Asserting Culture Through the New Khmer Architecture: a Political Upturn

The city of Phnom Penh has been largely defined by the New Khmer Architecture, an urban horizon oriented with concrete forms. The underlying consistency that emerges in the aesthetics is derived from both European modern architecture influences as well as traditional Cambodian architecture. Primarily designed under the western educated Vann Molyvann, the architectural precedents demonstrate a delicate reinterpretation of local Khmer culture with the modern movement. Instilled in most of the architecture is a sensitivity to the context of Phnom Penh, not just as a climactic or aesthetic understanding, but the political state that the city was in. With the sudden increase in population post-colonial rule in a city with little to no infrastructural scheme, the urgency and demand for a proper “urban city” settled in.

King Sihanouk during the period of 1950, as he referred to as the “gold age,” eagerly wanted to rebuild the identity of Cambodia through their own means. Through this process of rebuilding, a great emphasis was placed on cultural heritage, primarily literature, poetry, music, dance and architecture. This idea of cultural heritage sought to be vitalised in conjunction with the architectural growth, and upon the bequest of King Sihanouk, Molyvann imbued in various landmarks the platform for these areas to settle in (Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Council of Ministers Building, Preah Suramarit National Theatre, White Buildings, National Olympic Stadium etc.)

The lack of a stable political state necessitated Molyvann to develop and clearly define an agenda that could guide this development, which came about as the New Khmer Architecture. The alluring incentive for Phnom Penh to regain a cultural identity sprouted from their independence after the French left in 1953. The defining architectural style came synonymously with defining the cultural identity. As mentioned in other posts, all of Molyvann’s buildings embraced a mixture of Cambodian architectural styles with the modernist movement. What makes this short but intense period of Cambodian modern upturn in just around ten years so impacting on its culture and identity, is the immense change it brought to Phnom Penh. Despite the political revolt of the Khmer Rouge that destroyed a large part of this modern movement, the now endangered architecture has dug roots that make this city so historically significant. Irrecoverable architecture are undeniably present, but what remains have become a bold reminder of what the cultural identity is. The unique stylistic cohesion of European and local traditions make up the historical timeline, and continues to stand out as what New Khmer Architecture is.

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