Vann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most distinguished architect studied at the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris after the Second World War. During the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime (1955–1970) Prince Norodom Sihanouk enacted a development policy encompassing the whole kingdom with the construction of new towns, infrastructure and architecture. Vann was the foremost of a generation of architects who contributed to the unique style of architecture that emerged during this era and that has been coined New Khmer Architecture.
It is one of the standard critiques of the Modernists of Vann’s generation that their grandiose designs crushed the street-level urban fabric and ignored environmental sustainability. Vann’s case stands this critique on its head. His 1960’s vision for Phnom Penh epitomizes the grandiose optimism of ”la Ville Radieuse,” the French version of midcentury utopian urbanism. Yet it was Vann’s city plan that paid exquisite attention to Phnom Penh’s environmental concerns and urban fabric, while the privatization and decentralization of the last 15 years threaten to scar the city’s landmarks and wreak havoc with its water management.
In 1970 the Sangkum Reastr Niyum came to a brutal end with the coup d’état led by General Lon Nol. Vann relocated to Switzerland with his family. He worked for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme for 10 years before eventually returning to Cambodia in 1991 where he served as President of the Council of Ministers, Minister of Culture, Fine Arts, Town and Country Planning.
Vann has condemned the recent development along Phnom Penh’s rivers and expressed regrets tat the built environment has been developed with the interests of foreign visitors in mind, as well as the profit motive that has driven local owners to respond to those visitors’ interests. Vann is concerned less about the fate of his buildings than about the neglect of Phnom Penh’s infrastructure. The city has a precarious relationship with water: each summer, the combination of monsoon rains and melting snow flowing down the Mekong from the Himalayas floods the farmland surrounding the city and causes the Tonle Sap River to reverse direction. The government has failed to build dikes to keep up with the city’s expansion, while shortsighted development is filling in the lakes and canals designed to channel floodwaters. A particularly heavy flood year, Vann fears, could prove disastrous. ”Three hundred thousand people would lose their homes,” he said soberly. ”You can’t imagine what could happen here.”
Many of Vann’s most important buildings, having managed to survive a civil war, American bombing, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation, are now threatened by the rapid and chaotic development of Phnom Penh. In 2008, two of Vann’s greatest buildings, the Preah Suramarit National Theater and the Council of Ministers, were demolished. No comprehensive record of the work exists. The Van Molyvann Project is dedicated to preserving the architect’s work http://www.vannmolyvannproject.org/.