Up-and-com­ing Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tect Hun Chansan dis­cusses the fu­ture of Ph­nom Penh

Hun Chansan is carv­ing out a rep­u­ta­tion as one of Cam­bo­dia’s most in­no­va­tive young ar­chi­tects. From his strik­ing of­fice in cen­tral Ph­nom Penh, he ex­plains to South­east Asia Globe why his firm prefers to take risks and where he be­lieves the cap­i­tal’s plann

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Words by Claire Knox Pho­tog­ra­phy by Emil Kas­trup

The in­te­ri­ors of 37-year-old ar­chi­tect Hun Chansan’s Ph­nom Penh prac­tice – a ren­o­vated 1960s villa in the swish sub­urb of BKK 1 – could be straight out of the pages of a trop­ics-themed is­sue of Wall­pa­per* mag­a­zine. Be­yond a small, min­i­mal­ist lobby sits a large co-work­ing table with vases of lo­tus flow­ers and about 20 young ar­chi­tects click­ing away at their com­put­ers. Huge plaques are stud­ded to the walls show­cas­ing the team’s re­cent work, from a 16-storey bou­tique ho­tel in the cen­tre of the city to an am­bi­tious plan for all of Ph­nom Penh – a city in the throes of ram­pant and unchecked de­vel­op­ment – con­sist­ing of res­i­den­tial ar­eas and pub­lic parks, busi­ness dis­tricts and cul­tural hubs.

“Here, my team has the op­tion to de­sign – to be in­spired – rather than just look­ing at re­bar and steel and con­crete or check­ing tech­ni­cal draw­ings,” he tells me as we walk past one of his staff sketch­ing away on a notepad.

Chansan is re­fer­ring to a cross­roads that his six-year-old busi­ness, Re-Edge Ar­chi­tec­ture, was faced with two years ago. He and the startup’s other two founders, who now run a suc­cess­ful construction com­pany, de­cided to part ways af­ter dis­agree­ing on the com­pany’s cre­ative vision. “They wanted to fo­cus on build­ing rather than the cre­ative side. I wanted no con­flict of in­ter­est be­tween the de­sign and the build, and construction tends to favour things such as profitabil­ity, sim­plic­ity, speed and cut­ting cor­ners over smart, sus­tain­able de­sign,” he said. These days, with a staff of 25 work­ing on eight projects, Chansan is con­fi­dent he made the right choice.

Re-Edge’s de­signs, Chansan says, value sto­ry­telling, ge­og­ra­phy and risk tak­ing. In 2013, the team first sketched out blue­prints for Lu­miere, the sleek, 16-storey ho­tel, which opened last month in Ph­nom Penh.

Its de­sign pays homage to Cam­bo­dia’s 1960s ar­chi­tec­ture hero Vann Moly­vann’s lo­tus-shaped Independence Mon­u­ment, which can be seen from var­i­ous an­gles of the ro­tat­ing geo­met­ric floors. “I don’t be­lieve in just build­ing a box and liv­ing in it,” Chansan says.

When it comes to process, Chansan says he val­ues de­tail and thought­ful­ness over speed. “There should be a vision for the city as it grows, a mas­ter plan to solve is­sues of pop­u­la­tion growth, traf­fic… in­fra­struc­ture, zon­ing, parks, so­cial hous­ing, cul­tural buildings,” he says. “In a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, ev­ery­thing goes up so fast. Ev­ery­one has the men­tal­ity that build­ing is bet­ter than not build­ing, but then they for­get about the out­come – what hap­pens af­ter­wards?”

Over the past 15 years, Ph­nom Penh has wit­nessed rapid eco­nomic growth and swift struc­tural de­vel­op­ment. The city’s sky­line is awash with soar­ing, half-built con­do­mini­ums, cranes and tow­ers. Last year was a record one for construction, with a to­tal of $8.5 bil­lion worth of projects ap­proved.

Re-Edge has won a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of bids over the past few years, some­thing Chansan puts down to four key fac­tors: the tal­ent of the team; his own com­mit­ment; the firm’s de­sign “per­son­al­ity”; and the fact that he is “well con­nected” – a phrase of­ten shied away from by suc­cess­ful Cam­bo­di­ans but one that he is quick to ac­knowl­edge as a fac­tor. “I ab­so­lutely feel very lucky to have the op­por­tu­ni­ties I’ve had. With­out them, I may not be here now,” he says.

Chansan grew up in an era when civil war still plagued the na­tion. His fa­ther and un­cles tapped into a bur­geon­ing mar­ket for pho­tog­ra­phy – most Cam­bo­di­ans’ fam­ily pho­tos were de­stroyed dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge years – and set up a string of photo stu­dios around the cap­i­tal’s Cen­tral Mar­ket, where they lived.

They also ac­quired valu­able land. A patch of lu­cra­tive real es­tate where the famed Sam Doo Chi­nese restau­rant now stands is the for­mer fam­ily home (they now lease it out). In 1991, as for­eign UN peace­keeprs and NGO work­ers streamed into the coun­try, his fa­ther es­tab­lished one of the city’s first ho­tels: Mit­tapheap Ho­tel on Monivong Boule­vard, which Chansan gave a slick facelift in 2012 and re­branded as Mito Ho­tel.

As po­lit­i­cal ten­sions height­ened in the mid-1990s, Chansan’s par­ents sent him to Singapore to fin­ish high school. And it was there, with the city-state’s in­trigu­ing blend of her­itage struc­tures and mod­ern buildings, that his early fas­ci­na­tion with ar­chi­tec­ture was born: “I was al­ways quite good with art and sketch­ing, and a Sin­ga­porean teacher mused that I had the pa­tience and cre­ativ­ity needed to be an ar­chi­tect.” He went on to study two de­grees in fine arts and ar­chi­tec­ture and a mas­ter’s in ur­ban de­sign in the US, at Bos­ton’s North­east­ern Univer­sity.

It was there that he “gained a deep sense of what ar­chi­tec­ture is”, af­ter be­ing ex­posed to the ur­ban plan­ners of an­cient Rome and Greece and risk-tak­ing ar­chi­tects such as Le Cor­bus­ier. “I also de­vel­oped a real in­ter­est in the work of Vann Moly­vann and the New Kh­mer Ar­chi­tec­ture move­ment of the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “Every time I’d come back to Ph­nom Penh for a visit I’d drive past the In­sti­tute of For­eign Lan­guages and think: ‘Wow, look at these shapes.’ It was like: ‘What’s go­ing on here?’”

Chansan is dis­mayed that many of Moly­vann’s buildings have been de­stroyed to make way for colos­sal con­do­minium de­vel­op­ments. “The Olympic Sta­dium, for ex­am­ple, is so im­por­tant for the mem­ory of the city and be­cause it is a pub­lic space. Buildings are about how peo­ple live in them. I have mem­o­ries as a kid swim­ming in the pool and play­ing ten­nis there; now I take my son to do the same. I think a good city should look into how peo­ple need to use it.”

One project de­vel­op­ing along such lines is the pro­posed $40m Sleuk Rith In­sti­tute in Ph­nom Penh, a geno­cide mu­seum and re­search in­sti­tute. De­signed by re­cently de­ceased, Iraq-born ‘star­chi­tect’ Zaha Ha­did, it is a twist­ing, ta­per­ing struc­ture of five in­ter­con­nected tow­ers. “Man, I re­ally hope this gets off the ground,” Chansan says. “A great build­ing can trans­form a city.”

Such grand de­signs would, most likely, re­quire care­ful cul­ti­va­tion of Chansan’s con­nec­tions, par­tic­u­larly by those he refers to as “my gen­er­a­tion” of the Kh­mer di­as­pora re­turn­ing to help de­velop Cam­bo­dia’s busi­ness land­scape. “We all have a sim­i­lar men­tal­ity of want­ing to make changes here. We see the prob­lems of the coun­try and want to change it. It’s not just about hold­ing hands; we want to im­prove things.” Nev­er­the­less, con­nec­tions he isn’t overly keen on nur­tur­ing, he says, are gov­ern­ment ones. “Be­cause I’ve been away so long, I don’t re­ally fol­low their pro­to­col. I don’t want to play that game.”

“I want to make ar­chi­tec­ture and build­ing good again here,” he adds. “We want to be part of the new face of Ph­nom Penh. We can’t rely on the [Angkor] tem­ples; we need to evolve and bring some­thing new.”

To this end, Chansan has lec­tured in ar­chi­tec­ture at a num­ber of Cam­bo­dian uni­ver­si­ties, but he sees fun­da­men­tal flaws in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Cur­rently, there are about 2,500 Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tec­ture grad­u­ates in the coun­try, but only 500 of them are prac­tis­ing the pro­fes­sion.

“There’s also no rule or reg­u­la­tion that pro­motes Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tects over for­eign­ers com­ing in,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, in Thai­land, any for­eign ar­chi­tect can­not de­sign alone, they must part­ner with a lo­cal firm. At the mo­ment, it seems any­one can do any­thing, any­where, any time in Cam­bo­dia. That re­ally needs to change.”

We want to be part of the new face of Ph­nom Penh. We can’t rely on the [Angkor] tem­ples; we need to evolve and bring

some­thing new”

Op­po­site page: Hun Chansan at his of­fice in Ph­nom Penh. Be­low: build­ing mod­els, pen­cils, draw­ings and books

cover the ta­bles and line the of­fice walls at Re-Edge

Clock­wise from top left: a model build­ing com­plex in Hun Chansan’s of­fice; Chansan at work with coloured pen­cils; an of­fice wall with his de­grees and news clip­pings

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cambodia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.