Thank to Khmer Architecture Tours efforts, ten public and private venues in Phnomm Penh were opened for public last weekend. Sadly my friend and I were able to visit only two of them, Chaktomouk Conference Hall and the Building. However, we could not find the place where it was opened for public at the Building. It was a rare chance that we can visit Chamkarmon Compound (Senate), the only place required booking, but again we failed to do so.
This conference hall was built as part of the 1960s city plan to provide Phnom Penh with a new cultural hub by reclaiming marshy land between Wat Botum and the river bank. Other buildings of the era included the Cambodiana Hotel, the Water Sports facility, the National Theatre, the National Exhibition Hall, and several large innovative housing projects. The East/West axis culminating in the Independence Monument was also part of this ambitious city plan.
It is one of Vann Molywann’s masterpieces in which his very personal style of architecture reveals itself for the first time with its lyrical and elegant use of reinforced concrete. Although its imposing auditorium is capable of housing up to 1000 people, the triangulated structure raised off the ground in columns give the impression of it being suspended in the space. The fan shaped triangulated roof and double screen wall reinforce this sensation of lightness whatever angle the building is viewed from. The interior only concession to Khmer tradition can be found in the ornate vihara spire. The interior plan is ingenious with access to the voluminous conference hall both from the ground level and the upper level where a beautiful gallery provides users with a sale des pass perdus at the same time as a stunning view over the river.
Under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the regime founded by then Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1955, international aid was only accepted in the form of donation so this building is one of the very few that were not funded by the national budget (founded by American aid, budget 20 million Reil/1.5 million in 1969). He is quoted as explained why; ‘because I do not indebt my children’. Vann Molyvann relates how the American building inspectors were extremely strict in controlling the quality of construction and the building materials used. For example they criticized the use of Korean cement that was frowned upon for political reasons. Trudy Vann, his wife, recalls, we couldn’t even drink tea as the sugar came from Cuba and the tea from India!
In his inauguration speech for the Sixth Conference of the World Followship of Buddhists in 1961, Sihanouk lamented the materialism, greed and injustice of the day and showed how Buddhism was compatible with modern society. In 2000 it was privatized and refurbished with a budget of 3.5 million. The seating was reduced to accommodate 596 people and since then it has been used as a venue for cultural activities and international seminars. Vann Molyvann was consulted during the renovation and on the whole was satisfied with the quality of the work, although the pink paint and oriental style balustrades were not his choice.
In 1979 it was used for the trail, in absentia, of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders. In 2003 it was used for a signing ceremony concerning the United Nations agreement with the Cambodian Government for the ongoing Khmer Rouge tribunal.
By: Helen Grant Ross
(From Open Doors’ flier)