Revered Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, the man who started an architectural renaissance in his homeland and designed the Kingdom’s most iconic structures, died last week at the age of 90.
The architectural giant, whose most celebrated works include the Olympic Stadium and the Independence Monument, died in his home on Sept 28, according to his assistant Choung Chhoeun. Molyvann is survived by his wife, Trudy; five of his six children; and 12 grandchildren. He spent his final years in Siem Reap and was often photographed in his old age wearing signature suspenders.
Born in what was then Kampot province in November 1926, Molyvann studied in Phnom Penh and was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris in 1946. After briefly dabbling in law, he found his true calling in architecture and studied at the renowned Lecole des Beaux Arts, where he was heavily influenced by the Modernism of French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965, real name Charles-Edouard Jeanneret).
When Molyvann returned to Cambodia in 1956, it was almost impossible to get a job – “Nobody knew what an architect was,” he says in The Man Who Built Cambodia, a recent documentary about his life and work.
That swiftly changed after he was recruited by the late King Norodom Sihanouk to spearhead a modern Khmer urban planning movement.
Molyvann was a crucial part of the wave of creativity and reinvention of Khmer culture that swept the nation following independence from France in 1953. The bulk of his oeuvre was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, a period often referred to as the golden age of Cambodia, before the country was plunged into civil war and ravaged by the Khmer Rouge.
Appointed state architect, Molyvann designed a number of public works that still stand today. The Independence Monument, which evokes the shape of the lotus flower and echoes Angkor-era design, is one of the most iconic structures in Phnom Penh; the Chaktomuk Conference Hall fans out on the bank of the Tonle Bassac River; and the Olympic Stadium, which Molyvann considered his crowning achievement, continues to attract thousands of Phnom Penh residents who frequent the complex for their daily exercise.
In the documentary, Molyvann articulates his technique, describing how he visited sites and discerned the prevailing winds.
“I try to find something that will work in symbiosis with the landscape. Only then can I start sketching plans. The rest is simply a matter of style and vocabulary,” he says.
“The most important thing is to find what the site suggests, what it provokes in the imagination … that’s what’s important. It’s not about copying what has been done, but instead creating from the past something entirely new.”
A former student of Molyvann’s, Um Bunthoeun, who is now a professor of interior design in Phnom Penh, penned a thesis on Molyvann’s works and their spiritual elements.
“He told me, ‘If you want to be an architect, you must study hard to learn about the flow of wind and water in Cambodia’,” Bunthoeun said on Thursday.
But a change in the prevailing political winds swept Molyvann from his home country for two decades.
King Sihanouk was removed by a coup led by Lon Nol in 1970, and Molyvann fled the country for Switzerland shortly after. In 1975, the capital fell to the murderous Khmer Rouge. The Olympic Stadium was co-opted for communist propaganda meetings, and when the regime was ousted by the Vietnamese, Molyvann’s Chaktomuk Conference Hall was chosen to host a show trial in which Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were sentenced to death in absentia.
Molyvann remained abroad for some 20 years. Living in Switzerland, he built houses in developing countries as part of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. When he returned to Cambodia, in the early 1990s, it was to a very different country to the one he had left behind.
He was made minister of culture and tasked with overseeing restorations of temples at Angkor Wat as the president of the Apsara Authority, but was fired without apparent cause in 2001. Ever loyal to the former King Sihanouk, observers suggested he had fallen out of favour with the government headed by strongman Hun Sen. Molyvann threw his support behind the opposition party ahead of the 2013 national election, taking issue with the lack of forethought in urban planning under the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party.
Although many of his iconic buildings had survived the Khmer Rouge, they began to fall, one by one, as a chaotic construction boom spread across Phnom Penh.
The National Theatre, which resembled a great ship, was badly damaged by fire in 1994 and torn down in 2007. The Council of Ministers building was demolished the following year and replaced with a dystopian-looking structure funded by the Chinese government.
The Olympic Stadium has somewhat fallen into disrepair, and in 2000 part of the complex was sold to a developer whose shoddy constructions damaged its hydraulic system and caused flooding. The recently demolished White Building was also constructed as part of Molyvann’s project to beautify the Tonle Bassac riverfront area in Phnom Penh, though he did not design it himself.
Tributes flowed in last week for Molyvann. Prime Minister Hun Sen also wrote to Molyvann’s widow, offering his condolences and saying his death was a loss to the nation.
Historian Sombo Manara described the architect as a national hero, while Bun Narith, his successor at the Apsara Authority, said he was a gentle soul, but strict about his work.
Prince Sisowath Kulachad, who studied under Molyvann’s mentor, French architect Louis Arretche (1905-1991), said Molyvann’s impact was colossal.
“The intelligence of Molyvann was his ability to synchronise Khmer culture with the West,” he said. “He had a talent for listening to the old generation.” The prince added that, like many historic greats, there was no clear successor to continue Molyvann’s legacy.
Christopher Rompr, director of The Man Who Built Cambodia, said Molyvann was much more than an architect.
“He wouldn’t have seen himself as being a role model or leader, but a lot of young people equate him with what it means to have integrity, to be a strong leader with vision, with determination, who doesn’t compromise, who focuses on the public good and what it means to be Khmer,” Rompr said.
“King Sihanouk and Molyvann were working together to forge a new path, reaching back before colonialism and mixing Angkorian concepts with modernist designs.
“This completely haphazard, destructive, build-anything-wherever-you-have-land (mentality) was very frustrating for him … (he believed) there was no such thing as good architecture if it was working against the broader need of the public,” said Rompr.
Tang Sochet Vitou, a member of the Cambodian Society of Architects, described Molyvann as a pioneer and visionary.
“He has designed so many buildings, I hate to choose one, but if I must, I would say Olympic Stadium. The function, the scale of the project, the unique creation – it’s all there,” he said, listing the sustainable design, natural ventilation and lighting as important elements of the design.
He agreed with Rompr that it is painful to see pieces of Molyvann’s legacy lost to neglect, and recalled advice he received after meeting with the master architect four years ago.
“I remember him saying, ‘You have to love your country … do not just do anything to be popular or for your personal ego … you have to open your heart to make an impact on society. If you are not careful, you will create something that at the end of the day will destroy others or the environment’.” – The Phnom Penh Post/Asia News Network