The man who built the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, forever closed his eyes in September 2017. At 91, architect and urban planner Vann Molyvann died peacefully in his home near Siem Reap.
He and his work were largely influential for the development of Cambodia and new Cambodian architecture. Born in 1926, in Kampot province in Southern Cambodia during a time that the country was still under the protectorate of France, he received a scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and left the country in 1946.
After his studies that were strongly influenced by modernist architecture and works of Le Corbusier, Vann Molyvann returned to Phnom Penh in 1956. At the time, no one knew what an architect was, so it wasn’t easy for him to find the first job. It was a small government contract which caught the eye of King Sihanouk. Thereafter, the King commissioned Vann Molyvann to build the Independence Monument that remains a landmark in Cambodia to this day.
Over the next decade or so Vann Molyvann, as the state architect and the father of new Khmer architecture, designed a plethora of buildings to help the development of Cambodia. His style combined traditional and ancient Khmer architecture with modernist ideas and materials. Among the body of work are universities, factories, ministries, theatres, and, of course, the famous sports complex.
Today it is still the largest building structure in all of Cambodia, however, the new developments around it, close in and crowd this important building of late 20th-century modernism in Asia. It is so significant that it was added to the World Monument Fund in 2006.
After the coup d’état, in 1971, Vann Molyvann fled with his family to Switzerland where he worked for the United Nations Human Settlement Program for ten years. His work consisted of building affordable housing for the less fortunate and the displaced.
Upon his return to Cambodia in 1991, he headed the Apsara Authority that is responsible for the restoration of Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap region and their management. But he did much more. He continued to be a thought leader and a pioneer in the development of his country.
While it was difficult for Vann Molyvann to find work as an architect probably due to adverse government sentiments and the fact that Cambodian people tried to forget their past, his buildings continued to be a testament to the new, dynamic Cambodia that he had envisioned already before the dark period of war.
He also continued his studies and published a number of books as well as appeared in documentaries and was interviewed frequently. In later years, he criticized the rapid and somewhat unplanned development of the country. Consequences of this erratic development were also damages and destructions of some of Vann Molyvann’s iconic buildings.
In 1994, the National Theatre which served as a place of gathering the dispersed Cambodian artists (from the past) and a revival of traditional arts and culture caught fire and was subsequently destroyed. In 2008, the Council of Ministers was torn down to make room for a new Chinese architectural style inspired building.
But luckily, a lot of his work – a testament to his love for Cambodia – remains intact and was documented. His contribution to the restructure of Cambodia is invaluable and an inspiration for generations to come.
Rest in peace, Vann Molyvann.
Source: photos are courtesy of Phnom Penh Post, Luke Duggleby, Southeast Asia Globe, Dezeen, Khmerlegend, New York times, The Culture Trip, Ki-Media.