium lies at the west end of the complex‚ its four tabletop roofs each lifted by a single column‚ a feat managed with the assistance of Le Corbusier’s engineer Vladimir Bodiansky. To the east‚ on the other side of the huge ring of the Outdoor Stadium‚ the Swimming Complex is covered by three overhanging roofs‚ reflecting the tabletop roofs of the Indoor Stadium across the way. The complex’s design is noted for its thoughtful‚ creative use of natural elements. “In the grandstands the space beneath the seats is perforated‚” Greaves told us. “Not only does that let light filter through the building in a very beautiful way‚ it also cools your heels. So the buildings generally have no wasted moves. Everything is accomplishing two or three tasks at once. And that is a really rare quality in architecture.”
Despite surviving decades of upheaval‚ the stadium complex has endured. Its grand crown of seating and surrounding patchy field an invitation to amateur athletes‚ small businesses‚ and young couples looking for time alone. On any given day‚ hundreds of people gather to dance and exercise in this‚ one of the city’s few public gathering places. But the future of the complex is murky.
Two of Vann’s major works were demolished in 2008‚ victims of a city developing and transforming at a rapid rate. The stadium is also in danger‚ surrounded by construction sites and half completed towers. Over the last decade or so‚ international investors started pouring their money into Cambodia‚ especially into Phnom Penh. The city today is dotted with cranes‚ with construction unencumbered by zoning regulations‚ much less good taste. Unfortunately this is nowhere more apparent than in the neighbourhood of the National Stadium.
On a recent visit‚ I was surprised to see the number of building sites around the stadium‚ cranes soaring over its iconic tabletop roofs. The stadium’s new owners are bankrolling a development of hyper-modern shopping centres and condos. The new construction is overpowering the complex‚ encroaching slowly and inevitably on Vann’s carefully designed masterpiece.
Cambodia is once again tipped to host the Southeast Asian Games in 2020. In 2013‚ the government announced the construction of a new stadium‚ adding more doubt to the viability and future of Vann’s masterwork. Meanwhile, at the age of 89‚ Vann last year left his Phnom Penh home to relocate to the relative quiet of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia‚ where the reminders of his unappreciated and fast disappearing legacy are not quite so acute.
– Haig Balian is a filmmaker who lives in Manila in the Philippines. He and his production partner‚ Christopher Rompré‚ are producing a film on Vann Molyvann which aims to shine a light on this extraordinary architect and highlight his original and progressive designs.
You can help support their project with a contribution towards their Indiegogo crowd funding campaign. Watch the amazing trailer below.