These days I have not much to do and I have been reading and seeing the recent Zaha Hadid proposal for the Sleuk Rith Institute about the Khmer Rouge. Before continuing better to look at the institute official website, also the guardian wrote an article about it.
Images from the Sleuk Rith Institute official website.
In another country there would be one or several architectural magazines that would write a critical review of this project. Unfortunately Cambodia does not have any (and will probably not have for a while) and international magazines are probably not interested and do not have not even basic information about Cambodia. So. given my free time and in a impetus of self confidence I will dare to write few thoughts about it. I am not really quolified to do it but as Mendini stated 3 decades ago, this is the era of the universal dilettante.
Before beginning I think a positive thought should be given to the center for daring to do such a thing in Phnom Penh. Beside having probably not the best support from Hun Sen the team is trying to achieve something quite exception for Cambodia. My best wishes for this.
Now let’s get to the fun part ( at least for grumpy europeans like me).
Choice of the architect.
If is do not remember wrongly there was a competition amongst khmer architects 3-4 years ago. How come the winning design have not be implemented? Was there a need for an international architect? Why Zaha Hadid?
I guess the reasons are probably found in the funding policy. The funders (USaid, ironic isnt’ it?) usually want that their project receive enough media coverage. Who better than a starchitect to do that?
Choosing Zaha Hadid seems quite daring because her work it is usually (unnecessarily in my opinion) complex. In cambodia at the moment one has issues in sloping properly the floor of the toilet so I wonder how this will be implemented (probably by importing material, skills, management…etc..).
I have not see clear information about the site. It was mentioned in some article that it is in central Phnom Penh and has been donated by the royal family. It would be nice to see the design overimposed the existing context to better understand how it will relate with the city. The mean part of me would think that it does not matter because nowadays big studios design all over the places and team members often do not have a clue of the places they are designing in.
We can read in an interview that the brief was for “a place of memory that could heal” .
The proposal consists in 5 volumes that, according to the architect, are a reference to Angkor Wat. This does not sound so convincing to me and reminds me of the little trick many brands use in Cambodia when they do not know how to call or to advertise a product: they simply call it Angkor or the place images of the temple (or even better Prae Vihear) in a commercial. No one will complain and commercial success is ensured.
As a personal feeling I do not get the “healing atmosphere” so much. If we place a logo over the entrance it would be a nice headquarter for Gucci. In addition the structure resembles, at least to western eyes, so much of gothic architecture.It would be interesting to hear what it recalls to a cambodian.
The green area is definitely a positive aspect especially for a city like Phnom Penh that has not much new green areas planned and where existing ones get usually paved with yellow hexagonal concrete pavers (probably to store heat in case of a new glacial age).
I wonder if this idea of a close building is the most appropriate one for a project like this.
Interior layout and exhibition concept.
No information at the moment regarding interior spatial organization and exhibition concept. I feel this is usually a point where many museums fail because while the architecture is usually designed, the interior exhibition support and spaces are often left to technical offices or for later unclear development.
Also it is not clear what is the relation between the documentation center and the memorial part. So far it seems there is the popular approach of building the architecture and later finding what to place inside.
This is the first wooden building by Zaha Hadid.This is also the most controversial material of the country. Interesting choice. So will it come from Malaysia? Or will it be sourced overnight with a blitzkrieg operation in Ratanakiri? (as the head of a university in PP once mentioned: ” we carried those big logs at night from Ratanakiri”. Those logs are now an overdimensioned handrail on a questionable building).
A khmer stepping in.
One of the key aspect of a project is the impression that a building will make on its user. So I wonder how a survivor will feel like walking in it, what will a young khmer that only heard those stories think..
When I was working in Cambodia I was quite upset that there is a relatively small amount of information about cities and urbanism in tropical weather. I would even say that a whole theory for tropical climate should be developed. This building seems another lost opportunity to address issues that are crucial to this weather (If we consider that this is one of the top ten studios in the world, it is quite disappointing. Maybe in the development phase something will improve). Beside the basics (heat, ventilation, watercaus management) it would be interesting to at least try to define what a contemporary building in the tropics could look like. Molyvann and others in the 60′ and in other countries did that very well. Unfortunately, at least according to what I hear around, those building are outdated because “it is not possible to live withou AC” and because dust has become an unbearable substance (the same people will not complain that much about the junk on the street, the little kid sniffing glue or other issues…but the dust! the issues is that if one is afraid of dust will shut all opening killing natural ventilation. at that point only AC is the solution).
The idea of modernity.
There a smaller aspect, compared to the previous one, that I think it is worth mentioning. This building being one of the very few decent building built in recent years will also represent what contemporary architecture is (I can think only of two buildings, Kantha Bopha Hospital bnear Wat Phnom that has very interesting use of semi open spaces and the new RUPP library on russian library with many details to suit the climate). So probably in the next years student architecture project will all look like gothic cathedral.
Obviously the power of today free market can make this project happen importing material and skills needed. Would this be the right approach? Without going as far as Gaudi with the Sagrada Familia which is probably the most ritual construction of contemporary times, what would be the appropriate way to build this building. We should not forget that this is a special building. It is not a new mall or a (supposedly) international university. This is the building that will try to tell and remember the most dramatic moment of cambodian history. I have not clear idea about this but I think that maybe construction, in some part should have some rituals ( when there was the cremation of king sihanouk the city became something very special…).
Easy to critic but …
After all this ranting one might that it is easy to criticize without proposing anything, so here are few ideas that seem intersting (without seeing site, brief, program a more detailed proposal is quite impossible).
I feel that in the use of the word “heal” for a building like this shows the whole difference between wester and eastern culture. I dont think in Europe anyone would have used that. We want to remember. Even with roughness if possible (think of the holocaust museum by Libeskind). Healing on the other hand brings a whole different dimension to what a memorial and documentation center should be and probably tells us something about the khmer rouge time that is unique (some describe it as the only genocide of XX century done by an ethnic group on itself).
How could we create a place that is healing?
I think one of the answer could be by integrating nature ( which is a continuous source of life and death) and the buildings.
This could be developed further by thinking of the visit as a promenade between different spaces (perhaps designed and connected with the museological approach) that are immerse in nature.
Images of Charles Correa Gandhi memorial museum: partially enclosed pavilions surrounded by green space. A simple solution that does not overcome the content of the museum.
This building is also a memorial. As such it probably needs a form that creates and encourage rituals. This space should not be approached as another building in Phnom Penh.
In addition it could have a strong visual and evocative dimension. Consider the vietnam war memorial in Washington DC.
With this idea in mind the collaboration with an artist could be very beneficial.
As mentioned before, the construction process could be rethought in order to include moments of “collective awareness” for what it is happening.
Place of meditation.
I would imagine this as a place of consideration and meditation. It would be good to have an acoustic buffer between this area and the city. It could probably work in antithesis to the urban space (congested vs widespread, loud vs silent, artificial vs natural).
Vietnam veteran memorial, Washington DC.
At least a part of the area should always be open to the public but not as a generic open space. It should have special rules that make it a place of respect and memory.
Maybe the overall logic of the project should shift from the idea of creating a building to the idea of creating a place. This means that maybe the overall program is fragmented in the area (how big is the site?). Architecture should not be the main focus of attention, it should work as a backdrop that enhance what the visitors is seeing.
As a final note. Because of the complexity of a building like this, the usual architectural approach could maybe be dropped. We probably need to think not only what will be built but how and by who, in what circumstances (will the construction workers have an insurance?), using what material…. A building like this contains so many path and symbols for Cambodia that each grain of materials will be telling much more that it usually does. (This makes me think that probably an “artistic” -i.e. dense with symbolism-approach might be a better solution).