Preah Suramarit National Theatre: A Civic Landmark

Fig. 1 – Aerial view of the National Theatre upon completion (Vann Molyvann)
Fig.2 – Ground floor pool underneath main staircase (Dan Poyton)

The works of Vann Molyvann, notably one the most prolific leading architects that contributed to the curation of Phnom Penh, were primarily intended to resolve the lacking civic identity through an infrastructural development, known as the Bassac Waterfront Project. As mentioned in a previous post, a major social component of this project, led by Lu Ban Hap and Vladimir Bodiansky, was the construction of the White Building with an original intention of providing affordable housing. This project interlaced traditional Cambodian culture with modern forms of architecture for the lower class community. A large part of this community was a collective of artists and intellects that contributed to manifesting cultural platform that represented Phnom Penh through a variety of media. Naturally this community needed a space for them to exercise their practices and performances, and this took place under the shelter of the Preah Suramarit National Theatre designed by Vann Molyvann. [1]

The significance behind this piece of architectural work lies beyond just an aesthetic marvel sitting by the Bassac Waterfront. Inaugurated in 1968, Molyvann cemented a civic infrastructure that allowed for the group of theatrical artists to flourish in preserving the traditional dramas and musicals, but also engaging the public in being more aware and appreciative of the art form. As a symbolic element that acknowledges the land built above the reclaimed bank of the Bassac River, the exterior of the theatre takes on a geometric ship, defined through an assortment of triangular forms. In order to render this space as actually appealing to the public, Molyvann took into consideration spatial qualities that was attuned to the tropical climate of the region and also how the building scale could seamlessly accommodate the human scale.

Built in a time period where air conditioning was not yet introduced, Molyvann ensured that ventilation and natural cooling would be effectively incorporated. Although from the exterior the building seems like a massing of a triangular concrete fronton, the envelope facades are actually full height claustras that permit a constant ventilation of the interior space, paired with a large pool for cooling underneath the main staircase.The main theatre space is elevated on pilotis off of the ground, freeing up the space to the public whilst creating a ventilated area and also referencing traditional Cambodian architecture where houses are often lifted up due to the seasonal flooding. With consideration to the traditional Khmer ballet’s discrete and subtle movements, Molyvann framed the theatre in a hexagonal form that provided an immense space for 1200 guests and excellent acoustics, ensuring that none of the guests are situated too far away to view the performances. [2]

During the period of rebuilding the civic and uplifting the cultural standards, Molyvann curated this space with regards to providing ample space for the intellectuals and artists to freely perform, dialogue, and define what Phnom Penh’s cultural scene could be. Simultaneously, he made sure that these spaces would also increase the publics involvement, improving the populations appreciation, respect, and engagement with these art forms. Prior to the fire destruction in 1994, the theatre served as a cultural icon in Phnom Penh’s urban fabric. It was widely appreciated by the flood of population that moved in after they regained their freedom and allowed for more than 300 artists to share their knowledge with the citizens. Being known as the crown of the Bassac Riverfront development and also host of the National Conservatory of the Arts, this theatre is discernibly one of the ties that brought together a scattered society led through the revitalisation of their culture.


  1. “Preah Suramarit National Theatre.” The Vann Molyvann Project. Accessed December 26, 2018.
  2. Poynton, Dan, and Cheang Sokha. “Last Act for Bassac Theater.” Phnom Penh Post. August 23, 2007. Accessed December 26, 2018.


1 Comment on “Preah Suramarit National Theatre: A Civic Landmark

  1. It is good to introduce the main architectural ideology and concept of Vann Molyvann through a representative project. Moreover, the analysis of the climatic, topological, conventional and socio-political background at the time allows us to understand the great areas of Vann Molyvann’s design and the excellent contribution to the identity reestablishment for Phnom Penh and local people.

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