"New Khmer Architecture" Series | 1 - Pasteur Institute (1965-67), Vann Molyvann

Pasteur Institute (1965-67), Vann Molyvann

The emergence of "New Khmer Architecture" was undeniable. There was a clear shift from French colonial sentiments to a much more distinctive modernist architectural language. However, as oppose to Ross & Collins (2006), I would argue that such movement was hardly a purely independent or a truly Cambodian development. By looking at Vann Molyvann's work, I will illustrate that his thinking of modernity was deeply rooted from a specific point in time in European history. Not until we understand this history can we identify and celebrate the distinctive Khmer character that it grew out from.

Hospitals and the Emergence of Modern Architecture

The following investigation is a selective extract of Wallenstein (2009)'s essay that traces the invention of modern hospitals. He tells us why modern hospitals were one of the most privileged institutional sites that contributed to the emergence of modernity. While it is hard to avoid their terminology without going in-depth into Foucault's genealogy of power, I will try to make it brief and focus on making an architectural argument.

Foucault was interested in power. Where does power come from? What seems to intersect across a genealogy of powers he identified was a modality called bio-political power. From sovereign power where power is exercised over a territory to disciplinary power that is diffused through individuals, biopolitics intersects them all through what he calls the 'subjectification' of the population. In biopolitics, the notion of 'man' "must be understood from out of the emergence of the population as correlative to power and as an object of knowledge… Man is nothing but a figure of the population" (Foucault, 2009, p. 79). For Foucault, life is the biological life of the population, in constant need of monitoring and analysis Not only has there always been a spatial dimension throughout Foucault's writing, but there is also the constant "subjectification" of the notion of man. "Biopower" and "biopolitics" is at the centre of Foucault's genealogy of power.

When do hospitals come in and how does it relate to biopolitics? During the latter part of the 18th century, we see the emergence of the doctor and of medical knowledge as sources of public authority. On an institutional level, this is reflected in the construction of the modern hospital. The hospital becomes the place where patients can be studied in isolation from each other and where new types of medical knowledge and curing techniques can be applied, all of which requires a thoroughgoing individualisation and rationalisation. In the hospital we can see how the spatial ordering of knowledge and power achieves a new level, and it becomes the paradigm for a pervasive medicalization of social space as a whole.

The historical starting point of the emergence of modern hospitals is the Paris fire in 1772, when the "general hospital" Hôtel-Dieu was burnt, leading to a public debate about the principles for its reconstruction as well as the nature of public facilities as such (Middleton, 1992). The former hospital where there was seemingly a random mix of patients of all categories was subjected to sharp criticism, not only of its lack of 'efficiency', but also on a new concept of productivity and "nursing capacity". The idea of "public facility" was related to a population as the object of a politics of health. Hospitals have become a kind of "laboratory" for the testing for the development of new architectural ideas. The architectural form of this institution is now within a set of medical discourses and knowledge that inscribe the sick body within a more encompassing spatial grid.

In tracing the Birth of the Clinic (1963), Foucault coined the term "medical gaze" to describe the dehumanising medical separation of the patient's body from the patient's person (identity). Modern medicine is born through a constellation of different modes of seeing and speaking, of the visible and the sayable that constitute a field of knowledge of the body. For Wallestein (2009), there is something fundamentally architectonic about the visibility of certain medical objects. Such as Jacques-René Tenon (1778)'s hospital design of a 'curing machine' that was a specific way of ordering and regimenting space. What it implied was a form of architecture that had to respond in the most precise way the new forms of technology for assessing and determining health (techniques of control, of circulation, surveillance, classification etc.).

The invention of modern hospitals indicates the extent to which architectural modernity is intertwined with the ordering and administering of life with the production of subjectivity. It mobilises a multiplicity of medical and other forms of knowledge within which it contributes to its specific spatial tools. Such as when hospitals were regarded as a public domain, the politics of health immediately raises questions about the difference between inside and outside of the building. Rules formerly applied to single edifices now extended to an urban space. Accordingly the "hospital system must be reorganised on the level of the city." The proposals that followed replaced the idea of the building as an isolated object with a variable and flexible facility corresponding to the fluctuating needs of the population as a whole and entailing the introduction of "public hygiene" as a new type of discursive object.

Vann Molyvann - Pasteur Institute (1965-67)

Designed by Vann Molyvann, Pasteur Institute was constructed from 1965 to 1967 as a medical research facility. Some older Cambodians also remember it as the Pasteur Veterinary Hospital. In the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Pasteur Institute building was occupied as housing. Many of the present-day residents have lived there since that time. Many inhabitants work in low-income professions, including for the city’s waste management company. The building has been substantially modified by its occupants, and is in some disrepair.

Not dissimilar to Molyvann's plan, in 1929, Ivan Nikolaev separated the spheres of living in the commune house for the students of the State Institute of Textiles in Moscow. The long block of 5.5 meter-square sleeping cubicles was complemented by a building containing all communal spaces: study halls, a cafeteria and a vestibule. The two complexes are connected by a block of washrooms. Therefore, students would always converge through a sanitary threshold before entering the communal spaces.

In the Pasteur Institute, Vann Molyvann separated the domain of monitored patient wards and the communal teaching facilities. The wards consist of three floors elevated on tapered square columns, not unlike Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation. A flat concrete rooftop on this smaller building provided space for recreation, complemented by a swimming pool to one side. The complex rationalises and categorises the processes of life in specific environments, monitoring, if not disciplining, individuals into a precise bio-political routine.

A central corridor bisects the buildings as a spine, opening to rooms on each side. The building's concrete façade shields the building with horizontal shades set in parallel lines, insetting the ward's windows. Direct light and heat was kept away from the patient's head. The wards were not only carefully arranged to meet the patient's needs not only at the level of environmental control but also in terms of identity and privacy.

It is difficult to look at Vann Molyvann's work without studying his predecessors, especially when he was trained in École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, directly from the disciples of Le Corbusier. It was clear that his modernist and expressionist sensibilities were heavily rooted from his education in Paris. It is therefore hard to believe that Pasteur Institute was a purely independent Cambodian development. However, the project also suggests that Vann Molyvann's was not only interested in articulating a Khmer regionalist response to the international movement. He was also carrying a specific modernist ambition to use architectural technology to question the Cambodian way of life.

50 years after its completion, the Pasteur Institute still stands in front of us housing the city's low-income dwellers. As surveyed by the NGO, The Vann Molyvann Project, they include the city's waste management company. I would like to think this is not a mere coincidence that dwellers today are still active agents of the city's management of hygiene!

The drawings and documentation is part of The Vann Molyvann Project Summer School 2015:

Vann Molyvann Project - Pasteur Institute

Jimmie Drummond and Hayley Reiter

More on Biopower:


Foucault, M. (2003). The birth of the clinic : an archaeology of medical perception. London

Foucault, M. (2009). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. London: Picador.

Middleton, R. (1992). Sickness, Madness and Crime as the Grounds of Form. AA Files, 25, 14-29.

Ross, H. G., & Collins, D. L. (2006). Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970. Bangkok: The Key Publisher.

Wallenstein, S.-O. (2009). Bio-politics and the emergence of modern architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

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