Most visitors to Phnom Penh entering the city along the road from the airport would not see one of the architectural splendors of a city once known as “The Pearl of Asia”. Probably because it’s on the other side of the dual carriageway, and more probably they’re not looking for it. The Royal University of Phnom Penh faces what is now known as Russian Boulevard but was once known as Pochentong Road when the campus was designed and built. The campus is bordered by the intersection of Samdech Penn Nouth (Street 289) and Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, and streets 598 and 608. It was built during a period when many of Phnom Penh’s more contemporary architectural masterpieces were constructed and formed at a time when the area of modern Phnom Penh doubled in size from the time of independence from the French protectorate in 1953, and the 1960s. Cambodia’s second city Battambang (“Bat-dam-bong”) during the same period quintupled in size and is also home to some fine examples of colonial architecture and buildings of what is known as “New Khmer Architecture”.
Cambodia has broadly three distinct periods of architecture: the classical of the Khmer empire, the colonial by the French, and that which has been termed “New Khmer Architecture” built during a period of massive urban expansion and development during the 1950s and 1960s championed by the then larger than life, Norodom Sihanouk. Looking back at what happened after that time, the maelstrom of genocide and civil war, bombing and upheaval, this period is nostalgically referred to by some as Cambodia’s “Golden Age” and by others is known as “Sihanouk Time”. Likely you could now describe a fourth architectural period, that of tasteless modern blocks rapidly ruining the capital’s cityscape without thought or planning, many constructed at cost to the earlier masterpieces, and detracting from the charm of Phnom Penh.
The term New Khmer Architecture was coined by two westerners who wrote a book illustrated with photographs of these architectural wonders. The book, “Building Cambodia, ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953–1970” runs to over 300 pages and is hard to find, so it may be easier to go and see the buildings themselves if you go to Phnom Penh, or what’s left of them from this period. From what I can see of this architectural form is about the light, air, water and lines, particularly the roofs often as a VM shape it’s said, after the initials of perhaps the best-known exponent of New Khmer Architecture.
In 1953, there were no qualified Cambodian architects working in Phnom Penh, but soon afterwards a small number returned from training in France. Vann Molyvann (“VM”) was among the best known, but there was also Lu Ban Hap, Mam Sophan, Chhim Sun Fong, Seng Suntheng and Ung Krapum, among others. In Vann Molyvann’s own words, what he and some of his colleagues sought to achieve in their buildings was “the modern movement adapted to the Khmer context.” In particular, this awareness of the “modern movement” paid homage to Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier, an altered form of his maternal grandfather's name, Lecorbésier). These influences came be seen particularly in Le Corbusier’s designs in Chandigarh in India, the capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. What this modern movement meant in Phnom Penh was exemplified in four major constructions designed by Vann Molyvann, of which the Royal University was one example.
Vann Molyvann was born in Ream, the former French naval base in Kampot province in 1926 and was among the first Cambodians to pass the Baccalaurat exam at Lycee Sisowath. In the 1940s he won a scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the principles of modernism from disciples of Le Corbusier. In 1956, he was called home to put those principles into practice. The moment was historically unique. Newly independent, Cambodia was unburdened by war and foreign overlords for the first time in centuries, and the cosmopolitan but imperious king but later “Prince” Norodom Sihanouk was free to shape the country according to his own wishes. He appointed Vann Molyvann his chief state architect. His contemporary Lu Ban Hap, became chief architect of Municipality of Phnom Penh. Vann Molyvann went on to design more than 100 buildings (figures vary), including monuments, breweries, royal villas and public housing projects. He oversaw the modernisation of Phnom Penh, as the city grew from a dusty colonial outpost to a showcase capital of tree-lined boulevards and architectural showpieces. Much later he served as culture minister and after became the head of the Apsara Authority, which administers the Angkor temples. He was forced out of the organisation in 2001 after a disagreement over who should benefit from the admission proceeds and limiting visitor numbers to better preserve the temple complex.
The master plan of the Royal University campus was designed by two French architects, Andre Leroy and Mondet, on the eve of independence in 1953. The campus was developed by various architects over a period of ten years, Vann Molyvann being the best known. But there were Russian, French and Cambodian architects. Leroy and Mondet (his first name is not known) came to Cambodia during the protectorate and remained after independence. It’s been said there were more French living in Cambodia following independence than there were before decolonisation. Leroy was born in Paris in 1908 and trained at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. He is believed to have died in 1965 before completion of the Royal University, the master plan of which he designed with Mondet. Mondet trained at the Special School of Architecture. He and Leroy also designed buildings throughout Cambodia including, among others, the Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville, and the sports complex in Battambang.
The Royal University began as the Royal Khmer University in 1960. It opened during a period of intense growth in Cambodia and expanded rapidly, inspired by Sihanouk under his Sangkam Reastr Niyum or “People’s Socialist Community”. The language of instruction during this period for its courses in law, economics, technology, human sciences and medicine, was French. Under the Khmer Republic (1970-75) of Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s former defence chief, the Royal Khmer University became the Phnom Penh University. During the years of the Khmer Rouge, schools and universities were closed. Cambodia's teaching fraternity and academia wiped out.
The dean of Phnom Penh University, the law professor Phung Ton, was one of thousands arrested, tortured and murdered at Tuol Sleng by prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as comrade Duch. Ironically Phung Ton had taught Duch, once a star student, and also knew several intellectuals who later became top Khmer Rouge officials. Phung Ton was of the country when the Khmer Rouge took over. Forced into slave labour on a collective farm, his wife and seven children took comfort in thinking that he was safe. But worried about them, he flew back to be with them. The family discovered his fate in 1979 in a freakish way. His daughter Sunthary had bartered for some palm sugar that came wrapped in newspapers. When she looked at the paper, she saw her father's picture among a series of photos of S-21 victims.
Following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge the university reopened in 1980 as the Higher Normal College (Ecole Normale Supérieure), again teaching predominantly in French. The following year, the Institute of Foreign Languages (IFL) began work, initially as a teacher’s college training students to become Vietnamese and Russian teachers. The IFL was small and also used as a political training centre after the Vietnamese took control of Cambodia. Both schools were used as a crash courses for any Cambodians still surviving who had a smattering of formal education. In 1988, the college and the IFL merged to create Phnom Penh University, and in 1996 the name was changed to the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
The campus comprises several buildings groups. The Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC) which was part of the Khmer-Soviet technical and scientific cooperation agreements signed by Prince Sihanouk and Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Cambodia at this time was facing regional upheaval with war in neighbouring Vietnam and in Laos but had remained for a period an “oasis of peace” due largely to the foreign policy of neutrality orchestrated by its chief of state, Prince Sihanouk, who dominated Cambodian politics for decades. Globally, the Cold War was at its height. Powers vied for favour and influence. In Cambodia, the French built a port, later expanded by substantial dockage area built by Soviet Bloc assistance. There was the Japanese Friendship Bridge, The Russians also built the 500-bed Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, then the largest in Southeast Asia. Not to be outdone the Americans raced to beat the hospital’s completion date with the Khmer-American Friendship Highway, a race they won but the Russians had the last laugh. USAID contractors had failed to factor drainage properly and cut costs with too few culverts. Following the first wet season the road at Pech Nil Pass, where the plains descend to the Gulf of Thailand, began slipping away, and required constant maintenance to remain open, which led to anti-American tirades from Sihanouk.
The ITC was inaugurated in 1964. The work of Soviet architects is remarkably functional and the team who designed the ITC spent a lot of time studying how to adapt architecture to tropical heat and humidity. The complex, which has little changed, is divided into four parts: one administration building; teaching buildings; a swimming pool; and teacher’s accommodation block, which was destroyed in 2006. Behind the main building the students’ motorbikes, Cambodia’s vehicle of choice, are parked in massed ranks, hundreds of them, chrome and mirrors reflecting a thousand rays of tropical sunlight.
Once independent Cambodia had an urgent need for highly qualified engineers. Every year, ITC received over 1,000 students who were trained, in French, by about 100 Soviet teachers, who stayed on in Cambodia until 1975. During the Khmer Rouge years, the ITC became a transit camp. In the 1980s, it reverted to its original function, and Soviet professors taught there until 1991, this time in Russian. In 1995, following the fall of the Soviet Union, France came back on the scene with an ambitious programme of building restoration and setting up the curricula. Subsequently, the ITC trained 500 engineers and technicians every year.
The Teacher Training College, now the IFL is the university complex’s architectural masterpiece. The three original buildings still exist: the central building, now the English department; the row of amphitheatre, now the French department; and the round library which still fulfils its original function. The library has been described as looking like a “straw hat”. Financed by France, the complex was designed by Vann Molyvann, who had been selected among candidates including Leroy and Mondet. As he left Cambodia shortly after the 1970 coup, he did not attend the opening in 1972. The IFL became a political training centre after the Vietnamese took control of Cambodia following the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
The charm of the complex was due to a system of basins, but two of them have now been filled in. The central building was originally surrounded by water and could be reached across a bridge adorned with Nagas, mythical semidivine beings, half human and half cobra, which can still be seen. Apart from its aesthetic qualities and originality of its forms, the complex displays a remarkable functionality as regards light and ventilation. You can see the ingenious “Vann Molyvann windows” allowing those inside to work in well-ventilated amphitheatres even in the hottest part of the day. The campus is quiet, whispers can be heard from those walking around and it has a hushed feel like a library. The thousands of vehicles on Russian Boulevard not far away can barely be heard.
Several buildings have since been added, and changes to the open spaces of the original Royal University since the 1990s have detracted from the character. These changes have included the filling in of some of the water basins. Nearby a tasteless building houses the communications institute. In the back a block of teaching rooms resembling rabbit hutches, and the Japanese cultural centre also rather unsightly.
The six-story Faculty of Arts and Sciences inaugurated in 1962, was originally a high school for 5,500 students. Designed by Leroy and Mondet it also displays influences from Le Corbusier. It’s worth going up to the higher floors into classrooms to notice the natural ventilation system. Lectures are still given in the open air on the 2,000sqm roof terrace.
Campus Two of the Royal University is down Russian Boulevard back towards the airport on the opposite side of the road. It was built between 1989 and 1991 with the support of Vietnam on a site formerly occupied by the Parachute Unit of the Cambodian Army. The architects and workers sent to construct the campus were all Vietnamese. Unlike the Cambodian architects who led the New Khmer Architecture, none of the names of the Vietnamese architects were recorded which may be partially explained by the ethnic animosity between the two countries.
The architecture of the new campus was apparently influenced both by the ancient style of Khmer temples from the Angkor period and by a visit to some modern buildings such as the Hotel Cambodiana, designed by Lu Ban Hap and the original university campus, by Vann Molyvann, and others. Unlike the main campus however, access to the second campus is tightly controlled. Members of the GRK (the Royal Gendarmerie of Kampuchea), those in the bottle green uniforms, man the front gate with unsmiling faces and my request to enter was denied. When I asked my tuk-tuk driver why this was he said it probably had something to do with children of the elite attending classes on campus, so the public and the odd barang were kept away.
The site is also home to the Académie royale du Cambodge, Royal Academy of Cambodia, which was originally established in 1965 during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum but hadn’t got going by the time civil war broke out in Cambodia in 1970. It then disappeared completely under the Khmer Rouge, and was only re-established in the late 1990s.
These days the Royal University throws out hundreds of graduates. I’ve worked with some from the IFL, bright young things. Few however, get jobs in their chosen fields, the economy not having the capacity to absorb them all. I’ve met expats teaching at the Royal University. An American, with 18 years behind him in Cambodia, often a consultant for the World Bank lecturing in international relations. A chemistry professor from Sweden. Every year for ten years he’s been coming to Cambodia for three months to teach at the Royal University, “they keep asking me back.”. He told me that after the 2013 general elections, which the government almost lost, the university faculties became depoliticised. Previously, some academics had been barred from promotion or even sacked for not being members of the ruling party. One entire faculty had been closed down for purely political reasons, he said. He told me they had even begun tackling the issue of ghost employees at the university. Given the most recent election results however, it’s unclear where this development has gotten to.
To look for:
The Royal University of Phnom Penh, Russian Federation Blvd. (Street 110), Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Building Cambodia, ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953–1970; by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins, 2006 (hard to find)
Battambang Heritage; by Walter Koditek, 2018 (easier to find, try Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh).