28 September 2009

Vann Molyvann, Built Cambodia in Style

On this 1000r stamp from the 1993 National Day set is a building which used to stand boldly at the Tonlé Bassac (a river name) riverbank - the Grand Théâtre Preah Bat Norodom Suramarit (King Norodom Suramarit Grand Theatre), or commonly called the Bassac Theatre.

Graced with frangipani gardens, stylish pyramid glass roof, indoor fish pond and triangular motifs, the unforgettable national theatre was inaugurated in 1968. It escaped from Khmer Rouge's vandalism in 1970s but a fire during renovation in 1994 tragically brought the structure to ruin.

In 2008 this performing arts headquarters and another landmark of Phnom Penh, the Council of Ministers Building, were razed to the ground in the name of city development. Coincidentlly both buildings are the work of the country's most famous and influential architect, S.E. Vann Molyvann.
A recent photo of Molyvann in front of his old work, the library of now
the Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh.
The design is inspired by a Khmer palm leaf hat.
(Photo by the Cambodia Daily)

Born in Kampot province in 1926, Molyvann furthered his studies in Paris and returned to his motherland in 1956 as the first fully qualified Cambodian architect. During the Sangkum era from mid 1950s to 1970, the talented man became the foremost figure of New Khmer Architecture.

New Khmer Architecture was an architectural movement in the 1950s and 1960s Cambodia. This distinguish architectural style blended European modernist ideas with Khmer vernacular architecture, so brought a renaissance in Cambodian traditional ornamentation and planning strategies, like the use of loggias, ponds and moats, and column and wall panels. The movement was also characterized with the idea of what we now called sustainable architecture.

Masterpieces are numerous. Molyvann's Vimean Ekareach, also known as the Independence Monument, is no stranger to tourists and stamp collectors. Built in 1958, with a five story lotus shaped prang design reaching 20m high, the stately monument has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in Phnom Penh and the subject of many post 1979 Cambodian stamps:

Other than the Independence Monument, many of Molyvann's work are Phnom Penh's most iconic structures, to name a few, the National Sports Complex (the "new" Olympic Stadium), Chaktomuk Conference Hall, State Palace, and the Teacher Training College (now Institute of Foreign Languages of Royal University of Phnom Penh). Before 1970 the architect was commissioned for more than a hundred projects throughout the country.

Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Phnom Penh.
It resembles the leaves of sugar palm, the national tree of Cambodia.
(Photo: National Museum of Cambodia)

Molyvann left Cambodia after the 1970 coup d’état, stayed in Switzerland and worked for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. He returned to Phnom Penh in 1991, his patriotic heart makes him call the now shabby and dusty capital home again.

In 2008 the shocking news of Council of Ministers Building and Tonlé Bassac Theatre demolished with Senate's approval yet without public consent has prompted a group of Cambodian and American architects and students to launch the Vann Molyvann Project. After the war no comprehensive record of Molyvann's work survived, the project aims at documenting his creations before they vanish forever in the chaotic postwar urban development.

Please click HERE to learn more about the Vann Molyvann Project.

You may also like to learn more about the New Khmer Architecture through the blog of a Vann Molyvann Project participant, Rémy Bertin. Please click

HERE is a photo gallery of Tonlé Bassac Theatre before and after the fire, by "fmka".


  1. Nice and interesting post
    i can translate from french if necessary
    regards francois natanael