Here in London as we reconfigure our Olympic Park over in Lea Valley so that Londoners can make use of the Hopkins designed Velodrome and the Hadid designed Aquatics Centre, many thousands of miles away lie the crumbling remnants of a once grand and ambitious project in Phnom Penh, known as the Olympic Stadium. Built hurriedly in 1963 to Olympic standards for the South East Asia Games, which were cancelled due to political troubles in Cambodia at the time, the stadium went on to have a strange history.
In 1966 it played a small part in the FIFA World Cup when it hosted a qualifying match between North Korea and Australia, which was struggling to find a venue. It was something to do with North Korea not having too many friends except for Norodom Sihanouk, Head of State in Cambodia and ally of the lovely Kim Il-Sung, who offered up the venue and even made sure that the 40 000 person crowd cheered on both sides equally. North Korea went on to the quarter finals in England but I think another team went on to win that year. Later and tragically during the Khmer Rouge era, it served as an execution site.
The complex was part of a major architecture and development programme initiated in post independence Cambodia by the aforementioned Prince Sihanouk and resulted in a movement that became known as New Khmer Architecture. The leading architect was Vann Molyvann, who designed this Stadium and many other significant buildings in Cambodia. He studied architecture in Paris in the exciting 1950s and returned home as the first fully qualified architect of Cambodia. The new style was part Modern Movement, part Angkor Wat and part traditional Cambodian housing. Concrete (Modern Movement influence) was the material of choice but mixed with the triple V shaped roofs typical of local housing, with ventilation being a critical element in the tropical climate. The design movement was influential enough to impress President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore that after a visit he went home determined to take his own country in the same direction.
Although many of the buildings survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge era they now face a more potent threat, including this stadium, of big money development and land speculation. Two of Vann’s significant buildings, the National Theatre and the Council of Ministers have already been torn down and the Olympic Stadium Complex was sold in 2001 to Taiwanese developers who are filling the site with shoddy housing complexes. Although still today (or at least last year when Viewport was on holiday in Cambodia taking these snaps) the site is in active use by many people, it’s in a sorry state of repair and parts of the main stadium are closed off. This is just another sad marker for Cambodia, but also for the exciting period of architecture that took place in many newly independent countries in the 1950s through to the 1970s.
Should you happen to be dropping by Phnom Penh and want to catch some of these buildings before they are gone, check out this link to this website of KA Tours offering New Khmer Architecture trips. I’ve no idea whether KA Tours are up to scratch but the website looks pretty fine.