Within two years of Cambodia's independence in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk embarked on an unprecedented public construction boom that would last a decade and a half before its demise in an American-backed coup in 1970. The rapid urban and rural development that preceded Norodom Sihanouk's overthrow ranged from ambitious infrastructure projects to entirely new towns. "New Khmer Architecture" mushroomed across the country. They stood out for their high standard and uniqueness – a blend of new building techniques and traditional designs that was decisively different from French colonial architecture.
Perhaps Ross & Collins (2006) was right. The rise and fall of "New Khmer Architecture" over 17 years has no parallel in modern architectural history. The book attempts to describe how such modernist vision flourished in Southeast Asia's oldest Kingdom until it was dragged into the vortex of three decades of military dictatorship, genocide and civil war. It identifies architects, engineers and town planners from the 1950s and 60s who left a distinctly Cambodian architectural heritage that is only now being recognised.
Without Ross & Collins' attempt to put together this biblical volume, "Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1954-1970", we would have never been able to even imagine that it is possible to capture the full genealogy of Khmer architecture. Of course, as Architectural Historians, coining an era is the most luring endeavour. While Ross and Collins admirably documented the historical accounts of the movement, what is left unsaid is perhaps its genuine architectural understanding of its work. Here, I sit uneasily with their lopsided statement:
[t]he shift from colonial to New Khmer Architecture was neither overnight nor absolute. … New Khmer Architecture is, however,
truly Cambodian, and should be viewed as an independent development freed of the constraints of former styles.
(Ross & Collins, 2006, p. 162)
I think it vital for architects who practice in the region to carefully dissect this fragile heritage. I think we should not stop at simply documenting the building's whereabouts and its current state of being. I believe only by critically examine its manifestation that an architectural culture or movement can engage with a wider architectural discourse. This blog series is dedicated to those who are interested in such endeavour.
Ross, H. G., & Collins, D. L. (2006). Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970. Bangkok: The Key Publisher.