Heat and modernity Vann Molyvann in Phnom Penh
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.