Vann Molyvann: Cambodia’s forgotten architect
Architect Bill Greaves stood on a bluff outside the city and admired an elegant white and peach building perched high above the beaches and guesthouses that have made this seaside spot into a tourist boomtown. Inspired by the dong raik, a pole used by rural Cambodians to carry loads on their shoulders, the building seemed to float in the air, its concrete and brick second floor held aloft by a complex web of hidden beams.
“It’s a gem, but it’s not very well known,” Greaves said of the SKD Brewery offices, built in 1968 by Cambodia’s most gifted and visionary architect, Vann Molyvann.
In the 1960s, under the iron-fisted patronage of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Vann Molyvann helped transform Cambodia from a sleepy former French colony into one of the most architecturally arresting countries in Asia. But after surviving decades of civil war and the terror of Khmer Rouge rule, the architect’s buildings are being demolished as Cambodia seeks to rebuild.
Although Vann Molyvann, 83, is back in Phnom Penh after years of living overseas, there is little he can do to prevent his work from disappearing. In 2008, two of his greatest works, the National Theater and the Council of Ministers building, were demolished. In 2001, the government sold his Olympic Stadium to a Taiwanese developer, who altered the complex’s drainage system to the point that it floods frequently.
In response, admirers such as Greaves, art historian Darryl Collins, who cowrote the only book in English about 1950s and 1960s Cambodian architecture, and architect Geoff Pyle, who founded an organization that offers guided tours of Phnom Penh’s notable buildings, are working to highlight Vann Molyvann’s importance. He remains virtually unknown in Cambodia, where he is not taught in the country’s high schools and universities, and his international profile is low.
Greaves had traveled from his base in Phnom Penh to the brewery in Sihanoukville with a team of volunteers working with the Vann Molyvann Project, an organization he established in 2009 to document the architect’s buildings. Nearly all of Vann Molyvann’s blueprints were lost during Cambodia’s years of turmoil, so Greaves and his volunteers are re-creating them from scratch to leave a record for future generations.
As the sun burned off the morning mist and lipstick-red trucks roared by full of Angkor beer — the SKD complex remains a functioning brewery — Cambodian and American volunteers in their 20s moved methodically through the space, hand measuring doorways, columns and anything else they could get their tape measurers on. They would spend the better part of three days sizing up the building before heading back to Phnom Penh, where they were creating scale models and drawings for the first major exhibition of Vann Molyvann’s work, which opened in Phnom Penh in late September.
Greaves first encountered Vann Molyvann’s buildings when he was visiting as a tourist in 2004. “I was astonished. I didn’t know anything about architecture in Cambodia in the 1960s,” he said. He was struck by the architect’s daring use of concrete to create massive, expressive forms, “the kinds of things you could never convince a structural engineer to do nowadays,” he said.
The buildings ingeniously used what might now be called green technology, including ventilation, natural lighting and drainage systems, to mitigate Cambodia’s harsh climate, which alternates between periods of torrential rain and extreme heat. The buildings also referenced objects from Cambodian culture, such as mystical Buddhist serpents called nagas and the straw hats worn by peasants working in the fields.
After returning to Cambodia several times, Greaves quit his job at Steven Harris Architects in New York and moved to Phnom Penh to found the Vann Molyvann Project, which has consulted extensively with the Cambodian architect in its work. “I am extremely grateful for what they are doing,” Vann Molyvann said of his foreign admirers.
Vann Molyvann’s life has been shaped by the twists and turns of his country’s tumultuous history. Born in 1926, he attended Cambodia’s only high school during World War II. However, his studies were interrupted by Japan’s takeover of the country during the war, but he managed to graduate and in 1945 won one of two scholarships that year for Cambodians to study in France.
At the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he received architectural training from disciples of Le Corbusier, who taught him the influential French architect’s “Le Modulor,” a system of proportion that Vann Molyvann later used as the basis for his designs. He thought little about his home country and “drowned in French culture completely,” he said. Meanwhile, his compatriots in Paris at the time, including a young Pol Pot, soaked up the Marxism and Stalinism that would form the ideological basis of the Khmer Rouge.
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.”