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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 27, 2007
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Deconstructing Cambodia's modernist heritage

Building Cambodia by Helen Grant Ross and
Darryl Leon Collins

Reviewed by Andrew Symon

designed to host the inaugural Southeast Asian Games in 1963 - but which in fact came to be held in Jakarta. The complex was also designed by Molyvann and made great use of earthworks to shape the site. Half a million cubic meters of earth were dug out

of the site and piled up to create an elliptical stadium able to seat 60,000 people.

Royal builder
The authors set their story in the wider context of Cambodia's political and economic development over those years. At the heart of this expansion was Sihanouk, who believed that a widespread pubic construction program was a key to shaping a confident new Cambodia. In this pursuit, the royal figure reportedly saw himself in the tradition of the great Angkor kings of the country's ancient past, emulating in small scale their monumental architectural achievements.

While Sihanouk's leadership has often been criticized as verging on the dictatorial, leading in part perhaps to the country's later traumas, Ross and Collins argue the architecture he oversaw was certainly not that of an authoritarian state. There was diversity, subtlety and innovation and there were no monumental works that de-humanize by their scale. And construction was not just limited to government buildings, monuments, arts and sports centers, hotels and homes for the wealthy.

There were also uniquely constructed schools, university buildings, commercial offices, model factories, churches and private homes for the middle class as well as housing estates for low wage earners. Nor was building limited to just Phnom Penh; works were done all over Cambodia. And it was often meshed with astute town planning, as manifested in the expansion of Phnom Penh.

This was also seen in other newly independent countries in the period. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Cambodian experience brings to mind Indonesia and president Sukarno's promotion of urban development and architecture. But there seems nothing elsewhere quite like the coherence and extent of the Khmer modernist movement.

So impressed was Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, with the new buildings and gardens of the well-planned Phnom Penh during his visit in 1967 that he saw it as a model for his vision of a modern Singapore. Vann Molyvann recalled decades later that Lee unsuccessfully requested Sihanouk to allow Cambodia's state architects to work in his city-state.

"The term 'new Khmer architecture' was in fact coined in the 1960s, but the detail of this school was later largely forgotten in Cambodia," Collins says. Collins originally came to Cambodia in 1994 as part of an Australian government-funded program to assist with the restoration of Phnom Penh's national museum. Ross, originally from the United Kingdom, moved to Phonm Penh in 1997 from Thailand after having worked on the development of Bangkok's rapid transit system.

Unfortunately, both authors note, much is now being lost or threatened through demolition and unregulated development as more money flows into Cambodia. For instance, chipping away at Molyvann's national sports center is a dense Taiwanese-invested office, shopping and apartment development which is being built literally to encircle the architectural masterpiece.

One of the greatest losses has been the Preah Suramarit national theater, which was opened in 1968 and also designed by Molyvann. Much of the building was gutted by fire in 1994 and no attempt at restoration followed. It has continued to be used by local musicians, dancers and singers as a place for rehearsals, but a recent deal between the Ministry of Culture and the locally-owned Royal Group has the structure scheduled for demolition.

Khmer-designed modernist buildings are at more risk than the old French colonial architecture and planning, Ross and Collins say. That's because the older European structures tend to be more accepted internationally for their heritage value than those of the more recent modernist style - although belatedly world bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization are making efforts to encourage preservation of the mid-20th century legacy.

"These buildings show a real Cambodian spirit," said Collins. "It was a real experiment that worked." So, too, does the authors' book in detailing how the vitality and promise of that short but golden era was captured in the then young country's architecture.

Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 by Helen Grant Ross and Darry Leon Collins, including a preface by His Majesty King Shamoni. The Key Publisher, Bangkok, 2007. ISBN: 974934121. Price US$65, 333 pages.

Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and analyst specializing in energy and mining issues.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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