Revisiting Vann Molyvann’s Phnom Penh
While much has been lost, there is still plenty left to see of Vann Molyvann’s 100 Houses project. Tucked away in a leafy and largely affluent neighbourhood of the city not far from Phnom Penh International Airport, the vast majority of the homes have either been bulldozed or renovated but a handful reflect the original designs. Commissioned by the National Bank, the project was intended for its employees to live in and to purchase over time.
Having grown up in a traditional wooden house in Kampot province – in an area that is now part of Preah Sihanouk – Molyvann was deeply influenced and impressed by the efficiency of traditional homes. The houses here were all built with one pond facing the west, for cooling and each had the same style of roof – steeply pitched on one side, inspired by a military cap – to allow hot air to escape. Most of the neighbourhood and the homes have been redeveloped, but many of the original roofs remain, and with the right vantage point you can see them lined up in rows in the distance. Mom Sinath, 68, who came to live in one of the homes with nine other families in 1979 and now owns the land, said this week she would like to expand her home, or knock it down, like those around her had done. “I used to hear about the name ‘Molyvann’ but I don’t really know much about him,” she said. “This house is too old so it’s hard to maintain.”
The original Pasteur Institute, this Molyvann design is more functional than inspirational but it is interesting to see how it has been adapted to a modern context. The original plot of land included a separate administrative building, which was destroyed. What remains is the former laboratory, which also had apartments for staff at the Institute. Now it is a bustling, though decrepit, building with dozens of families living on its three floors. Phoung Chea, 64, a retired Khmer teacher, came to live in the building after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the time, it was used as housing for state-owned factories in the area. “The Khmer Rouge locked all the doors so in order to get in people had to break doors and windows,” Chea said.
Everything was sold, even an old machine for making vaccines, he said. While the building has seen better days, the structure appears sound and the families have titles to the property after the residents appealed to the government in the mid-2000s. Its future is uncertain, however, as Chea says a real estate company has had its eyes set on the land for the last year and is attempting to buy out residents.
Originally built in 1955, Molyvann renovated this movie theatre in 1967 with his own distinctive style, including its jagged roof visible from the street and louvered walls for ventilation. After the fall of Phnom Penh, the theatre eventually became a snooker club – and at some point was a “VIP night club” as a sign hanging from the façade still attests. It remained a billiards hall until fall of 2016, when the fences came up around it. The building has been gutted, and the roof is largely already removed, but shopkeepers and residents nearby were unsure when it would be demolished. Centrally located, it is worth a visit for the façade and roof alone and may not be around for much longer.
Several authorities on Molyvann that Post Weekend spoke with knew nothing of his connection to this run-down health centre in Tuol Kork. Ellis-Roeun of Khmer Architecture Tours said it was just a “rumour” that this was one of his first projects. However, staff at the centre tell a different story. While several employees said that it was designed by Molyvann, Dr Kun Pally also described a more detailed history of the building. Almost every Chinese New Year, she said, the youngest son of its former owner — who was a doctor for King Norodom Sihanouk — comes to the house from France to say a prayer. While he was studying abroad in 1975, Pally said, his parents and two siblings took a trip to the provinces for Khmer New Year. They never returned home, and none survived the Khmer Rouge years. Vietnamese soldiers later occupied the building, and in the 1980s Pally and a team were asked to open a health centre there, which now serves mainly garment workers and indigent people. Though it has fallen into some disarray, the building certainly carries a few features typical of Molyvann’s style but there is little evidence of what must have been a vibrant and stylish family home.
Among the maze of roads in Phnom Penh, one area catches the eye from above: five streets converging in the heart of Tuol Kork, now centred around a busy junction and a petrol station. It might instead have been the seat of Cambodian power. From 1958-59, Molyvann designed a new parliament building for the capital, collaborating on the complex structure with Japanese construction company Obayashi Corporation.
Like many of his works, the site plan was “reminiscent of the rigorous geometry of Angkorian temples”, says Masaaki Iwamoto, architect and assistant professor at Kyushu University, who found copies of Molyvann’s original structural plan in the Obayashi Corporation archives and reunited the architect with them in 2015. Iwamoto adds that the project probably fell through due to the cost of enacting its complexity and scale, but that few documents exist to provide more details on the project. A scaled model of part of the building was reproduced from an interpretation of the drawings and can be seen in front of the library at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Though he spent much of his life away from it, Molyvann built a characteristically elegant and meticulously designed home on Phnom Penh’s Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. A concrete and brick structure, architects speak of its crowning achievement as its roof – a double roof, like so many of his buildings, but this time so widely spaced that “one man can actually walk through”, in his own words. Built in 1966 with the money he earned from private commissions, his time there was initially short-lived, with the family moving to Switzerland for safety in 1971. When they returned in 1991 it had, somewhat ironically, been taken over by the national land-registration administration. It was also “completely neglected”, Molyvann said in a 2005 interview, but the couple were soon given it back and made it their home again until moving to Siem Reap in 2014.
The ground floor is now occupied by an office supply showroom — meaning that visitors are free to nose around what was once Molyvann’s studio, look onto the modest garden framed with bamboo stalks, and walk around the driveway to see the building’s famed roof up close. Upstairs, Post Weekend found employees for Filipino design company Mushroom during their first week as the building’s new occupants. The open-plan office is spacious and airy, with Molyvann and his wife’s books and memorabilia replaced by rows of desks, but still loomed over by the dark and ruddy wooden roof gently sloping at various angles. “I was the most experimental I ever was, you see,” he said of the house during a Post interview in 2013. “I did not dare to impose crazy ideas on any of my government projects or for clients. It was a chance for me to play, but I was a little afraid.” He continued: “I wanted to see if this roof would be possible, if you could live inside a very modern, complex structure in Cambodia while keeping traditional features – such as the ventilation in the roof, and the lighting.”
This was Molyvann’s last building before fleeing the country. The architect was already in exile by the time it was inaugurated in 1972, after being in the works for seven years. On the surface, the complex appears to be one of Molyvann’s most modern designs, but its master plan is even more influenced by Angkorian design than any other. A long causeway with nagas leads up to the Teacher Training College – the central building – and crosses a moat on both sides, just as at Angkor Wat temple. As Darryl Collins and Helen Grant Ross noted, the college has all of Molyvann’s signature elements, but taken “to such an extreme that one could almost qualify these buildings as ‘New Khmer Baroque Architecture’”. The site also features the unique French library, designed to resemble a straw hat worn in the countryside.
Often considered the architect’s greatest achievement, the stadium has been slowly chipped away at but the brilliance of Molyvann’s design is still apparent. According to his wife, Trudy, the project began in 1962 with a phone call from Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who announced matter-of-factly that the Southeast Asia Games would be taking place in 18 months and a complex needed to be finished by then. The games never happened but the construction was still completed within two years – a Herculean task considering that it was built on wetlands, meaning the whole site needed to be filled in with earth. Molyvann’s design incorporated ponds all along its perimeter to prevent flooding – each of which have been filled in by development.
On the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 178 is an example of one of a few remaining private residences designed by Molyvann. Built in 1957 in collaboration with young designer Seng Suntheng, the building was refurbished after 1979, and up until a few years ago housed the offices of the Cambodian Civil Aviation Authority. To serve its function as an administrative office structure some alterations were made, such as an extension of the first floor, and additional structures were constructed around it. As such, the modernist design and original shape is only partially recognisable. Abandoned now for over a year, the building has fallen into considerable disrepair. The grounds surrounding it are used as a parking lot, and vegetation has begun to creep onto the structure. Nothing prevents a passerby from walking into the building, although one should enter at their own risk, given that there’s evidence of plaster having fallen from the ceilings. Still intact is a trademark ‘V’ support beam adjoining a first floor cantilever structure. According to one of the original owner’s descendants, the property may have been sold to developers and its future is uncertain.
Chaktomuk was not the biggest theatre Molyvann designed, nor his favourite — both those accolades went to the grand Preah Suramarit National Theatre on the banks of the Tonle Bassac, which was gutted by a fire in 1994 and demolished years later. A visit to the remains of that building, when they still stood in 2007, was said to have left Molyvann speechless. Yet it is the no-less-striking Chaktomuk that has endured, and which is now one of Phnom Penh’s most distinctive buildings, with its curved front sporting eight jutting triangles for a roof and its outer walls converging at the riverfront; from above, the design resembles a paper fan.
Opened in 1961, the eye-catching style is a reflection of the pointed roofs of the nearby Royal Palace, according to Virak Ellis-Roeun of Khmer Architecture Tours, and unlike many of Molyvann’s functional buildings, it is topped with an ornate stupa. This still serves a purpose, though, as a place to store a water tank. Now privately owned, it still serves as a venue for events such as the Cambodia International Film Festival. The creators of a film about Molyvann himself, The Man Who Built Cambodia, wanted to screen the movie at Chaktomuk but failed to gain approval from the Ministry of Culture. Officials were unhappy with both the title and the film’s last scene, where Molyvann calls for the Cambodian diaspora to return to the Kingdom — and for an intellectual “rebellion” by Cambodia’s youth.
The third monument to be constructed since Cambodia gained its independence from France in1953, Independence Monument was completed in 1957 and inaugurated in 1962. According to Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, Molyvann was brought to see Prince Norodom Sihanouk at the Royal Palace by then-Prime Minister Penn Nouth. Sihanouk asked Molyvann to build the monument after Banteay Srei temple and also proposed a sample of marble to use. After a previous contractor failed for two years to lay foundations into the soft ground designated for the monument, the mason Tan Veut was brought on and successfully drove a network of piles into the ground to support the structure. The monument is emblematic of Molyvann’s creative ability to re-interpret traditional Angkorian style elements, such as the Naga heads and decorated cornices, into a modern design.
Molyvann designed several buildings in the Chamkar Mon Compound, where Norodom Sihanouk once lived with his family and where power shifted after Sihanouk took on the role of politician rather than royalty from 1955. Lon Nol later lived in the compound after overthrowing Sihanouk in 1970. Molyvann was asked to complete the long, low State Palace in time for a visit by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1966, the building which now houses Cambodia’s Senate chamber. Most notable are its folded concrete plates, which form a double roof in an off-kilter honeycomb pattern.
Amongst the condos and boom of hotels of Sihanoukville remain some fine examples of Molyvann’s work. The Societe Khmere des Distilleries (SKD) brewery, still in operation today by Cambrew, was inspired by the dong raik method of carrying heavy loads balanced on each end of a long pole, according to Grant Ross and Collins in Building Cambodia, with the load of the building supported by a series of extremely long beams. An elevated walkway looks out over the factory floor, and there was originally a pool in the main hallway. From the outside the building resembles more a tasteful villa than a production line.
Meanwhile Molyvann’s building for the National Bank of Cambodia is still in use and was once the country’s central bank when notes were shipped from France, and it was considered safer to store them by the port than deliver the entirety to Phnom Penh. Reinforced walls in the basement were based on Swiss design methods, and the building survived attempts to destroy it by the Khmer Rouge during the regime’s assault on capitalist society.
A lesser-known architectural gem in the province is St Michael’s Catholic church, which Molyvann assisted a Basque priest described in writings as Father Ahadobery to design. A steeply sloped red-tiled wooden roof is supported in turns supported by solid concrete and hollow bricks which filter light in tiny glimpses through the walls. And Prince Sihanouk’s Royal Residence, which features ‘floating’ staircases on the outside of the home as well as terraces, external walkways, and inner courtyards now sits unused and neglected.