Most tourists travel to Cambodia for a few days at Angkor Wat and then move on to Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam. Ancient Khmer culture, however, is not the full aesthetic story of Cambodia. Scott Rothstein, friend of HAND/EYE and observant blogger (www.artfoundout.blogspot.com) wrote recently about the work of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. He reminds us of what might be lost as Cambodia in general (and Phnom Penh in particular) experience growth.
During two of several visits to Cambodia, I had the chance to walk through the Preah Suramarit National Theater. Its absolutely lyrical combination of sensuality and Corbusier-inspired Modernism were unique and compelling. Alas, this modern masterpiece was demolished in 2008. Its delightful masonry and concrete walls were perforated in geometric patterns – creating natural ventilation as well as a play of light and shadow. Its broad, open stairways and soaring ceilings allowed heat to rise naturally – and made a glorious temple for Cambodia’s exquisite performing arts. Molyvann thought deeply about how to create comfort in the heat and humidity of Phnom Penh…without total reliance on electricity. His vocabulary of solutions included double roofs, cross-ventilation, brise-soleils, indirect lighting, evaporative cooling, use of local materials. This sounds like a list of green initiatives we would admire in buildings built today.
It’s hard to believe that the building is gone.
More of Mr. Molyvann’s work is threatened. Please visit the Vann Molyvann Project and lend a little support in their efforts to preserve Molyvann’s legacy. www.vannmolyvannproject.org.
More thoughts from Scott about Molyvann (taken from Scott’s blog www.artfoundout.blogspot.com):
After the Second World War, many newly independent countries experienced a moment of great optimism. In some places, this exuberance was expressed through architecture. The leaders of these liberated countries turned to modernism as a direction, which at that point in history still represented hope and a humanitarian point of view.
In Cambodia, Vann Molyvann was the most capable and dynamic architect asked to change the landscape of his country. He was given many commissions from the government as well as private individuals. In a relatively short time, Mr. Molyvann produced a substantial body of work. His efforts and that of other Cambodian architects became known as “The New Khmer Architecture.”
Today, most of Mr. Molyvann’s surviving buildings are vulnerable. Structures that lasted through the darkest days of Cambodia’s recent history now are at risk from insensitive investors/developers.