Heat and moder­nity Vann Moly­vann in Ph­nom Penh

Domus - - CONTENTS - Pe­ter Fröberg Idling

The ar­chi­tec­ture of Vann Moly­vann rep­re­sents the as­pi­ra­tions of a coun­try, Cam­bo­dia, and the hopes of an age, the 1960s, which dif­fered from re­al­ity and to­day lie in ruin. Text by Pe­ter Fröberg Idling Pho­tos by Gio­vanna Silva

From the bal­cony I see the Ph­nom Penh Olympic Sta­dium. De­signed by Prince Si­hanouk’s favourite ar­chi­tect, Vann Moly­vann, it is one of the coun­try’s most im­por­tant works of modern ar­chi­tec­ture. The spirit of the 1960s and the out­look open to the fu­ture is felt in all its fea­tures, es­pe­cially the lines and rhythm. Nat­u­rally, the idea that Cam­bo­dia was or­gan­is­ing for the Olympic Games was never made pub­lic but the sta­dium was built us­ing only na­tional fund­ing with­out for­eign sup­port. It was a pres­ti­gious project, and Si­hanouk wanted to show the rest of the world what his coun­try was ca­pa­ble of. And if hubris lies at the base of it all, the rest can be called what­ever you want. “To trust in one’s own strength,” as Pol Pot said later. A gust of wind lazily sweeps across the bal­cony. The heat lessens for a mo­ment. In the street, some auto body me­chan­ics are nois­ily ham­mer­ing out a car’s dent. They say that the Olympic Sta­dium was the place where, in the days fol­low­ing the revo­lu­tion, the func­tionar­ies of Lon Nol’s gov­ern­ment were rounded up for ex­e­cu­tion. In a book I come across a pho­to­graph of Pol Pot on a stage set up on the arena’s short­est side. There is a kind of mass gath­er­ing go­ing on but it’s hard to tell which kind. Al­most none like this were ever held. Cer­tainly noth­ing sim­i­lar to Si­hanouk’s pompous in­au­gu­ral ceremony, with pa­rades and school­child­ren wav­ing lit­tle flags. Now the fa­cil­ity is go­ing to ruin. It comes back to life be­tween five and seven o’clock in the morn­ing and then again at sun­down when it fills with peo­ple com­ing to exercise and to run around the track. The sta­dium’s golden dec­o­ra­tions shine and clearly I have let my­self be se­duced. The im­age of Demo­cratic Kam­puchea was so ex­treme, ter­ri­ble and im­pos­ing. Start­ing from here I tried to un­der­stand the course of events. That’s why it all wound up be­ing so in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. The im­age: a col­lec­tivised so­ci­ety, forced labour and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions. A coun­try built on the Com­mu­nist model. Ro­bot men, in­tran­si­gent and mer­ci­less. Ev­ery­where the same black cloth­ing, the same dra­co­nian laws and the same in­hu­man condi-

tions. If it is all a great ra­tio­nal con­struct, the killings and famine are part of a pre­cise plan and the in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man suf­fer­ing is to­tal. What pushes a limited num­ber of men to ad­vance pol­i­tics of this kind? And how do they in­duce the un­der­lings to put it into prac­tice? The tales that I stum­ble across do not fall into this struc­ture. They stick out and con­tra­dict them­selves. I must look in an­other di­rec­tion. The answers are not to be found in that im­age be­cause it is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. It rep­re­sents the ex­pec­ta­tion, not re­al­ity.

Vann Moly­vann (1926-2017) was a modernist Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tect who headed the New Kh­mer Ar­chi­tec­ture move­ment. In the 1970s he played a lead­ing role in the trans­for­ma­tion of Ph­nom Penh. Pe­ter Fröberg Idling (Stock­holm, 1972) is a Swedish writer and lit­er­ary critic. Gio­vanna Silva, pho­tog­ra­pher, lives and works in Mi­lan.

Op­po­site page: the In­sti­tute of For­eign Lan­guages in Ph­nom Penh, Cam­bo­dia This page: the in­sti­tute’s li­brary. Both were de­signed by Vann Moly­vann (1965-1971). The work of Vann Moly­vann is the fo­cus of the study “Vann Moly­vann and the Ab­sent Archives of Cam­bo­dian Mod­ernism” by Bran­den W. Joseph, Felic­ity D. Scott and Mark Wa­si­uta grant from the Gra­ham Foun­da­tion in Chicago)

Left col­umn: two views of the In­sti­tute of For­eign Lan­guages in Ph­nom Penh by Vann Moly­vann. Right and above: the Na­tional Sports Com­plex in Ph­nom Penh (1962-1964) also by Vann Moly­vann

The text by Pe­ter Fröberg Idling is taken from his novel Il sor­riso di Pol Pot (“Pol Pot’s Smile”, Iper­borea, Mi­lan 2010). English trans­la­tion by the Do­mus ed­i­to­rial of­fice.

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