Vann Molyvann, Architect Who Shaped Cambodia’s Capital, Dies at 90
New York Times | 28 September 2017
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Vann Molyvann, an architect and urban planner whose pioneering mixing of modernism with indigenous elements transformed the landscape of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, died on Thursday at his home in the northern Siem Reap Province. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Delphine Vann. He lived near the ancient temples of Angkor, from which he derived inspiration.
Mr. Vann Molyvann was best known for combining modernist principles with ancient motifs, a style that came to be called New Khmer Architecture. He was admired by many Cambodians as the embodiment of integrity and vision in a country where art has often taken a back-seat to the upheavals of history.
He remained closely associated with the Cambodia of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of relative freedom and growth that was obliterated by the deadly purges of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Mr. Vann Molyvann lived in exile during the bloodiest decades of modern Cambodian history, and after he returned to his homeland in 1991, he watched as his carefully planned city was largely dismantled by unbridled capitalism, corruption and urban sprawl.
The architectural historian Helen Grant Ross wrote of Mr. Vann Molyvann, “His life seemed to be entwined with the destiny of his country.”
He was born on Nov. 23, 1926, when Cambodia was still a French colony, and grew up near the Gulf of Thailand, in the southwest. In the 1940s he won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the principles of modernism from disciples of Le Corbusier.
In 1956, Mr. Vann Molyvann was called home to put those principles into practice. The moment was historically unique. Newly independent, Cambodia was unburdened by war and colonial overlords for the first time in centuries, and the cosmopolitan but imperious King Norodom Sihanouk was free to shape the country according to his own wishes. He appointed Mr. Vann Molyvann his chief state architect.
Mr. Vann Molyvann went on to design more than 100 buildings, including monuments, breweries, royal villas and public housing projects. He oversaw the modernization of Phnom Penh, as the city grew from a dusty colonial outpost to a showcase capital.
But what should have been his most fruitful years as an architect were blighted by his country’s tumultuous history. King Sihanouk, his patron, was ousted in a coup in 1970, and Mr. Vann Molyvann took refuge in Switzerland. He remained there for the next two decades, watching powerlessly as the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and ransacked its buildings.
After a peace agreement was signed in 1991, Mr. Vann Molyvann returned home and became an advocate for responsible urban planning and preservation, finding himself at odds with the rampant corruption and kleptocracy that characterized Cambodia in the ′90s.
He served as culture minister and later became the head of the Apsara Authority, which administers the Angkor temples. He was forced out of the organization in 2001 after a disagreement over who should benefit from the admission proceeds.
Besides his daughter Delphine, his survivors include his wife, Trudy, two other daughters and two sons. His eldest son died before him.
In a country that has long felt that its glory days of imperial power and artistic accomplishment were centuries in the past, Mr. Vann Molyvann’s buildings were credited with giving Cambodians new self-confidence.
He drew inspiration from the advanced hydraulics and broad causeways of ancient Khmer city-states, and borrowed many architectural motifs from temple walls and roofs. He plucked the wooden stilts and thatched roofs of traditional Cambodian houses and gave them new life in concrete form.
“I realized that there was no need to invent anything,” Mr. Vann Molyvann told an interviewer in 2003 after the release of his book “Modern Khmer Cities.” “The Khmer had been the best of farmers, and the system of prek and boeng, or canals and ponds, truly is the irrigation system that we must perfect and continue to use.”
One building, a brewery near the coast, was inspired by the form of a traditional Khmer carrying pole. Another, the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh, combines a fan-like tower and reflecting pools that mirror the canals of Angkor.
His National Sports Complex, completed in 1964, was recently added to the World Monument Fund’s Watch List of imperiled structures. The organization called the building “one of the most important examples of regionally inflected modernism of the late twentieth century.”
In 2008, his widely admired Theatre du Bassac and Council of Ministers buildings were both demolished. He was also sidelined from urban planning and saw his work in that field in both Phnom Penh and the resort town of Siem Reap, the gateway to the Angkor ruins, become tangles of streets lined with hastily erected concrete buildings and blocky condominium towers.
“It is difficult to sit and watch the destruction of my children,” Mr. Vann Molyvann said in 2013.
Christopher Rompré, the director of the 2016 documentary “The Man Who Built Cambodia,” which was narrated by the actor Matt Dillon, said Mr. Vann Molyvann’s star had had a resurgence in recent years.
“Especially among young people,” Mr. Rompré said, “he holds this revered status of being one of the few people who is almost universally regarded as having integrity and being dedicated to advancing Khmer culture.”