A pioneer of Cambodia’s post-independence architectural renaissance, Vann Molyvann was one of the country’s most cherished cultural treasures
Vann Molyvann, the renowned Cambodian architect who spearheaded the New Khmer Architecture movement and designed more than 100 modernist buildings, has died at the age of 90 at his home in Siem Reap.
“A lot of Cambodian people will be very aggrieved by the loss of Vann Molyvann,” Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s minister of culture and fine arts, told Southeast Asia Globe. “I’m very, very sad about his death. He contributed a lot to Cambodian culture.”
Enlisted by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s to oversee the urban planning of post-independence Cambodia, Molyvann spent 13 years as Cambodia’s state architect and head of public works, during which time he conceived his own form of eye catching, brutalist architecture that merged modernism with Angkorian motifs. He designed many notable public projects, including Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, National Theatre, Chaktomuk Conference Hall and the Independence Monument.
Inspired by the work of the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, which he encountered during his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, Molyvann’s designs were characterised by the use of reinforced concrete, the elevation of buildings on stilts and natural cooling mechanisms.
On seeing Molyvann’s achievements in 1967, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew is reported to have told then-King Norodom Sihanouk: “I hope, one day, my city will look like this.” In 2016, Molyvann’s legacy was celebrated in a documentary entitled The Man Who Built Cambodia.
Perhaps more important than his innovative aesthetic, however, was his commitment to sustainability, typified by his efforts to build the country’s first public housing.
After Phnom Penh’s population tripled from 370,000 in 1953 to one million in 1970, Molyvann designed the Bassac River Front and the 100 Houses project near the city’s international airport.
The iconic White Building that formed a major part of the Bassac River Front was knocked down in July, its demolition seen by many as a symbol of the unchecked construction boom fuelling the rapid dispossession of the capital’s urban poor.
In his later years, Molyvann himself was a vocal critic of the direction in which the country’s urban planning was heading.
“My conviction is that we cannot continue to develop Phnom Penh in the way that it has been done during the last two decades,” he said in 2013. “Everybody is taking land and selling it to foreigners and they are now creating huge skyscrapers without a plan.”
In the eyes of Hun Chansan, director of Re-Edge Architecture, Molyvann’s architectural feats are on a par with Angkor Wat.
“Cambodia has two masterpieces: the Angkor temples and Vann Molyvann’s architecture,” he wrote in an email to Southeast Asia Globe. “[Molyvann’s work taught me] that we can never put a price tag on good architecture, that it has a language, a rhythm and an identity; that it can show signs of originality, transformation and progression; that it represents something meaningful.”