Vann Molyvann is Cambodia’s greatest living architect. Vann’s style of work from the 1950s and 1960s is known as New Khmer Architecture, and blended modernist themes from the time with traditional Cambodian and Angkorian elements. Despite the civil war in the 1970s, many of Molyvann’s works survived, although much of it is now under threat due to rampant development in Cambodia. If you’re going to be in Phnom Penh for a few days, it’s worth having a look at a few of the master’s buildings.
“H.E.M Vann Molyvann’s work is so important because the architectural craftsmanship is of a world class standard,” said Maeve Staunton an Irish architect who recently lived in Phnom Penh. “The design expertise and structural ingenuity is revered by architects who visit his buildings,” said Staunton, who was an architectural lecturer at Limkokwing University and a research architect on the Vann Molyvann Project, an organization dedicated to documenting and preserving Vann’s legacy.
Vann Molyvann’s work can be found around Phnom Penh. The lotus-shaped Independence Monument in the centre of town is his design, as is Olympic Stadium, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Teacher Training College and the now decrepit White Building. What’s noticeable is the buildings no longer on the list — the Preah Suramarit National Theatre and the Council of Ministers that were torn down in 2008 to make way for more urban “development”.
This is where groups like the Vann Molyvann Project have tried to raise awareness about the destruction of Vann’s work in the hopes that what remains can be saved. “His work is priceless,” Staunton told me. “The lessons from Vann’s designs on materiality and passive environmental design are valuable to architects around the globe.” More than that, she explains, it’s good for Cambodia. “In a developing country like Cambodia, having the work of a local man being hailed by the international community is a tremendous confidence boost.”
It was not only Vann’s buildings that were amazing, but his city planning. All of his work paid great detail to Phnom Penh’s environmental concerns and water management issues. At the National Sports Complex (Olympic Stadium) he designed a network of pools designed to help absorb the monsoons that arrive every rainy season. These pools have now been filled in by a Taiwanese real estate firm who are “renovating” the centre, and the area floods each year. Additionally, the entire Olympic Stadium (so called because of a large sporting event in the 60s that never materialised), is seen as being under threat by those who work with the Vann Molyvann Project.
But it’s not too late to see Vann Molyvann’s work. If you’re looking for an inexpensive daytime activity in Phnom Penh, there are a number of Vann’s buildings that you can visit on your own or as part of of an organised walking tour. Khmer Architecture Tours offer walking and cyclo tours of many of Vann’s works.
If you’d prefer to go on your own, pick up a free Canby Phnom Penh Visitor’s Guide at many hotels or expat-oriented restaurants. The city map on page 31 has markers for points of architectural interest.
You can read a 2005 AFP interview with Vann Molyvann (by one of the Travelfish.org founders in 2005) here.
Below are the locations of some of Vann Molyvann’s work in central Phnom Penh:
Sihanouk roundabout at Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh
Sihanouk Blvd and Monireth Blvid, Phnom Penh
Chaktomuk Conference Hall
Sisowath Quay, close to the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
Sothearos Blvd (below Sihanouk Blvd), Phnom Penh
Teacher Training College
(Now the Institute of Foreign Languages)
Russian Blvd (around St 261), Phnom Penh
By Lina Goldberg
Last updated on 13th April, 2015.