I just handed in an article on Vann Molyvann’s Bassac Theater to TouchStone and am posting the text here of my first draft for those who are interested. The articles for TouchStone are short and I am already over the word limit, although I could’ve written several more pages. [Note to self- do that and post here] It’s difficult to write about architecture without photos and unfortunately the building was torn down before I could properly see it. So instead I will link to other websites with photos of the Bassac Theater.
This lovely photo of the inside of the late Bassac Theater is by John McDermott. Many more photos from the Bassac Theater and squatters community can be found at the Cambodian Living Arts website here.
An aside: while writing the article I couldn’t help but think of the brilliant This American Life short on Richard Nickel and Louis Sullivan’s lost buildings in Chicago. It’s worth checking out for those who have not seen it.
Click “Keep Reading” for more.
Another personal note: scroll down to the end of the article for links to photos. Seeing the buildings is important to understanding how unique they really are. And it makes you appreciate the intense creativity in place here before the civil war. What would Cambodia be like now if this period had been allowed to unfold? It’s a question that seems to haunt Cambodia everywhere you go. Maybe that is why the buildings are not as widely appreciated– a reminder of what could have been?
The Bassac Theater: Gone but Not Forgotten
In 1968 Vann Molyvann’s Preah Suramarit National Theater, also known as the Bassac Theater, opened and immediately became one of Phnom Penh’s most famous and beautiful buildings. Molyvann was leading a renaissance of innovative architecture that was both modern and Khmer. Now 40 years later, and after surviving a 1994 fire, the building has been destroyed but it has not been forgotten.
In the 1950s and 1960s, during the “New Khmer Architecture” period, creative architecture was blossoming in Cambodia. However, while earlier Angkorian period temples are currently a focus of conservation efforts, the importance and beauty of buildings from this era has not been widely recognized. “Buildings from this period [50s and 60s] and colonial period buildings are all facing a challenge,” says Stefanie Irmer, Director of Khmer Architecture Tours, a group that leads tours of these important architectural gems. “Architecture is a political issue,” she added, noting that many buildings are located in areas where land prices have dramatically increased. The cost of conserving older buildings is often high. This factor, combined with a lack of appreciation for the architecture of this period has led many buildings to fall to the same fate as the Bassac Theater.
For Yam Sokly, an architecture student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the Bassac Theater was a source of pride, and its destruction represents a disregard for this part of Cambodia’s heritage. “To demolish [the Bassac Theater] is like trying to cut off my hand or my foot…like they are killing me.” Sokly first visited the theater in 2003 and immediately fell in love with its design. When he found out about its impending destruction he began visiting the building regularly. For Sokly and other architecture students, the Bassac Theater was an inspiration and exemplified the kind of creativity that is lacking from much of the current architecture in Phnom Penh.
The Bassac Theater was also at the heart of a thriving artists community that has been disrupted since its destruction. Many artists re-located to this area after the war and began using the theater as a both a living and rehearsal space (documented in Rithy Panh’s film “The Burnt Theater).” Charley Todd, Co-President Board of Directors and Senior Project Advisor for Cambodian Living Arts—a project of World Education, notes that many funerals of Khmer performing artists began at the Bassac Theater “because of its continuing symbolic and emotional importance to the artists.” With the destruction of the Bassac, many artists have lost their homes. Organizations like Cambodian Living Arts, have been working with the artists and masters to maintain the community and continue the performance and transmission of Khmer performing arts.
Up and coming architecture students, like Yam Sokly, hope to draw on the examples of their forebears and continue designing and building architecture that is both current and uniquely Khmer. Yet after the destruction of the Bassac Theater Yam Sokly does not hold out much hope for similar buildings from the 50s and 60s. “Day by day, one by one, they get knocked down,” he says. But the Bassac Theater will always be in his heart, “every time I see a line I think about the Bassac Theater.”
Footnote: “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970” by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, 2006
A touching article originally in the Phnom Penh Post on memories of the Bassac Theater.