006. New Khmer Architecture

In SERIES 6, we intend to provide an overview of how New Khmer Architecture was conceived, what it is, what makes it unique, and why understanding it should still be a relevant point of discussion among designers and city planners of today.

Being one of the core aspects of development in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era (1955-1970), New Khmer Architecture promptly became a symbol of a new, modern, and independent Cambodia. It was adopted on countless state buildings and was featured heavily in local films, literature, and various other visual media at the time. It has also since garnered reverence and fascination among a small group of both national and international architects and architectural historians.

New Khmer Architecture's inextricable link to the socio-political climate of the era means that by understanding this design movement, it also opens up a window to understanding the importance that architecture has and the roles that it plays in people's lifestyles and beyond.

The Symbiosis (Part 1)

The aftermath of the 2nd World War in the mid-20th century resulted in Europe, then in a dampened state, having to relinquish many of its colonies. Like many of those colonies, Cambodia finally regained independence during this opportunistic period (Nov. 9th, 1953) after almost a century under French rule. The face of its independence was the then king, Norodom Sihanouk who later abdicated in 1955 to delve into politics and form his own political party “Sangkum Reastr Niyum”, a name which would become synonymous with the period of his rule.

Cultural renaissance

Once elected into office, Sihanouk sought to reinvent Cambodia; one that is modern, developed, and free from its colonial past. Above all else, during his leadership, Cambodia enjoyed a cultural renaissance in which local arts and literature flourished

Building spree

Prince Sihanouk wanted to make a mark of his own. To fulfill this goal, he embarked on a massive state-funded building program – probably the biggest the nation's ever seen since Jayavarman VII's reign centuries ago. The intention was clear: Sihanouk wanted his legacy to be tangibly cemented – just like how the great Angkorian kings that came before him had left behind theirs with their stone temples. Sihanouk's ambitious plan of a public building spree included projects like new housing complexes, cultural and art centers, industrial plants, and transportation networks, which spread throughout the country.

L’espirit nouveau

The architecture also needed to reflect his idea of this new modern Khmer society. At the time, the disaster of the world war pushed Europe to embrace modest modernist philosophies which would also dominate the international design scene. Eager to put Cambodia on the world map, Sihanouk commissioned and appointed a number of local and foreign architects/engineers who have had trainings abroad to help materialize his vision. While modern buildings had been built in Cambodia before (mainly in the Art-deco style); what set this new style of architecture apart however was the incorporation of Cambodian traditional elements which entailed a sense of nostalgia and, more importantly, nationalism. This style would later be dubbed "New Khmer Architecture".

What is New Khmer Architecture?

“New Khmer Architecture” refers to a trend of architectural design that emerged during the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s in Cambodia; although the term itself wouldn’t appear until the early 1960s in local journals. It is generally known for its successful blend of the international style of the age of modernism with local Khmer culture and customs.

The modernist movement within the context of western architecture sought to embrace functionalism and minimalism while rejecting the extravagant ornamentations of the past which were deemed as “unnecessary”. In a way, however, New Khmer Architecture ironically contradicted this rationality behind the practice of modern architecture – a movement within which it was deeply rooted. While clean simple lines and geometries were favored, architects still never missed out on the opportunity to pay homage to Cambodia's past through reinterpretations of traditional building silhouettes, creative expressions derived from local motifs or the scattered incorporation of “kbach” details.

All of these were built using modern building materials such as reinforced concrete and aluminum, along with improved construction methods such as self-bearing concrete and cantilevered balconies. With these new technologies borrowed from the west, local architects were then able to have free rein to manipulate the forms of their buildings to their desire without much constraint.

Even today, buildings built in this style are still easily distinguishable within any urban fabric of the country thanks to their extensive use of climate-sensitive features along the facades. At the time, adaptability to the tropical climate was an important aspect of architecture. It helped ensure that available natural resources are fully taken advantage of and that mechanical means of lighting and ventilation are minimized. Elements such as louver blocks, vertical concrete panels & overhangs (shading devices), glass blocks, and traditional louvered doors & windows were commonly used to protect occupants from extreme weather. This climate sensitivity also extended to the programming, built form, and orientation of the buildings themselves.


Like many architectural trends in history, “New Khmer Architecture” was conceived through past & contemporary influences as well as years of refinements. A 1962 local government publication suggested that the development of modern architecture in Cambodia during this period started out as mere replications of contemporary modernist buildings found in Europe. However, over the years, local architects started to branch out and develop a collective sense of style unique to Cambodia.

Early on in Sangkum, no architect was of Cambodian origin. The few architects that were practicing in the country at the time were French architects who remained even after France's withdrawal in 1953. Henri Chatel contributed to most of the first true modernist buildings in Cambodia in the forms of apartment blocks and state buildings such as the National Bank and the Ministry of Defense. In this stage of the development, the style had yet taken an identity of its own; rather, it could be interpreted as just another extension of the modernist movement's outreach. It was, however, a clean break from the stuffy Euro-centric colonial architecture that bore little to no consideration over its tropical setting. Although still very western-leaning, works by Chatel incorporated the VVV structure and aspects of vernacular, which would later come to define this emerging style as a whole.

Only in the late-1950s did Cambodia receive its first local academically-qualified architects. Initially, these architects would only implement what they'd learned abroad with what Chatel had been doing in the early years of Sangkum. Experiments of using local elements were done here and there, but nothing as strikingly clear-cut as what would be achieved in later years.

In 1961, the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, designed by Vann Molyvann, was completed. After some years of conservative designs as a fresh graduate, Molyvann finally broke ground by seamlessly combining modern features and construction methods with centuries-old tradition. Obtaining a style so distinct yet so familiar, the conference hall was likely the catalyst for and a precursor not only to Molyvann's preceding works but others as well.

University of Health Science

Architect: Leroy & Mondet
Built: 1955
Status: Still retain its original function

In the later years of the French colonial period, rational modern architecture started to appear in Cambodia. Although some aspects of French neo-classicism remained, builders began to think more about climate-sensitive designs and relinquish the use of extravagant ornamentations.

National Bank of Cambodia

Architect: Henri Chatel
Built: circa 1950s
Status: Demolished

Colonial architect, Henri Chatel was one of the first people to introduce mid-century modern architecture to Cambodia with sympathy to its climate. His works would later go on to inspire Molyvann’s later works.

Council of Ministers

Architect: Vann Molyvann
Built: circa 1950s
Status: Demolished

Modern architecture in Cambodia in the early 1950s were more or less indistinguishable from any other modern architecture around the world.

Chaktomuk Conference Hall

Architect: Vann Molyvann
Built: 1961
Status: Still retains original function

Chaktomuk Conference Hall was likely the first of many modern buildings in Cambodia to truly capture the spirit of the century and to forge an identity of its own.

Teacher Training College (IFL)

Architect: Vann Molyvann
Built: 1972
Status: Currently in use as IFL

With new found confidence, architects like Vann Molyvann started to experiment even more with building silhouettes, structural components and climate-sensitive features, which became even more abstract.

The Pioneers

The driving force behind this movement was undoubtedly Prince Sihanouk who, despite not having a design background, still managed to be hands-on with the conception of many projects and would sometimes play the role of interior designer. According to the architects he worked with, he is said to have been extremely open to radical ideas and always encouraged them to strive for the highest standards.

Perhaps the most revered of these architects is Vann Molyvann, the first formally qualified architect of the nation. During his study in France, he was exposed to modernism, a style championed by Frank Llyod Wright, Paul Rudolph, and Le Corbusier, whom he cited influence. Upon having completed his training and returning to Cambodia in 1956, he was promptly appointed the State Architect a year later at the age of 30. From there, he designed well over 100 buildings throughout “Sangkum”, all in the style that he helped pioneer. His most notable works include the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, National Sports Complex, IFL, and the 100 Houses Project.

Another key figure in this movement was Lu Ban Hap who, just like Molyvann did 3 years prior, earned a scholarship to Paris. He had expressed his dream of working on Brasília to Sihanouk who was also eager to recruit this young Khmer talent to help reshape his own city. Lu Ban Hap was appointed the Head of Municipal Town Planning and Housing Development from 1960 to 1975 where he contributed most of his career to the planning and regulating of the city. He also designed a handful of notable buildings such as the Cambodiana Hotel, Chenla Theater, and Villa Romonea (Knaii Bang Chatt).

Over 50 other architects/engineers/sculptors have been identified to have taken part in this movement. They include names such as Mam Sophana (Preah Kossomak Center), Ung Krapum Pka (Battambang University), Leroy & Mondet (RUPP), Vladimir Bodiansky (National Sports Complex) and many others. The scene was an amalgamation of creatives and technicians hailed from different ethnic and social backgrounds who, despite each having an individual sense of style, still managed to come together and create a cohesive landscape of architecture.

The Fruits of Labor: Architecture

Chaktomuk Conference Hall

Sitting adjacent to the Chaktomuk confluence, this auditorium elegantly encapsulates all the essence that makes up "New Khmer Architecture”. Its fan-shaped structure which echoes throughout the facades, subliminally calls back to Cambodia's long cultural association with the palm tree; while the pointy roof spire, repeated triangular pediments, and the semi-open space on the ground draw direct links to traditional silhouettes. All these elements are tied together by the use of modern materials and technologies to serve a very modern purpose.

National Sports Complex

Designed with the intention to host the 1963 SEA Game, the project was constructed at breakneck speed, yet without compromising quality. Now known as the Olympic Stadium, this 40-hectare complex incorporated several reservoirs that form a moat system for which Vann Molyvann derived inspiration from the temples of Angkor. These reservoirs would not only act as drainage points for the complex but also provide a cooling environment for gatherings. This people-first approach extended all the way to the architecture with air gaps, sweeping overhangs, and alternating sunscreens implemented to assist with ventilation and daylight filtration. It drew some criticism for its grand expense at a time when Cambodia's economy was hit by the Vietnam war. Nonetheless, nobody could deny what Cambodia had achieved with the complex – an engineering and architectural feat that few could match at the time.

Institute of Foreign Languages

Formerly the Teacher Training College, this impressive campus was the last of Molyvann's design in the country. It consists of 3 main buildings: (1) a central building shaped like an inverted pyramid, (2) a long western building with labs that suspend mid-air over leaning columns, and (3) a small circular library to the south shaped like a traditional straw hat. All buildings feature passive design solutions, are surrounded by moats, and, besides the library, are unsurprisingly raised above the ground. Despite being designed amidst political chaos, the shapes of the buildings and roofs are even more experimental and sculptural than ever before.

The Fruits of Labor: Urbanism

Herald as the “Pearl of the East”, Phnom Penh rose from being a secondary colonial post to a modern and vibrant capital that outpaced many of its Southeast Asian counterparts in the 1960s. Visitors at the time were struck by a cityscape full of wide treelined avenues, manicured scented gardens, and experimental modern buildings which had their own unique flare.

Aspects of development

Initially, Phnom Penh expanded mostly and extensively to the west toward the newly constructed Pochentong International Airport. It saw a boom in infrastructural developments such as new road networks, schools, hospitals, and waste management facilities. This good urban planning prepared the city well ahead for the influx of migrants who sought refuge from the US. bombing in rural parts of the country; and between 1953-1970, the city's population ballooned from just 370k to 1 million. Later on, additional land reclamation projects in Tonle Bassac and Koh Pich helped increase Phnom Penh’s urban city center.

Expansion of the city

To accommodate the swell in Phnom Penh's population, many merchants/developers, most of whom were Chinese, were incentivized to build new shophouse-style apartment blocks that would replace many of the low-density colonial shophouses left over from the French colonial period. These apartments were meant to accommodate people from various social classes and with various occupations, and to this day, still serve a bulk of the city's population. Despite being private developments, the creative atmosphere created by Sihanouk and his architects still managed to resonate with these developers who built buildings that were surprisingly well-designed and of high standard.

Different types of dwelling

Cambodia also experimented with co-habitation projects not just in Phnom Penh, but also in many other major urban centers such as Kampong Cham and Takhmau. Projects such as the White and Grey Buildings as well as some pre-fabricated housing units (introduced by Lu Ban Hap) merged higher-density living with traditional Cambodian customs and vernacular. Along with this, low-density housing comprising "boreys” and private villas was designated in districts such as Beoung Keng Kang and Toul Kork.

The Symbiosis (Part 2): The Fall

Architects at the dawn of Sangkum were faced with a major challenge. The newly independent Cambodia had very few contractors and technicians that were up to standard; most of those qualified were either French or Vietnamese. It was only in the mid-1960s when the first engineers started to graduate from local universities and the department of architecture was first opened. By this time, Cambodia also started to develop its own construction industry; and firms such as Khaou Chuly and Comin Khmere were now replacing foreign assistance in construction.

Just when New Khmer Architecture was reaching a new height of influence, the country itself inversely started a slow descent into internal conflict. A string of political gambles and financial instability caused by the neighboring Vietnam war led to the deposition of Sihanouk in 1970, putting an end to the Sangkum regime. Then rose the Khmer Republic which, headed by Lon Nol, hindered further progress. Major construction projects were put to a halt; and, without the spearhead that was Sihanouk, the blossoming New Khmer Architecture seemingly hit a wall overnight. Nonetheless, projects continued to be built, though in a smaller capacity, up until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge effectively took power.

Many buildings and institutions that were deemed to go against the values of the Khmer Rouge were blown apart; and without maintenance, those that survived badly fell into disrepair. Many intellectuals like Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap fled the country; while those who remained were mercilessly slaughtered. Still, not much construction activity happened between the subsequent fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces in 1989.

By this time, the former “Pearl of the East”, Phnom Penh, was no longer the model city that Lee Kuan Yew aspired to emulate Singapore after. It was only after the 1993 restoration of the 2nd constitutional monarchy that construction started to take off again, coinciding with the country’s economic recovery. However, New Khmer Architecture never reemerged as the force that it was once previously under the Sihanouk regime.

The Legacy: Epilogue

While relative peace was restored in the 1990s, the shock of war still forced Cambodia into a reset. Fortunately, the high standards of construction achieved in Sangkum left many of its infrastructures still intact, which temporarily aided many of its people with housing and other necessities during this transitional period.

Buildings that remain in use

Few intellectuals and technicians survived the Khmer Rouge, leaving the country, yet again, deprived of home-grown technical assistance in its rebuilding. Decades after the fall of Sangkum; with almost no documents left of the shells of the buildings, builders scrambled to find references for new construction. Pulling bits and pieces from the left over buildings, some post-war architecture still retained some elements that were unmistakably New Khmer Archite

Altered/demolished buildings

Rapid economic development and modern construction trends also pose a major threat to the legacy of New Khmer Architecture. Property developers, catering to an emerging middle and upper class, have started straying away from past Khmer architectural styles; instead preferring cookie-cutter pseudo-neoclassical designs that lack genuine originality. Foreign investments also put this legacy at risk as some of Sangkum's most significant buildings have already been either demolished or altered recklessly, as a result of a lack of awareness of the value and history of these buildings. Or perhaps it can be seen as an ironic achievement by Sangkum era innovators, having created unique enough architecture to be classified separately as its own category; but deemed as “too modern” and “non-Khmer” to justify preservation or seen as national heritage.

Many have noted that no country in Southeast Asia had ever reached as high of an architectural achievement as Cambodia did in the 1960s. While other countries were following international trends to the heart, New Khmer Architecture was a rare case of refined originality that sought to breathe new life into an ancient cultural heritage. Although not as grand as Angkor or even as exotic as French Colonial architecture, its radical philosophy and sophisticated implementations should still earn it a page in the history book of Khmer artistry.