New Khmer Architecture, one of the main drivers of progress during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era (1955–1970), came to represent an autonomous and modern Cambodia and it was widely used in local films, books, and other visual media and used on numerous state structures.

Since then, architects and historians from all over the globe have learned to regard it with admiration and intrigue.

Because of its connection to the context of the time, New Khmer Architecture provides an insight into its architectural significance and its effects on people’s lives.

After WW2, a weakened Europe was forced to give up many of its colonies and, like others, Cambodia was ruled by France for over a century before gaining independence in 1953.

The then king, Norodom Sihanouk, represented the country’s independence and although he abdicated in 1955 to enter politics, Sangkum Reastr Niyum, came to represent his reign.

Renaissance and a new spirit

After winning the election, Sihanouk set out to reimagine Cambodia as a modern state free from the legacy of colonialism, and under his direction, literature and the arts flourished as Cambodia experienced a cultural renaissance. He started a vast building initiative, the largest seen since Jayavarman VII, to establish a legacy just as the Angkorian kings had done before him, including a network of public buildings, new housing complexes, industrial enterprises, cultural centres, and transit networks.

His vision of this new, contemporary Khmer society had to be reflected in the architecture. To make Cambodia a global player, Sihanouk commissioned foreign and local architects and engineers with international training to assist in realising his goal.

Although there had been modern construction in Cambodia before (mostly Art-deco style), the addition of traditional Cambodian elements—with feelings of nostalgia and nationalism—set this new style apart, making it the “New Khmer Architecture”.

New Khmer Architecture: What is it?

‘New Khmer Architecture’ is a movement that developed in Cambodia from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s, well renowned for marrying local Khmer culture and customs with global Modernism which embraced minimalism and functionalism and rejected ostentatious ornamentations of the past.

Paradoxically, New Khmer Architecture went against the contemporary architectural movement. Even though basic, clean lines and geometries were in style, architects embraced Cambodia’s history with inventive interpretations of local themes, reinterpretations of classic building silhouettes, or the sporadic use of “kbach” features.

These were all constructed with the use of advanced building techniques including cantilevered balconies and self-bearing concrete, as well as contemporary materials like aluminium and reinforced concrete. Local architects were allowed to design their buildings in any way they wanted with no restriction thanks to these new technologies gleaned from the West.

Even today, the widespread employment of climate-sensitive elements makes them immediately identifiable within the urban fabric. Architecture had to adapt to the tropics by minimising mechanical lighting, ventilation, and cooling was used and available natural resources were used.

To shield inhabitants from severe weather, features like louver blocks, glass blocks, vertical concrete panels and overhangs (shading devices), and classic louvered doors and windows were frequently utilised. The building’s programming, physical layout, and orientation were all considered in this climatic sensitivity.

Change of form

Like many architectural movements before, New Khmer Architecture was developed over many years using a combination of elements. According to a 1962 local government brochure, modern architecture in Cambodia was initially seen as copies of Modernism found in Europe. But Cambodian architects began to create a distinct sense of design specific to Cambodia that would survive the years.

In the beginning, there were no Cambodian architects in Sangkum. The few French architects in the nation following France’s exit in 1953 were the architects in practice at the time. Most of Cambodia’s initial authentic Modernism structures, including residential complexes and government buildings, were created in part by Henri Chatel. At that point, the style hadn’t yet established its character; instead, it was seen as just another Modernism expression.

But it was a refreshing departure from the stuffy colonial architecture that paid little to no attention to its tropical surroundings. Chatel’s works, albeit a Western style, contained elements of vernacular that would later identify this developing style.

The first locally trained architects arrived in Cambodia in the late 1950s. At first, they would merely combine what Chatel had been doing in the early years of Sangkum with what they had learned outside. There were some experiments conducted sporadically, but nothing as blatant as what would be seen in subsequent years.

Vann Molyvann designed the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, which was finished in 1961. Following a few years of conservative design work as a recent graduate, Molyvann eventually broke ground by skilfully fusing cutting-edge features and building techniques with age-old customs. The conference hall, with its unique yet recognizable style, probably served as both an inspiration and a forerunner to Molyvann’s earlier works as well as future ones.

In Cambodia, logical contemporary architecture began to emerge in the last years of French colonialism. While some elements of French neo-classicism persisted, architects started to consider climate-sensitive design and stopped using ostentatious adornment.

Henri Chatel was among the pioneers in bringing climate-responsive mid-century modern design to Cambodia. Molyvann’s later works would later draw inspiration from his works.

In the early 1950s, modern architecture in Cambodia was identical to modern architecture anywhere else in the world. But of all the contemporary structures in Cambodia, Chaktomuk Conference Hall was probably the first to successfully embody the spirit of the century and establish a distinct identity.

Architects like Vann Molyvann began experimenting more with building silhouettes, structural elements, and climate-sensitive aspects, which grew even more abstract from their increased confidence.

The forerunners

Prince Sihanouk was the unquestionable driving force behind this movement. He didn’t have a background in design, yet managed to be involved in the conceptualization of many projects and occasionally took on the position of interior designer. The architects he collaborated with claim that he was always pushing them to reach the greatest standards and was very receptive to unconventional concepts.

Vann Molyvann, the country’s first architect with a formal qualification, is arguably the most admired of these designers. He identified Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, and Le Corbusier as influences on Modernism, which he encountered while studying in France. He returned to Cambodia in 1956 after completing his training, and a year later, at the age of thirty, he was immediately named the State Architect.

From then on, he created over a hundred structures in “Sangkum” using the architectural style he helped establish. The 100 Houses Project, National Sports Complex, IFL, and Chaktomuk Conference Hall are some of his most well-known projects.

Lu Ban Hap was another important player in this movement; he received a scholarship to Paris, just like Molyvann had three years earlier. He had told Sihanouk about his desire to work on Brasília, and the latter was keen to hire this young Khmer prodigy to help transform his city.

From 1960 to 1975, Lu Ban Hap served as the Head of Municipal Town Planning and Housing Development, dedicating much of his professional life to city planning and regulation. In addition, he created a few noteworthy structures, including Villa Romonea (Knai Bang Chatt), Chenla Theatre, and the Cambodiana Hotel.

‍More than fifty additional architects, engineers, and sculptors were involved in this movement. Leroy & Mondet (RUPP), Vladimir Bodiansky (National Sports Complex), Mam Sophana (Preah Kossomak Center), Ung Krapum Pka (Battambang University), and many more are among them.

The setting was a mash-up of technicians and creatives from various social and cultural origins who, although each had their distinct style, came together to create a unified architectural landscape.

The buildings

Chaktomuk Meeting Room

Fan-shaped Chaktomukh theatre

This theatre, located next to the Chaktomuk confluence, beautifully captures the spirit of “New Khmer Architecture.” The building’s fan-shaped structure, which recurs on all the facades, alludes to Cambodia’s long-standing cultural affinity for palm trees, while the semi-open area on the ground, repeating triangle pediments, and the pointed roof spire directly reference traditional silhouettes. Utilizing contemporary materials and technologies, these components work together to fulfill a contemporary function.

The National Sports Complex

National sports complex by Vann Molyvann

Constructed at an accelerated pace without sacrificing quality, the project was designed to host the 1963 SEA Games. Currently referred to as the Olympic Stadium, this 40-hectare facility included multiple reservoirs in a moat system; Vann Molyvann took inspiration for this design from the Angkor temples. These ponds would serve as the complex’s drainage sites in addition to providing a cool space for meetings.

This people-first philosophy permeated the architecture as well, with sweeping overhangs, air gaps, and alternate sunscreens used to help with lighting filtration and ventilation. It received considerable flak for being so expensive during a period when the Vietnam War harmed Cambodia’s economy. However, nobody at the time could match the engineering and architectural capabilities Cambodia had shown with the complex.

Foreign Language Institute

Foreign Language Institute by Vann Molyvann

This magnificent complex, formerly known as the Teacher Training College, was the final example of Molyvann’s architecture in the nation. It is made up of three main buildings: a small circular library to the south designed like a typical straw hat; a long western structure with labs suspended mid-air over falling columns; and a central building shaped like an inverted pyramid.

Except for the library, all structures have passive architectural elements, are encircled by moats, and are unusually elevated above the ground. Even though the buildings and roofs were designed in the middle of political unrest, their forms are even more avant-garde and sculptural than they have ever been.

Urbanism, the fruit of labour

Known as the ‘Pearl of the East’, Phnom Penh developed into a sophisticated, dynamic capital in the 1960s, surpassing many of its southeast Asian predecessors, after emerging as a secondary colonial post. The cityscape at the time, with its broad avenues lined with trees, well-kept fragrant gardens, and avant-garde modern structures with distinct flair, astounded visitors.

At first, Phnom Penh grew primarily and widely westward, toward the recently built Pochentong International Airport. Infrastructure projects like new road networks, schools, hospitals, and waste management facilities enjoyed a boom at that time. Due to the effective urban design, the city was well-prepared for the flood of migrants who fled US bombings in rural areas of the nation.

As a result, the city’s population increased dramatically from 370k to 1 million between 1953 and 1970 with extensive land reclamation initiatives in Koh Pich and Tonle Bassac contributing to the expansion of Phnom Penh’s urban city centre.

Growth of the city

Many merchants and developers, the majority of whom were Chinese, were encouraged to construct apartment buildings in the style of shophouses to serve the growing population of Phnom Penh. These buildings were intended to replace the low-density colonial shophouses remaining from the French colonial era. Many different socioeconomic strata and occupations were intended to be accommodated in these apartments, which still house most of the city’s population today.

Even though they were private developments, Sihanouk and his architects were able to inspire a creative mood that resonated with the developers, who went on to construct unexpectedly well-designed and high-quality buildings.

Many kinds of housing

Not only did Cambodia test cohabitation initiatives in Phnom Penh, but also in other towns like Takhmau and Kampong Cham. Projects like the White and Grey Buildings and several of the prefabricated homes Lu Ban Hap presented combined higher density living with vernacular and practices from traditional Cambodia.

In addition, low-density housing consisting of individual villas and “boreys” was authorized in neighbourhoods such as Toul Kork and Boeung Keng Kang.

The Fall

Architects confronted a significant obstacle at the beginning of Sangkum. There were very few competent contractors and technicians in the newly established Cambodia; those that did exist were primarily French or Vietnamese. The first engineering graduates from nearby universities didn’t start to graduate until the mid-1960s when the architecture department was established. By this point, Cambodia had also begun to establish its own building sector, and companies like Khaou Chuly and Comin Khmere were replacing outside aid in the building industry.

As New Khmer Architecture was rising to new heights of prominence, the nation began a gradual decline into internal strife. A series of reckless political bets and economic turmoil brought on by the Vietnam War resulted in Sihanouk’s removal from office in 1970, ending the Sangkum era. Then the Lon Nol-led Khmer Republic emerged, impeding any forward advancement. Large-scale building projects ended abruptly, and the burgeoning New Khmer Architecture hit a brick wall overnight in the absence of Sihanouk. Some initiatives continued, albeit with reduced resources, until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized control.

The Khmer Rouge destroyed many structures and organizations that they believed to be in opposition to their ideals, and the ones that survived suffered greatly from neglect. Many intellectuals, including Lu Ban Hap and Vann Molyvann, left the nation, while those who stayed were brutally murdered. Even so, hardly much building occurred between the Vietnamese soldiers’ withdrawal in 1989 and the ultimate defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

By this point, Phnom Penh, the former ‘Pearl of the East’, had ceased to be the model city that Lee Kuan Yew had Singapore modeled after. Only until the second constitutional monarchy was restored in 1993 did building resume as the nation’s economy began to revive. But under the Sihanouk dictatorship, New Khmer Architecture was never again the dominant force it once was.


Even if there was some peace restored in the 1990s, the trauma of war compelled Cambodia to start over. Fortunately, Sangkum’s building standards left many of its infrastructures intact, providing residents with temporary housing and other essentials during momentous change.

Few technicians and intellectuals made it out of the Khmer Rouge, leaving the nation once more without indigenous support for reconstruction. Almost no documentation of the building shells remained decades after Sangkum fell, so builders frantically searched for references for new construction. Using fragments from the abandoned structures, some post-war architecture nevertheless maintained certain features that were clearly Fresh Khmer Architecture

Modified or demolished structures

Modern construction patterns and rapid economic development also represent a serious threat to the legacy of New Khmer Architecture. Property developers have veered from traditional Khmer architecture in favour of generic pseudo-neoclassical designs that lack true originality.

That some of Sangkum’s most important structures have been destroyed or altered due to ignorance of their historical significance makes foreign investments even more risky. It may be interpreted as an ironic triumph of Sangkum era pioneers, who produced sufficiently distinctive architecture to be categorized as a distinct category in and of itself yet judged “too modern” and “non-Khmer” to be worthy of preservation or recognition as national heritage.

As far as architectural achievements go, few nations in southeast Asia have surpassed Cambodia’s achievements in the 1960s. While other nations blindly followed global trends, New Khmer Architecture was an uncommon example of refined uniqueness that aimed to revitalize a long-standing cultural legacy. It may not be as large as Angkor or as exotic as French Colonial architecture, but its avant-garde ideas and quality executions should still secure it a place in the annals of Khmer artistic achievement.

For more information about New Khmer Architecture, check out the Vann Molyvann Project

For more on Khmer Culture in the 21st Century

A reflection on Vann Molyvann

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