Catalyst Asia: The Architect of Phnom Penh

April 9, 2015

Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's famed architect, in his Siem Reap home. (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – At sundown everyday, hundreds of Cambodians head to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for their daily exercise. Under the diminishing daylight, rival teams face off in football, while students laze on the concrete steps. The young jog steadily up and down the bleachers, while women dance out aerobic routines led by an instructor touting a boom box.

Olympic Stadium (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Olympic Stadium (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

The iconic Olympic Stadium may be an integral part of the average Cambodian’s day, but for its creator Vann Molyvann, it is a painful reminder of how much the city has changed, and what he has lost. Today, abutting up against the northern end of the sports complex are four behemoth structures, which will be a mall and a condominium when completed.

“I regret sincerely that what I have done with my life is being completely cast away by the present government,” Vann, 89, said.

Almost 60 years ago, Vann had just returned to a newly independent Cambodia after studying architecture in France’s esteemed Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. As the only Cambodian educated in urban planning, the 31-year-old was appointed in 1956 as the city’s chief architect and planner by King Norodom Sihanouk. What followed was a period of great productivity: the government commissioned the construction of universities, theaters, and national buildings, all of which embodied Vann’s ideals of urban existence within Cambodia’s tropical environment.

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