Vann Molyvann Provides Inspiration for Cambodia’s Future Architects

The legacy of the founding father of the New Khmer Architecture movement, Vann Molyvann, was celebrated during a session that threw the spotlight on the late architect’s vision to meld climate and culture
Raintree’s Design Dialogue session about late architect Vann Molyvann. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Raintree’s Design Dialogue session about late architect Vann Molyvann. Kiripost/Siv Channa

As the risks of climate change become increasingly evident and heatwaves more widespread - Cambodia smashed a record in May when temperatures soared to 106.9-degrees in Kratie and Ponhea Kraek - the need for energy efficient architecture is apparent.

Look no further than revered Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann, who, in an era that predated the wide use of air-conditioning units and easy access to electricity, carefully incorporated culture and climate into each of his creations.

“Vann Molyvann was very particular to consider culture and climate in all of his designs. That means researching the location, natural elements, such as wind, sun, and flooding, and bringing in cultural elements,” said Pen Sereypagna, director of The Vann Molyvann Project, at Raintree’s Design Dialogue session about the late architect on Friday.

Who is Vann Molyvann?

Molyvann was born in Kampot province in 1926. He moved to Phnom Penh to study at Sisowath High School before earning a scholarship to study law in Paris in 1946. However, after one year, he decided to follow his passion and switched to study architecture at the esteemed School of Fine Arts in the French capital, graduating in 1954. He then spent two years working as an architect in Paris.

In 1956, Molyvann returned to a newly-independent Cambodia as the nation’s first qualified architect. Under King Norodom Sihanouk’s vision to create a modern Cambodian identity after decades of being under French rule, the King quickly recruited Molyvann to modernize Cambodia and steer the country into a new prosperous chapter known as the “Golden Era”.

“During Cambodia’s post-Independence, many Cambodians went to France and other parts of Europe, as well as the US, to study,” Sereypagna said. “When they came back, they formed a new art and architectural movement that was influenced by the West but adapted to the Cambodian context, culture and climate.”

Between 1956 and 1971, Molyvann was appointed to various high-ranking roles under King Sihanouk’s quest for cultural revival and modernaization. These included state architect and head of urban planning. During his tenure, he designed more than 100 projects that spanned public housing projects, private homes, state buildings, Sihanoukville port, monuments and university buildings.

Some of his most famous are Independence Monument, the National Sports Complex (commonly known as Olympic Stadium), and the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL). Molyvann was also involved in founding the current Royal University of Fine Arts in 1965. This saw, for the first time in Cambodia’s history, a department of architecture and urban planning formed, spawning a new generation of architects that continues until today.

When civil war broke out in the 1970s, Molyvann fled to Switzerland and went on to work with the United Nations Human Settlements Program in various countries across Eastern Europe and Africa.

In 1991, he returned to Cambodia and was appointed Minister of Culture, Fine Arts, Town and Country Planning. He went on to play an instrumental role in forming the APSARA Authority. Molyvann died aged 90 in October 2017, leaving a legacy that will inspire Cambodian architects for generations.

Blending Culture and Climate

“Culture and climate were important elements in Molyvann’s designs,” said Sereypagna. “A comfortable living space allows for new ways of living, and this relationship between cultural identity and climate is key.”

Speaking to an audience of about 100 students, architects and other stakeholders, Sereypagna cited examples of techniques Molyvann incorporated into his designs to ensure the buildings he created worked with the elements. Often, these were techniques learned during his studies in France that he brought back and adapted to Cambodia.

For example, brise soleil features in many of his designs. The shading system uses horizontal or vertical blades to restrict the sunlight that enters a building, keeping interiors naturally cool. Evidence of this can be found at Olympic Stadium, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, and IFL, among others.

While this was not a new design, Molyvann added cultural references, noted Sereypagna. He gave the building that the architect designed for the National Bank of Cambodia in Sihanoukville as an example. Here, Molyvann modeled the brise soleil walls on an abstract lotus flower.

Other design elements that kept Molyvann’s creations cool and breezy while being comfortably functional were cleverly positioned overhanging, double-layered roofs that not only provide shaded walkways on the exterior but also airways that prevent outside heat from entering.

Akin to the temples of Angkor, Molyvann also incorporated water into many of his designs. These serve both aesthetic and practical functions - in line with the moats and borays of Angkor and other temples. They offer a degree of protection from flooding and, at the public housing projects Molyvann developed, a place to water and wash animals and a means to grow crops.

Cosmology also featured heavily in Molyvann’s meticulous designs. And one signature element is the stilts that feature in traditional Khmer houses. This could be seen in his 100 Houses project and the National Theatre, which have since been razed, along with many of his other masterpieces.

Cambodia’s Future Architects

While Molyvann continues to inspire the next generation of Cambodian architects, Sereypagna said it is key to remain creative. Like Molyvann, who was inspired by his peers both home and abroad but paved a new architectural chapter in the Kingdom’s history, they need to find their own path in modern Cambodia.

“If you look at Molyvann’s generation, you can see how he interprets very traditional Khmer architecture with new architectural styles of that time. He was born and brought up in Kampot. That was his childhood. He knows local lives. Combining his education in France with his childhood are very important to put together in his design,” said Sereypagna.

“Today’s world is developing with technology. There are different technologies available, new materials, 3-D printing, houses being built out of recycled plastic. This can all be combined with life experience in Cambodia.”

He added that as the impacts of climate change become increasingly real in everyday life, considering factors akin to Molyvann in design is key. “It’s now all about the environment and global warming,” Sereypagna said. “That’s very different to 20 years ago.”

New Government, New Era

Architect Kang Hok, founder of HKA & Partners, returned to Cambodia from studying in the US in 2009. “When I got back, I was part of the first wave of Cambodian architects to study abroad,” he said, adding he drew huge inspiration from a meeting he had with Molyvann in the same year.

He noted that on August 22, a new government will be sworn in, comprising a cabinet aged 39 to 45. “Why that age? Because we lost a generation during the Pol Pot era. When I look for architects who are my seniors, I don’t have any. Me and my peers are the first batch of architects in modern Cambodia,” Hok said.

“We have young leaders for this country and young creatives sitting in this room. We have young leaders who are well-educated, speak English well, and are exposed internationally. There is a window of opportunity with the new government because their generation and our generation are much closer. Our role in this country is to help push things forward,” he added.

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