Organized Panel Session
Benefiting from international aid supplied by various countries split along the Cold War’s ideological line, Cambodia in the mid 1950s under the leadership of Sihanouk embarked on a flurry of architectural experimentation which manifested itself not only in Phnom Penh, the capital city, but also in secondary cities, like Battambang or Sihanoukville, and elsewhere. This dynamic is best summed up by the then Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who, on his visit to Cambodia in 1967, was full of praise for “the new Phnom Penh [which] had the architectural style, in steel and concrete, of what Angkor had in sandstone and laterite.”
Scale of projects aside, experimentation was at every level: programmatic, functional, and, of course, design-wise. Planning of residential zones, an entirely new feature of Cambodian cities, hinted at the state’s efforts to attract a still largely rural population to cities and therefore partly transform Cambodia from a rural into an urban society. Building of university campuses across the kingdom where no higher education had ever been dispensed during the French colonial administration, were designed following a resolutely modern design. In another sign of experimentation, the Khmer traditional house was re-interpreted and cast with prefabricated components so as to accommodate a small but emerging middle-class of Cambodian urban dwellers.
The presentation will examine the complex set of dynamics that were at play during this period of architectural experimentation and how they were sustained by Cambodian architects and builders, including by their charismatic leader, Van Molyvann.