Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Khmer Architecture


In the last few years in Cambodia I have come to really enjoy photographing some of the many buildings that were designed in the late 1950's and 1960's - a movement that has been dubbed the ‘New Khmer Architecture’. This was a period of dynamic cultural and political ambition in Cambodia, and saw an extensive programme of urban renewal and construction across the country.

The architectural style pioneered by leading figures such as Vann Molyvann was an innovative blend of contemporary French and classic Angkorian styles. The works that they designed are slowly becoming recognised as some of the most important artistic milestone in 20th century Cambodian culture. These buildings are particularly precious now, as the majority of contemporary architecture mimics classic traditions or the worst traits of the Thai and Chinese “villa” styles with copious quantities of tiles, mirrored windows and faux columns.

Sadly some of the most impressive buildings have been destroyed or restored in ways that show a complete disregard for their original form and beauty (I’m typing this at work in one of the worst offenders). Ironically, some buildings are still well preserved due to their lengthy abandonment after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.

Anth and I have been on several of the excellent architecture tours that visit some of the key sites. There is also a fabulous book published last year called Building Cambodia - New Khmer Architecture that Anth gave me for my birthday yesterday.

To celebrate my birthday, we went out to the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities campus near the airport – which I presume was designed by Vann Molyvann. One of my biggest regrets leaving Cambodia last year was that we never took the time to visit this campus – and I would always look forlornly out the airplane window whenever we flew over it.

Fortunately we were able to make amends yesterday and there were no security guards on campus – although some members of the sparse student population were puzzled as to why two foreigners were wandering around their classrooms in the hottest part of the day taking photos. On the way back into the city, we paid a return visit to the last of Vann Molyvann’s 1970’s masterpieces – the Institute of Foreign Languages. Some of the shots from this architectural photo safari are on our Flickr page.

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