In the 1950s en 1960s Prince Norodom Sihanouk gave the impulse to an enlightened development policy encompassing the whole of the kingdom with the construction of new towns, infrastructure and architecture of the highest standard.
Undoubtedly, the most talented architect was Vann Molyvann, who completed more than a hundred buildings in just 15 years time. He contributed largely to the unique and authentic style of the New Khmer Architecture.
Most of these buildings in Phnom Penh and across the country survived the years of war and devastation remarkably intact, but not the large scale redevelopment and rampant land speculation. Molyvann’s landmarks, the National Theatre and the Council of Ministers building have already been destroyed. Many of the Cambodians ‘in power’ don’t see the importance of preserving icons of a movement they don’t regard as distinctively Khmer but rather modern – even foreign influenced.
New Khmer Architecture
The buildings do have a distinctive Khmer influence. Elements of vernacular tradition can be seen in many buildings raised on columns. This is the style traditional Khmer houses are build, making an open, shaded space for social activities, creates a natural cooling effect, and offers protection in times of floods.
Adaptations to the climate are also the use of wall panels, double walls and the typical VVV-shaped roofs that can be found on many of the buildings in the style.
The Angkor tradition suggested the use of moats. These are not only decorative, but also function as a water reservoir in rainy season, and work as a cooling device. The National Sports Complex is a prime examples of this approach, or should we say was as a private developer filled up this vital hydraulic system.
Khmer Architecture Tours is an independent, not-for-profit organisation established in 2003 in Phnom Penh to promote the understanding of modern architecture in Cambodia.
They do various organized tours, the most popular being Central Phnom Penh by cyclo. This tour explores central Phnom Penh and includes Colonial buildings as well as modern, post-independence architecture. Meant to be a brief introduction to the city, the tour includes a selection of well-known buildings as well as some less obvious examples.
Tours start from the Central Phnom Penh Post Office, near Wat Phnom, usually at 08.30.
Do it yourself
You can also do a self guided tour. From the website of Khmer Architecture Tours you can download one (or all) of their very informative maps of Phnom Penh, Central Battambang, and South Battambang.
Conceived in 1961 as a conference hall, this fan-shaped building was also the design of Vann Molyvann, who employed the use of triangles and zigzags as unifying motifs. It is at the southern end of Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh’s river boulevard.
National Sports Complex
Now commonly referred to as the ‘Olympic Stadium’ (although Cambodia never hosted the Olympics), it is one of Vann Molyvann’s masterpieces. Boasting a composition that refers to Angkorian temple ensembles, the sports complex was created after Phnom Penh was chosen to host the 1964 Asian Games.
Institute of Foreign Languages
Originally designed as a teacher training college, the institute’s buildings are divided into three elements – the main building, the library and the lecture rooms – and may be Vann Molyvann’s most complex and interesting work.