Top 10: a Menu of Phnom Penh Architecture


MONDAY, 01 SEPTEMBER 2008 20:28
September has been dubbed Architecture Month, so AsiaLIFE has invited Darryl Collins, co-author of ‘Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953 to 1970’ to list his favourite buildings in this architecturally-rich city.
Even by Cambodian standards, Phnom Penh is a relatively modern city. Founded in the 1430s, and named after Daun Penh, it has survived attacks, been elevated from a village to capital, redefined along colonial lines, immeasurably enhanced by design, become derelict and then revitalised. Angkorian it is not, a bustling metropolis it is. Architectural styles abound, from Middle Period to Protectorate through twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A glance at any Cambodian travel brochure or website related to Phnom Penh will find the indisputable ‘winners’ for all to see – from Wat Phnom to the Naga Casino. Without a doubt, they are architectural in nature, landmarks that echo the history of the capital. This Top 10 is a chronological listing spanning 100 years from the 1860s to 1964.

Royal Palace (1860s-present)
architects: Cambodian & French
The Royal Palace is Phnom Penh’s most memorable building complex. The present palace was constructed by King Norodom with French assistance and officially opened in 1870. Most original wooden structures were later demolished and reconstructed to original designs in concrete, brick and stucco. Extensively renovated in 1962 to its present form, parts of the Royal Palace are open to, and very popular with visitors. The Khemarin Palace remains the private residence of H.M. King Norodom Sihamoni and members of the royal family.

Central Post Office (1895)
architect: Daniel Fabre
Magnificently sited in a small square and witness to over a century of government postal business, this fine example of neo-classic architecture crowns a group of faded, once important colonial buildings. A central squat tower surmounted by a cupola roof was removed in the late 30s and replaced by an eccentric array of loud speakers. Nevertheless, this stately reminder still echoes the French quarter that was centred on banks, postal services, administrative offices, hotels and traders.

Huynh Tho residence (1920s) 
architect: unknown
A wonderful example of what George Groslier dubbed the Comprador-style, from the Chinese business agent of a foreign company – hence equating to Chinese-Khmer. This architectural pastiche borrows from almost every ‘neo’-style – from Renaissance Revival to Palladian – but still makes a superb statement on the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 178. In the recent past, this building housed the Embassy of Japan.

Musée Albert Sarraut (National Museum of Cambodia) (1920)
architects: George Groslier & Cambodian
Conservator Groslier’s masterful merger of traditional, Angkorian Khmer temple and later Cambodian wat architecture was enlarged to meet the needs of a colonial museum. The carved woodwork (doors and windows) and shutter paintings in the main entrance galleries are by students of the then Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens. With its peaceful interior garden, this is one of the real architectural marvels of the city and an appropriate home for the nation’s art treasures.

Hotel Le Royal (1929)
architect: Ernest Hébrard
Designed as a one of a suite of Indochine hotels, Le Royal is a grand example of French colonial style. Elegantly restored by Raffles’ International in 1997, the original hotel building featured sloping tiled roofs punctuated by triangular dormer windows, arcaded walkways and airy uncluttered corridors leading to high-ceilinged rooms with shuttered windows. This is the epitome of locally adaptive architecture, in keeping with the tropical climate.

Psar Thmei (Central Market) (1937)
architects: Jean Desbois & Louis Chauchon
This quintessential southeast Asian colonial Art Deco market was built on reclaimed land over a former swamp. Its moderne design and the technology employed in its construction, ranks it as one of the most important 30s buildings remaining in Phnom Penh. Designed by Desbois and engineered by Chauchon, it still functions as the main market. One of the shopping highlights of Phnom Penh, a lively, bustling affair filled with fresh daily goods, clothes and household wares, it has most recently undergone a facelift orchestrated by the Phnom Penh Municipality.

Chaktomuk Conference Hall (1961)

architect: Vann Molyvann
Perched overlooking the Tonle Sap at Chaktomuk and in close visual proximity to the Royal Palace, this multi-purpose conference hall is a creative approach to the blending of Khmer tradition with ‘New Khmer Architecture’. It still fulfils audience expectations for a comfortably designed auditorium with excellent acoustic quality and sightlines. Restored a few years ago, after the tragic loss in 1994 of the Preah Suramarit National Theatre (also designed by Vann Molyvann), it remains one of the precious few spaces for public spectacle.

Independence Monument (1962)
architect & engineer: Vann Molyvann & Ing Kieth
The iconic centre of Phnom Penh and the adored subject of busloads of tourists, the monument is a very subtle modern expansion – using adapted modular proportions – of an ancient Khmer tower. Initial soft pink, granite-finished, reinforced concrete forms were decorated with traditional Khmer motifs by master craftsman, Taing Veut. The original lotus ponds have recently been altered by the municipality to feature decorative lighting and fountains.

Technical Institute of Cambodia (ITC) (1964)

architects: Soviet team from Moscow
This technical educational facility consisting of a low-slung, series of airy classrooms, stairwells and corridors is still in use today. Louvered screens admit air and filtered sunlight in a series of buildings well-adapted to Cambodia’s climate. Designed by Russian architects and built with Soviet funds, the Institute of Technology was a gift to Cambodia. Better known by its abbreviation ITC, it was an important addition to the growing number of tertiary educational facilities planned along this aptly named street, formerly called Boulevard U.S.S.R.

National Sports Complex (Olympic Stadium) (1964)

architects: Vann Molyvann & multi-national team
The National Sports Complex is one of a number of great architectural masterpieces in Phnom Penh that adhere to canons and draw inspiration from traditional Khmer architecture. Utilised through the 60s for both national and international sporting events, public rallies to welcome state guests and spectacular political and theatrical events, this complex is in danger of being rendered useless by unsympathetic development. The product of a team effort during the 1960s, a host of architects, engineers and experts contributed their services to see this spectacular complex completed. It was originally designed to cover over 40 hectares.

Built historical heritage outlives its creators – the architects and engineers and sometimes its original function – but it stands resolutely as witness to great design, a style, megalomania or folly. Private or public, sacred or secular, daily experience of the built environment shields and protects, is for official use, or provides access to work and commerce. It offers a chance to convey personal taste in interiors and express admiration of exterior space and form. We all are hooked to the world of the latest fad, gadget, ‘wannabe’ or ‘must have’. Modern halls of commerce are constantly dedicated to our purses and shifting desires. Is the tallest and biggest necessarily the best? What about that quirky building almost hidden around the corner? Over recent years, the Phnom Penh skyline is in constant flux. Fine examples of heritage architecture have been demolished in the rush for development. Are the replacements in the category of exemplary architecture or, merely contemporary concrete boxes?

Selected Designers, Architects and Engineers

Daniel Fabre (1850-1904)
Architect and town planner, responsible for the facelift of Phnom Penh and Wat Phnom in the 1890s, he also contributed designs for many of the public buildings in the burgeoning city.
George Groslier (1887-1945)
French museologist-historian, George Groslier diligently promoted traditional Khmer culture and became the first conservator of the then Musée Albert Sarraut.
Ernest Hébrard (1875-1933)
By 1923, Hébrard founded the French Town Planning Service in Indochina, L’Service de la architecture et de la urbanisme de Indochine in Hanoi. He sited Psar Thmei, and in 1925, published an urban proposal Plan d’Extension de la Ville de Phnom-Penh.
Jean Desbois (1891-1971)
Saigon-based architect of the Société Indochinoise d’Etudes et de Constructions (SIDEC), he also designed apartments and stores in the square surrounding Central Market.
Louis Chauchon (1878-1945)
Engineer and architect for SIDEC, he designed a number of Phnom Penh buildings – in particular, Le palais du Commissariat de France, 1938.
Vann Molyvann (b.1926)
French-trained Vann Molyvann was the first fully qualified Khmer architect. He returned to Cambodia in 1956 and almost immediately set to work with commissions throughout the city. Vann worked on urban plans, provincial state residences, factories, monuments, public works, education facilities and also maintained a private practice.

An Alternate Top 10

1) Wat Phnom (14th/15th century)
2) Banque de l’Indochine (1890s/1930s)
5 Street 102, now houses Van’s Restaurant.
3) Chinese-Khmer residence (c.1915)
Sothearos Blvd., opposite National Museum, now houses Unesco headquarters.
4) Chinese-Khmer residence (c.1915)
Sothearos Blvd., opposite National Museum, derelict – will host the Georges Rousse exhibition as part of Architecture Month
5) Tan Pa residence (1923)
Street 114, now houses Maybank Bank
6) National Library of Cambodia (1924) & National Archives of Cambodia (1926)
Street 92
7) Phnom Penh Railway Station (1932)
Monivong Blvd.
8) State Palace Chamkar Mon (1966)
Norodom Blvd., now houses The Senate
9) Royal University of Phnom Penh (1968)
Russian Confederation Blvd.
10) The ‘Round House’ (c.1971)
Norodom Blvd., now houses Pachem Dental Clinic

Thanks to RK Architecture Research Khmer team (from 2000), Helen Grant Ross, the author and Hok Sokol.

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