Vann Molyvann is not just Cambodia’s most revered architect, he is a national icon. His work includes Independence Monument, the Olympic Stadium, Chaktomuk Theater and many, if not most, of Phnom Penh’s landmarks.
It doesn’t take an architecture aficionado to appreciate the creations of architect-urbanist Vann Molyvann, many of which are on permanent, and prominent, display around the capital.
To the Western eye, trained on skyscrapers and shopping malls, the designs of Molyvann are a delightful departure. He’s known as the star of New Khmer Architecture, a period in the 1950s and 1960s that was at once experimental and practical, monumental and whimsical.
“Style is not just something you stick on the outside. Neo-Khmer architecture draws on real needs,” says historian and architect Helen Grant Ross. “There is something very human about it. It’s not at all like fascist monolithic architecture, and it is very Cambodian in the sense that it is very low key. It doesn’t use luxurious materials. It’s really quite modest.”
The style has been acclaimed in international architecture magazines and has attracted the admiration of artists and pleas from preservationists. Many of Molyvann’s creations from this period have been photographed elegantly and the prints can be seen in an exhibition titled “The Work of Vann Molyvann” at the French Cultural Center through August.
Molyvann’s streamlined structures stand in charming contrast to Phnom Penh’s ornate traditional buildings and the moldering mansions left by the French. But, like the old wats and colonial relics, many fear Molyvann’s work will be neglected, or worse, as the city continues it’s building boom.
Luckily, most of Molyvann’s buildings are not only standing but in use by students, athletes, artists and politicians. Many can be seen on foot or by joining one of several guided architecture tours around Phnom Penh.
From the towering presence of the Independence Monument to the sleek, low-slung elegance of Bassac Theatre, Molyvann’s work has defined Phnom Penh’s city landscape for more than four decades. Aside from the famous wats and Royal buildings, the city’s most famous landmarks — from Chaktomuk conference hall to the Council of Ministers building — are all Molyvann’s.
Not to be missed is Olympic Stadium. Built in 1968, the gargantuan sports complex was once the most prized arena in all of Southeast Asia. It may be even more intriguing now. Years have aged the 40,000-seat stadium — it’s not uncommon to see it nearly empty — but the sheer size and intricate design make for an intriguing visual experience. Olympic Stadium is still the largest venue in Cambodia.
Molyvann, now 79, is a Cambodian cultural icon. His work in New Khmer Architecture sprung from the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period of the 1950s and 60s when Khmer culture flourished under the patronage of then-King Norodom Sihanouk.
During that time Sihanouk appointed the young Vann Molyvann as chief architect to the Kingdom. Molyvann, who had traveled to France to train as a lawyer before switching his studies, soon became the country’s most celebrated architect.
Born in Ream, which was then a part of Kampot province, on Nov 23, 1926, Vann Molyvann first studied law in Cambodia, and then obtained one of five scholarships provided by wealthy Cambodians to pursue his studies in Paris. After one year of law, he switched to architecture at the School of Fine Arts in Paris, and returned to Cambodia in 1955.
In 1972, Vann Molyvann moved to Switzerland with his family. He worked for the UN Human Settlements Program for 10 years before returning to Cambodia in 1993.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Vann Molyvann designed some of the country’s most famous structures &mdahs; from national theaters to Cambodian embassies abroad. Vann Molyvann became Phnom Penh’s consulting architect in 1956 while serving as the country’s urban-planning director. He served as minister of Culture, Fine Arts, Urban and Country Planning in 1993.
Molyvann says that when he returned in 1957 he had to relearn architecture from a Khmer point of view. The result is a style that mixes the motifs of Angkor with modernism, the influence of Japanese styles and pure originality. More than any other architect he defined the styles of New Khmer Architecture.
This article first appeared in the August 2006 edition of The Wires.