I can see how once it would have been beautiful – the horizontal lines of reinforced concrete stretching into the distance, the geometric balconies and staircases and the flat-topped roof that reminds me of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles.
Designed by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who along with Lu Ban Hap and Frenchman Gérald Hanning were key players in a 1960s masterplan to redesign the city of Phnom Penh, the “White Building” originally formed part of an ambitious development of the Bassac riverfront. This was to include a national theatre, a watersports complex and housing for athletes expected for the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces (a sort of Asian alternative to the Olympics).
To get to one of the tiny rooms, I’ve walked through the dark bowels of the four-storey building that houses some 600 families. I’ve gone past drunks sleeping in lightless, stench-filled corridors, stepping through waves of rubbish and up stairs with banisters strung together with shoelaces and electric wires.
I am accompanied by a guide, Yam Sokly, an articulate 27-year-old architecture graduate who, together with six colleagues, leads architectural tours of the city for visitors. The independent, non-profit initiative, which costs $20 an hour for up to four people, is the brainchild of Geoff Pyle, a British architect with a practice in Phnom Penh. The tours aren’t intended as slum voyeurism, as can now be found in the favelas of Rio and the townships of Cape Town. Sokly has taken me to the White Building because, in its time, this was a bold, pioneering attempt at social housing during a uniquely creative period in the modern history of Cambodia. The building, completed in 1963, became one of the landmarks of so-called New Khmer Architecture, a phrase coined in the mid-1960s.
It is a period that has been much neglected, largely because the genocide of the later Pol Pot years has superseded it in popular imagination. Today, Cambodia is still known for its Killing Fields and, of course, for the temple complex at Angkor Wat, visited by close to a million tourists a year. Compared to those powerful images, the idea of visiting Phnom Penh for its 1960s architecture is far from obvious. It is, however, deeply edifying. During the three hours I spend with Sokly, what I expect to be a dry tour of neglected buildings turns into something else entirely.
The story behind the sites is compelling. Between 1953, when Cambodia won independence from France, and 1975, when the Khmer Rouge gained control, Phnom Penh was flooded with money and foreign expertise as well as young Cambodians trained abroad. The intention, driven by Norodom Sihanouk, (the king and later prime minister), was to turn the city and other parts of the country into a physical embodiment of the country’s new-found independence and optimism.
The rulers wanted buildings that would combine modernity with Khmer vernacular tradition at a time when Sihanouk, who became something of a designer himself, was leading a country intoxicated by its freedom. The idea was that the capital would emerge as a showplace to the rest of the world. When Jacqueline Kennedy touched down in the country in 1967, she was immediately faced by examples of Sihanouk’s vision. These included the 1963 VIP Pavilion at the former Siem Reap domestic airport, with its jutting V-shaped glass walls thought to have been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Vann Molyvann’s numerous public buildings in Phnom Penh that showcased a country on the rise.
Now, though, the buildings’ advanced state of decay are part of another narrative entirely. Sokly talks about the cheap developments that are taking place in the capital, with little historical respect for the original masterplan, about high-rise towers and roads being widened without any thought for the future. “That is Cambodia’s problem – our inability to learn from the past,” says Sokly.
For a moment I wonder if this is just nostalgia. Then I learn about the family Sokly lost in the genocide, how he believes Cambodia has to keep moving forward while respecting its past, and I begin to understand what motivates him. He shows me pictures of the Preah Suramarit National Theatre, constructed in 1968 and designed by Vann Molyvann. Partly destroyed by fire in 1994, the building was pulled down in 2008. The Grey Building, another Vann Molyvann landmark, was modified in the late 1990s and is now almost unrecognisable. I visit the “100 Houses” project, another low-cost housing initiative of the mid-1960s conceived as a kind of garden city for National Bank of Cambodia staff. Now poverty pervades the streets, blurring the original vision of these concrete-beamed houses. These beautiful, elegant structures, inspired by the country’s traditional stilted buildings, are as memorable as any modernist domestic architecture in Europe.
Sokly takes me to the National Sports Complex, completed in 1964. The stadium rises up in front of me, a remarkable concrete lung in the heart of the city. There are references to traditional Khmer architecture in the stairs and seating but, otherwise, 1960s’ concrete predominates. There is an element of neglect but at least this is a building being used as it was almost intended. Sokly’s mother, who first came here to see Charles de Gaulle on a state visit in 1966, still attends every day to do her morning aerobics. Kids jump off the diving blocks. On the main running track, young men are taking instruction in moped safety while boys kick a football about the stands.
Sokly takes me to his favourite part, a glass and concrete box that defiantly floats above the stadium on a reinforced concrete arm. “When I was a boy I wanted to become an architect because of this broadcasting suite, sticking out like that. I love it, because in this building, there is everything of Corbusier and something more.”
Sophy Roberts travelled with Cazenove+loyd (www.cazloyd.com), which offers a week’s trip to Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat (at the Raffles and Amansara hotels, and with flights from Bangkok) from £2,102. Khmer Architecture Tours: www.ka-tours.org