The Phoenix of Phnom Penh
Deborah Wilk -- Interior Design, 11/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Photo by Joshua McHugh.
Some say youth is a state of mind. But when your back is aching and your eyes are dim, that idea can be hard to swallow. In the field of architecture, however, where recognition is often elusive until one's sixth or even seventh decade, the notion of youth remains staunchly relative. Which is good news for 82-year-old Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.
Schooled at l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris under the tutelage of Le Corbusier, Molyvann was handpicked by King Norodom Sihanouk after Cambodia's liberation from France in 1953 to lead a modernist movement to restore Phnom Penh as a cultural capital. Through the 1960's, Molyvann reinterpreted 20th-century building principals, endowing them with a distinctly Cambodian vernacular, and erected dozens of structures that became known as New Khmer Architecture. At the heart of Molyvann's work are the legendary temples of Angkor, which are referenced powerfully in such projects as the Institute for Foreign Languages. A collection of brick and concrete buildings raised high on columns, the 1972 design is also a response to the harsh Cambodian climate's intense sunlight, heavy rainstorms, and minimal airflow.
The Khmer Rouge brought Molyvann's exile and an end to his ambitious plans, but several of his landmarks, such as the National Sports Complex and the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, managed to survive the regime's reign of terror. Now, however, a new threat looms: development. With the cost of responsible renovation being astronomically high given the country's floundering economy, bulldozing the old and building new is an increasingly attractive option for both public and private schemes. Certainly, the time seems right for Molyvann's own to preserve his architectural legacy of cultural fusion and aesthetic innovation, allowing him to evolve from cult hero into full-blown icon.