Friday, April 03, 2009


I always knew sooner or later i would end up in the ghetto.

Having stopped to photograph some kids framed by a long, dark corridor, i turn to find the rest of my group has vanished somewhere inside this labyrinthine, bleak, and decades-old experiment in social housing. Like most 1960s modernist low-cost apartment blocks, the White Building will end its days as a slum. But it lasted longer than most. It even outlasted the death of modernism, the sudden and final throes of which came on 15 July 1972, according to postmodern architect Charles Jencks. That was the day the prize-winning Pruitt-Igoe housing development was demolished in St Louis. Thirty-three eleven-storey buildings, 2870 apartments, and, on the original plan, not one playground.

Ah, but the premise and the promise! Better living through architecture. Le Corbusier. Mies van der Rohe. The power of the minimal, the rational, the positive. Modernism. Such a grand, progressive project. A project which ultimately failed to account for the fact that life is, well, kind of messy.
But in Cambodia, no building is so messy as to be unlivable. I walk to the end of the dank corridor, which smells faintly of urine, past a couple of doors open onto squalid interiors, to an broad and high breezeway between the blocks. While not exactly lost, i have no idea where i am heading. They must be in here somewhere. I'm on a tour of Khmer New Architecture, and am beginning to feel that a walking tour of Phnom Penh - at this time of year - is one of the more arcane forms of madness.

I wipe away the sweat and take another sip of water. Colourful bedspreads hang over the rails of the stairwell. A small shop is set up on the floor outside one of the apartments, vending the basic stuff of life. We've just visited a tiny school downstairs, the only education option for these kids, all of whom work - some picking over the rubbish dump, some doing heavy manual labour. Some young Khmer men, shirtless, are leaning against the stair, joking amongst themselves. Perhaps wondering what this barang is doing on their block. The answer, as usual, lies in my curious and Quixotic tendencies. As one reader of The Nerve confides: I will just think of you as the Knight of Lost Causes. But, lost cause or no, it has been difficult not to notice this huge, decaying apartment block, given its proximity to my workplace.
The offices of The Paper are housed in the Grey Building - one half of this pigeon pair of Vann Molyvann buildings on the Front du Bassac. My office looks out over this buzzing, blackened hive, out over a no-man's land of desolate rubble from the recently demolished Dey Krahorm community. A little over two months ago, 600 thugs and riot police, seemingly working at the behest of the developer, descended on this poor community to ruthlessly evict them by destroying everything in their path. Because we simply must have another shopping mall.

Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 24/01/2009:
Police aiming a straight-shot tear gas gun during the final eviction at Dey Krohorm.

©John Vink/ Magnum

Maria, who runs a photography project in the White Building, says it is next in line for destruction. "We are not aiming to save this building, its future has already been written," she says. Maria gives cameras and photography lessons to its inhabitants, who faithfully document their frankly astonishing lives. "It's difficult to tell people they have to stay here, in a building that's falling apart. No-one wants to be here. The building was designed as a social housing project - the biggest in South East Asia - but what it has come to represent is the complete opposite." I swelter up another flight of stairs, searching fruitlessly for the others in my party. An old man points along a corridor.

The beautiful, minimalist, staggered-block designs of Vann Molyvann's Grey and White buildings have long since been effaced. The high-end version, the Grey Building, constructed from granite, had its open terraces and uneven skyline filled in, to create an ugly monolothic box that is now the Phnom Penh Centre. Which has been painted white. The White Building, in an ironic twist, has meanwhile turned grey in its tropical environment. I find the rest of the group deep in the concrete intestines of the White Building by following the sounds of music: they are crammed into a tiny apartment watching some bizarre performance art.

Vann Molyvann, Cambodian protegé of Le Corbusier, studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, returning to his homeland in 1956. With the patronage of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, he then set about building most of the city's landmarks. The National Stadium, Independence Monument, the State Palace, the Institute of Foreign Languages, the 100 Houses Project ... and a nice house, Knai Bang Chatt, on the beach at Kep, which you can see here when you click on "Concept". Or go on the virtual tour, drag the cursor around and get dizzy. Go on. Vann Molyvann and the other New Khmer Architects turned what had become a dirt-road backwater into an elegant capital city of wide boulevards and vaulting public buildings. In Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 Helen Grant Ross describes the results: "Roofs fly, weights lift off the ground, and concrete, crazy paving, louvred walls, light and shade play in the tropical climate." Yes, indeed they do. Or did.

Shoes, sandals and the ubiquitous flip-flops lie scattered outside the door. It seems there is some Apsara dancing going on. Until this point, i haven't been privy to any Apsara. I wander in and sit cross-legged on one of Vann Molyvann's concrete floors, and watch as the girls elegantly twist and turn before these grimy yellow walls.

"Apsara dancing!" Kate Liana splutters when i tell her of the day's events, as we swim languidly in the saltwater pool paradise that is the Blue Lime. "Was it torture?"
It was hard sitting cross-legged on that concrete floor, i must admit. I should get along to some of Liana's yoga classes. But torture? "I thought it was ok," i mumble defensively.
"How long have you been here? You'll get sick of it soon enough, don't worry," she says, smoothing aside her long hair. She takes a sip of her cocktail. "How can they call it dancing, anyway?"
"What do you mean?"
"Apsara dancing - it just runs those poor women through a series of poses designed to reinforce their status as demure and submissive," she explains.
I suppose they did look rather - i don't know - subservient?
"I thought the music was nice," i say, meaning, in fact, "But Kate, if it weren't for these submissive and subservient women, i wouldn't have any slaves. Who would clean the tiled floor in my kitchen? Who would do my laundry? Jesus! Remind me to ask my maid if she does Apsara dancing. Sometimes there's just nothing on TV."

In 2001, Vann Molyvann's Olympic Stadium was sold to a Taiwanese developer, who reneged on a deal to renovate the modernist gem as part of the deal. Instead, he filled in the hydraulic ponds that were designed, like the famous moats of Angkor Wat, to drain away the monsoonal rains. Filled them in with a series of shoddy, low-rise retail buildings. And if it's not Taiwanese Trash going up, it's Korean Nouveau Bland or Chinese Baroque. In 2007, Vann Molyvann's elegant National Theatre building was torn down after it was sold to a private developer. And the beautiful, fan-shaped structure of the Chaktomuk Theatre is now also in the hands of a private developer.

Van Molyvann. He's still living in Phnom Penh now, but must be well into his eighties. But when the Golden Age of Khmer architecture came to a brutal end in 1970, with the coup d’état led by the American-backed General Lon Nol, Vann fled to Switzerland. It must have been painful for him to watch the events that then unfolded. Year Zero, 1975, the Khmer Rouge - no fans of cities - marched into Phnom Penh and evacuated the entire population, driving them out of the city, out into work camps in the country, into a prison without walls. They abolished cities, they abolished money. And that was just the start.

"They took Cambodia from a country in the process of development to a communal society without the slightest vestige of the modern or the urban," Vann Molyvann said. The Khmer Rouge even attempted to blow up some of his buildings. But the present threat of development is far more dangerous. It is a powderkeg on a short fuse set to cause far more damage to these stunning heritage buildings.

"The buildings survived being abandoned better than they've survived being misused," says Helen Grant Ross.

I peel a mango. Everything in this country is up for sale: its land, its heritage, its people. Cambodia: where everything is permitted but nothing is legal. Prostitution is illegal but endemic. Marijuana is illegal, but it is a commonplace for a barman to roll up a scoob of Cambodian red and pass it around the bar. Just as happened at the rhum house last night, where i had ducked in to escape the rain.

"It's just mango rain," says Remy, pointing out the open shopfront at the heavy downpour. "It is not rainy season until June." Three Frenchman are sitting around smoking and parlezing Français. Remy, behind the bar, serves me a rum cordial, this one flavoured with coffee. A joint goes around. I realise one of the two Stefans is a work colleague. The other Stefan, who runs Factory on Street 140, describes the night three thugs armed with machine guns tried to force their way into his house over some disagreement.

"My girlfiend and I, we were hiding under the table," he says. "There were three locks on the front door, they broke the top one, pow, then the middle one, pow, and started on the bottom one. I knew if the bottom one went we were dead," he says, matter-of-factly. "I could see the machine guns through the gap in the door. Luckily the last lock held. Lucky for me."

Or Cantina bar, where that affable Californian, Hurley, introduces Liana and i to the famous war photographer, Tim Page. Who immediately passes me a joint. Framed war photographs and kitsch posters from Mexican movies grace the walls. Hurley's Cantina sign, above our heads, is made from bent and welded barrels of guns, including the always dependable AK47. "Always aim for the center of the seen mass," advises ex-Army friend and travelling companion, Raoul. "And when shooting women or children, don't lead them by as much...they run slower." And you might think he is joking.

Page is searching for the remains of his friend, the opium-smoking journalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared in April 1970, while travelling by motorcycle in the Cambodian countryside. Flynn and Dana Stone, on assignment for Time magazine and CBS News respectively, were captured by communist guerrillas and never heard from again.

"It's disappointing, when months of painstaking research takes you out onto a limb, where you reach a point where someone knows someone who was there when they were shot, but then it transpires that that person was also later shot, and the branch just breaks, you are back to the starting point, back on ground level," says Page. He talks at length, and it's interesting stuff.

Tim Page's portrait of Sean Flynn

But this is Phnom Penh, and there's always something more interesting to do. Like going out and partying at a lesbian wedding dance on board a boat on the Mekong River.

But that, as they say in the classics, is another story.


miCheLLeBLOG said...

Well I hope you never stop tilting at those windmills - someone has to do it. I can usually be found tilting at a few of my own, but more cowardly, here in the safety of Oz.
Dangerous, interesting place you are in.

sarah toa said...

Sounds like a more gentile version of Mosman Park, planning, politicians, police and um ...

Kate Liana said...

Just to clarify, I don't hate apsara dancing because it's demeaning to women, I hate it because it's demeaning to art. It is not art, it is more like a debutant ball. But I guess the music's not bad.

I will try to limit my pool-side rants, but hard for me to limit my pool-side anything since I seem to spend 80% of my time there.