Monday, November 26, 2012

2012, Day 330 - Deco Phnom Penh

Today we we decided to try something different so Francene booked us on a tour of architecturally significant homes of the 1960s in Phnom Penh.  We met at the old post office near the waterfront at eight thirty and set out in a van.  It was an eclectic group of people from Australia, France, and the United States as well as some Khmer students of architecture.  From what our guide told us it sounds like there is only one notable modern Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann.  Recently there has been a push to preserve his works although there is very little in the way of resources, especially those financial in nature, to accomplish such a task.  Instead many of Vann Molyvann's works are used as residences by people who do not understand his importance and as such have fallen into disrepair.

The first stop on our tour was at the "One hundred houses" project; a project undertaken by Vann Molyvann for the National Bank of Cambodia in the mid-60s to provide low cost housing to their employees.  This is a series of traditionally styled Khmer homes built with more modern materials intended to increase efficiency and durability while lowering the costs.  A traditional Khmer home is has one large living room, a small bedroom, and a kitchen that is built of stilts and is only a single finished level.  These homes enjoyed the addition of an attached bathroom and had a concrete structure with louvered shutters as opposed to a wooden structure with solid shutters.  These modifications allowed for increased air circulation while requiring less maintenance.  In the 70s house 54 was used as the Khmer Rouge headquarters and since by the Vietnamese army and later by the Cambodian Air Force.  Today many of the homes are either derelict or so drastically changed as to be unrecognizable and construction throughout the neighborhood seems to be on the rise.  What's more, development in neighboring areas has required a great deal of fill to turn swamps or lakes into buildable lots and the result is that many of the lots of the homes that still exist as built are permanently flooded.

Our next stop was at the former residence of Dr. Rath Kut.  Now a small medical facility it was built and scaled for film production but it seems that the doctor's dreams and reality didn't quite intersect.  It is an incredibly modern three story home with rooftop terrace designed by Vann Molyvann but the construction took place without his supervision.  Multiple wings branch off each level, on the main for the kitchen, on the second for the bedroom, and the third looks like it may have been for offices or staff quarters.  Grand cantilevers stairs take you gracefully to the top and the orientation of the windows, doors, and balconies allow for a really nice cross breeze.  Like the "one hundred houses" project the house has fallen into disrepair since being converted to a clinic.  Signs of moisture cover the ceilings on the upper floors, the paint is peeling, and the tile is faded by dirt that has been ground into it over the past forty years.  Even the grounds are now overgrown so while you might be able to imagine the former grandeur it is not at all apparent at first blush.

Finally we visited a house of unknown provenance.  It is a modern deco revival built in the late 60s or early 70s.  Unlike the previous two sites it is still almost completely original and while the owner doesn't live in the house it is rented to someone who obviously has great affection for the house and the era.  Entry to the house is through the formal living and dining room which flows nicely into the family room and informal dining area.  Two staircases lead to the second floor which is bedrooms and bathroom and the spiral staircase continues upward onto the rooftop terrace.  Beautiful tile is used throughout and there are massive windows on almost every wall.  Covered balconies and porches are available on the front and sides of the house while absent in the back due to proximity to the neighbors.  Almost every window has a decorative ironwork screen that continues the nouveau deco theme and the yard is heavily planted with fruit trees and infilled with ornamental plants.  The whole house is both beautiful and comfortable, it is just a shame that the architect was not more prolific as the design and execute is wonderful and even forty years on it still would meet the needs of any family.

Thus our tour ended and we learned a lot about the arts and architecture of the sixties and, looking around today, can see the enormously detrimental effect of the Khmer Rouge.  Their prosecution of artists and intellectuals has lead to a sort of design stagnation in Cambodia that is still evident today.  Fortunately there seems to be great interest in developing a new Cambodian aesthetic but I suspect that it will be some time in coming and in fifty years this will be considered the dark days of the arts in this country.

We were returned to the old post office and called Tim to see if he wanted to join us for lunch.  Plans weren't made then, we met with him back at the apartment and from there walked to a tasty Indian restaurant a few blocks away.  After lunch Tim suggested we go furniture shopping.  Well, as much as I would like to buy furniture at bargain prices in Cambodia the idea of having something shipped back just seems like too much work and expense.  Nevertheless I am always game so we stopped by one place that had really nice contemporary furniture made from sustainable tropical hardwoods.  Tim and Francene zeroed in on a nice long low entertainment cabinet that would make a nice replacement for the generic embassy-provided furniture in Tim's apartment.  But Tim is a cautious person by nature so he wanted to measure the cabinet before making a commitment; I might have taken the leap anyway, the price was great!

After the first furniture store we stopped by a gallery that happens to be right behind the apartment.  It is a three story house crammed with traditional Khmer arts from ceramic to textiles.  The prices here can be a little steep compared to what you might find that the markets but the quality is, for the most part, higher and their selection is really amazing.  In Cambodia it is illegal to take antiques out of the country unless it comes with paperwork showing a proper chain of custody.  The reality is that little leaves the country anymore but there are many skilled craftsmen who now have an incentive to hone their skills.  Apparently many experts have difficulty telling the difference between vintage pieces and modern reproductions, a scientific approach is almost always required.

Our last stop was at another furniture store where they sell either antique Indonesian furniture or contemporary furniture made from reclaimed tropical hardwoods from Indonesia.  It was an interesting place, the pieces I gravitated towards, for the most part, were new from salvaged woods.  Some of the carvings from around doorways were incredible but again, not practical.  I don't think Tim found anything worth measuring there but it was fun to explore.

Our window shopping done we returned to the refrigerator that is the apartment.  Tonight I had arranged to meet Yi for dinner.  I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his playing the part of our guide for a day when the Brian and Nicole were still around during the first part of the trip.  Plus I thought it wouldn't hurt for Tim to meet him as well because Yi seems like a great guy, he just graduated from college, and Tim is a well-connected person.  If nothing comes of it then it's no big deal but I thought Tim would like Yi and vice versa. It seems like they got along well although I will freely admit that I probably was a bit distracted by my food.

After saying goodbye to Yi when the table was picked clean we started walking back to the apartment.  Not unlike last night, we walked about a block and it started to rain.  Within two more blocks it was getting heavier and by the time we reached the apartment we were all a little wet.  So we tried off in the cool sanctuary and shortly thereafter we finished off our ice cream cake and I sat down to work on this blog.  Tomorrow we have lunch with the Cambodian Director of Finance so I better get my beauty sleep.

Canon 1D X, Canon 16-35/f2.8L Mark II
16mm, f4, merged layers of 1/1250, 1/640, 1/320, and 1/160 sec @ 100 ISO

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