By Lauren Crothers
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AA) – Every evening, as the day draws on to “golden hour” in Phnom Penh, hundreds of people flock to the national stadium in the heart of the city.
It’s there, on a 300,000-square-meter tract of land, that they find some respite from the world beyond and its traffic-choked streets.
On the grass banks that flank the stadium, people gather and chat, eat snacks, read books, listen to music. Around the bleachers and on the track people exercise and play tennis, soccer or boules. Children leap from a diving board into the pool.
Wide-open spaces are important elements in any big city, and Phnom Penh is no different.
This one, commissioned by the late King Norodom Sihanouk and completed in 1964, was his and architect Vann Molyvann’s gift to its people and its continued use to this day makes it something of the beating heart of the city.
“Building this stadium wasn’t easy, but it was really the high point of my life, as it was for King Sihanouk” Molyvann says in The Man Who Built Cambodia, a documentary about his life that premiered in Phnom Penh on Friday night.
The 37-minute-long film pays tribute to the work of Molyvann, who was trained in Paris and brought to Cambodia a Le Corbusier-inspired love of brutalism combined with a nod to the country’s Angkorian heritage.
His prolific career as Cambodia’s leading architect and the capital’s urban planner saw him add many strings to his bow, with much of his work completed in the post-independence “golden age” of modern Cambodia.
Molyvann was behind the capital’s Independence Monument, Senate and other government buildings, as well as the Chaktomuk Theatre on the riverfront and a development of 100 houses near the airport.
Still, to this day, the National Stadium is perhaps Molyvann’s most oft-used and beloved piece of work.
Remarkably, however, it was not the 1970s’ civil war or Khmer Rouge regime that posed the greatest threat to Molyvann’s architectural epoch.
Instead, it’s been the post-regime destruction of some of his key works — coupled with a rapidly developing capital — that has endangered his legacy.
In 1994, the National Theatre was gutted by a fire, but promises to restore it were reneged upon and it was torn down.
That same decade, a supposed renovation project on Molyvann’s Grey Building left it completely unrecognizable.
Eight years ago, his Council of Ministers building was also demolished and replaced with an imposing, Chinese-designed structure.
According to Vann’s daughter, Delphine, high-story developments directly abutting one side of the stadium, now obscuring it from view, are helping destroy “a whole way of life”.
Now in his 90s, age has slowed Molyvann down. He’s wistful and nostalgic, but not bitter. We see him looking frail; using walking sticks to help him shuffle around.
He is reflective about his life’s work — about how he would methodically visit a site, find the bearings for the south and the east, take note of the prevailing winds and consider how his structures would work best in symbiosis with the landscape — all part of an effort to create something that “provokes” the imagination, he says in the film.
But asked how he feels about what has happened to his buildings and spaces over the past few years, the elderly architect looks solemn.
“Powerless,” he says.
“It’s the complete, visceral attack on him and his works,” says Darryl Collins, co-author of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, of the destruction of Molyvann’s projects.
“And the shock of seeing them destroyed in front of his eyes, sometimes literally, and I don’t think any artist or architect or mastercraftsman of any stature who put so much into Cambodia as he has… it’s more than anyone can stand.”
It’s to this end that Molyvann implores in the film for members of the Cambodian diaspora to return to the country and help restore it to architectural greatness once more.
Christopher Rompre, the film’s director, told Anadolu Agency on Saturday that he hopes the documentary will be seen by young Cambodians and inspire “a new generation of young, creative people to launch this renewal in a political and cultural sense”.
“What I love about it is it’s a critical documentary without having to be too critical. For the most part, it celebrates a period in Cambodia that was amazing and innovative — and the comparison creates itself,” he said.
Speaking to the audience after last night’s screening, architect and Khmer architecture tour guide Virak Roeun said he feels the sense of urgency to carry the torch passed on by his idol.
“The 1960s was a really great age of modern architecture,” he said. “I want to see another movement in Cambodia. It’s about time.”