He melded modernist principles with Angkorian tradition to invent a new style: Khmer Modernism
Text: Kyung Hun Oh
Photo: Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Vann Molyvann (1961), © Henning/Koditek
In 1956, Vann Molyvann returned to Cambodia from his studies in Paris to find his home country electrified by a new feeling of creative dynamism. There was a palpable sense that the nation, newly independent from France, was seeking to reconnect with its ancient tradition, ‘to reassert its own personality’, as he told Moritz Henning and Walter Koditek, co-authors of Architectural Guide Phnom Penh, recently published by DOM publishers. Soon appointed as the nation’s chief architect, he went on to forge the new architectural identity of Cambodia in the early postcolonial era.
He had studied the modernist masters in France, above all Le Corbusier, and the tenets of modernism would become a central hallmark of his work. He made radical and innovative use of reinforced concrete and valued honesty in materials: ‘they taught us not to use architectural lies; if we used stone, they should see stone; if we used cement, they should see cement.’ Function, too, occupied a central place in his architectural thinking: ‘a building has to work and find a use, according to the habits and customs of the culture.’ However, Vann’s modernism was also, distinctively and unmistakably, Cambodian. He took inspiration from the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, drew on elements of traditional Khmer architecture, and incorporated vernacular building methods that had been developed over centuries.
His most iconic works in Phnom Penh include the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Teacher Training College, and the National Sports Complex. Each of his buildings is an object lesson in climate-adapted design. He frequently raised his buildings to enhance natural ventilation and used perforated panels, full-height windows, and filtered light to temper the scorching heat of the Cambodian sun. Water, too, was a recurring design element, perhaps most remarkably in the National Sports Complex: there, he directed rainwater into a basin beneath the indoor stadium to produce a cooling effect through evaporation and convection.
Vann’s prolific career in the Cambodian capital came to an abrupt end after just 14 years, cut short by the military coup of 1970 and subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge, which forced him to seek refuge in Switzerland. Sadly, many of his works from the 1960s have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. Preservation projects of recent years are attempting to safeguard his legacy. Only time will tell whether his heritage will survive.
This text is taken from DOM magazine, no. 2, from May 2020. Our magazine is published four times a year – twice in German and twice in English. Receive a free copy with every order in our webshop.