Carrying Khmer style into the future

Sun Narin, Touch Sopor and Ngo Menghourng

Construction in Cambodia has been booming in the last decade, and despite the economic crisis, the modernising of Cambodia’s urban centres has continued to progress at a steady pace. Although the last 10 years have seen unprecedented growth in Cambodia’s cities, many of the buildings have been designed by foreigners, raising concern among Cambodian architects and historians that the country’s modern buildings are lacking Khmer style and causing cities in the Kingdom to lose their cultural identity.

Chea Bunseang, the principal architect at Bunseang Architects and Associates, said Cambodian architects lack the skills and practical experience due to out-of-date programmes at the Kingdom’s architectural schools, a lack of comprehensive building codes and zoning codes, and a lack of professional architecture instruction or an architecture society to act as a support network for designers working in the public and private sector.

Loy Bunleng, a 22-year-old architecture student in his fourth year at Norton University, said he is concerned that too many foreigners are being brought in to design buildings. He suggested that the government should “encourage Cambodian architects by giving them a chance to show their ideas, because we are capable of drawing good plans for the building”. Besides missed opportunities for the Kingdom’s emerging architects to hone their skills, the lack of Cambodians designing the country’s new buildings is also jeopardising the traditional identity of Cambodia’s urban centres.

“We all want the buildings, especially the state buildings, to be representative of traditional Khmer culture,” said Tang Sochet Vitou, an architecture lecturer at Royal University of Fine Arts, explaining that, as opposed to foreigners who have minimal understanding of traditional Khmer architecture, Cambodian architects have precise styles that are representative of Khmer identity.

“We are creative and retain the originality of Khmer characteristics. I want our architects to show their attainment like Vann Molyvann.” Vann Molyvann was the pioneer of “new Khmer architecture”, which emerged during the French colonial era in the 1950s, and he has since established himself as the country’s most famous contemporary architect. Over the last five decades, he has designed many of Phnom Penh’s most recognisable buildings. Some of his designs, such as the Independence Monument, have obvious similarities to ancient Cambodian architecture, while others, such as the Chaktomok Theatre or Olympic Stadium, feature more modern designs and subtle Khmer characteristics. Vann Molyvann is one of many Khmer architects who have taken modern designs and integrated traditional Cambodian building styles to create new styles that preserve the aesthetic traditions and functionality of traditional buildings. The French Department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (pictured above), designed by Vann Molyvann, is an obvious example.

The moats that surround the modern-looking building are an homage to the moats that surround Angkor Wat and other temples. “Other countries don’t have these buildings,” said Hok Sokol, a Cambodian researcher on Khmer architecture, adding that Vann Molyvann was the first of a new generation of Khmer architects to “use new methods which made the buildings look good as well as serving the right functions.” Darryl Collins, an independent researcher and architecture historian, said that Khmer architecture has changed significantly over the years. There are four periods of Khmer architecture: local Khmer architecture (from the Angkor empire to 1863), French colonial architecture (1863-1953), New Khmer architecture (1953-1970) and contemporary architecture. What remains to be seen is whether or not contemporary architects can learn from their predecessors and design buildings that maintain elements of traditional Khmer styles.

As Phnom Penh and other urban centres develop in the coming decades, it will be architecture students like Loy Bunleng who decide exactly how to preserve Cambodia’s much-celebrated architectural history in the bigger and more modern buildings being constructed.

Despite the fact that many of the major construction projects in Cambodia are being designed by foreign architects, Hok Sokol said that a renewed effort by the Ministry of culture to train highly skilled architects would help preserve Cambodia’s aesthetic identity in the decades to come. “There is no need to worry,” he said. “We will not lose Khmer identity in the modern architectural designs because there are a number of proud Cambodian architects who will be sure to include Khmer styles into their creations before they begin building.”

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