Architect Seng Vannak was hired straight out of university in Paris to become a Phnom Penh City Hall urban planner. While he develops a new master plan for the capital, he’s also been growing Vannak Architects, which erected the high-end condominium tower Tronum. He talked with Southeast Asia Globe about how the country has grown to appreciate architecture in a new era of development
What is the biggest challenge in architecture in Cambodia?
The biggest challenge is to have human competence – human resources. We have materials, we have land, we have plants, we have stone, we have concrete, we have everything. We need competent people to do stuff. [So] we created the company and we hired more and more young Cambodian architects [to train up].
What would you say is Vannak Architects’ biggest success?
[In training] any architect that passes through my workshop or my company… I always do my speech: “Okay, I just want you to remember that here or anywhere else you go, bring [the notion] with you that the more you copy – even yourself – the more you are killing your own job. You just have no idea that that’s what you’re doing.” [The biggest success has been instilling in upcoming architects] to try to make original stuff, and then we are rich. We will enrich our country with that.
What drew you to architecture?
Architecture for me is a long, long story. It started at a really young age when I was six and my parents brought me to visit Angkor Wat. Actually for me, even still now talking about that story, I have goosebumps.… I finished high school in Cambodia [in 1998 and went to France]… and I got the French baccalaureate, the high school degree. It’s very important in France, that degree. You have to get that to go to university. I applied for architecture school straight [away]. The process in France is you are preselected, and when you are [pre]selected, you have [to pass a verbal exam].… So I just told my story about when I was young and I was so curious. I wanted to know how [Angkor Wat] was done, how it worked, why people created it. I didn’t really notice it was a question all researchers wanted to know: Why did they build Angkor Wat?… That’s why I was selected straight away.… [Architecture] is really my passion. I like to design. It’s my breath.
How has architecture in Cambodia changed over the years?
I think Cambodians understand more and more about architecture and they have started to love design. They can [tell] the difference between what is good quality of design and what is bad quality of design. I can’t believe it; in a short time, the young generation – and even the old generation – [have started to] talk to me about design. In that way, Cambodia has changed already. Before, they even confused architects and engineers, [but] now they know what an architect is. Before, they thought that an architect is just a useless person that goes around and carries plans, the plans to construct. But no, he is the designer. He is the idea behind that. He is the concept [developer]. Now they start to understand [who] is the mastermind [behind the] master plan, design concept and realisation.
This article was published in the July 2018 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.