A Traveler's Treasure Hunt for Forgotten Modernism

Final Journalism Senior Student Project Available for Publishing

Architecture tourism is making a mark on the traveling map and, for architecture-lovers, Cambodia could be a mecca to seekers of obscure mid-century modernism. From the early 1950s, this overlooked country was built anew with modernist architecture based on the principles of Le Corbusier. Inspired by ancient Asian techniques, adapted to an equatorial climate and made almost wholly of concrete, it was an organic movement of modernism known as New Khmer Architecture. Entirely unique to Cambodia, the style developed in the capitol city of Phnom Penh, although many of its buildings would be just as home in Palm Springs. Its influence spread to the country’s borders until 1970 when development was terminated and tarnished under decades of war, genocide and unrest. Yet traces remain and are wonderfully rewarding to see.


New Khmer Architecture is easily recognizable as modernist, showcasing jutting cantilevers, breezeblock galore, curved awnings, zig-zagging roof lines, and intentional asymmetry, much of it built of concrete and balanced on piloti. The country is already a major destination for architecture tourism, although perhaps inadvertently so. The iconic, ancient temples of Angkor bring in over 2 million visitors a year. Ta Prohm, the well-photographed temple sinking under complex twists of weighty fig trees, served as a location for the film Tomb Raider. Enormous Angkor Wat is replicated on the national flag, which is the only one in the world to feature a building. But for a nation so famous for architecture, its accomplishments in modernism are relatively unknown.


Due to recent rapid growth and foreign investment, its fate is likely to remain that way and anyone wanting to see this one-of-a-kind style of design should start booking. “Come as soon as you can. Plan your trip now,” said Darryl Collins, a Cambodia resident who co-authored the book Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970. Collins has been watching the disappearance of New Khmer Architecture in Phnom Penh since the 90s, when new development was just starting to stand out against the historic cityscape. He says putting off travel to Cambodia is not going to create any more, old buildings to see. For anyone planning travel to see New Khmer Architecture, by all means, go see the temples of Angkor, in Siem Reap, while you’re there. It’s a perfect first-stop for an architecture tourist, as many elements of traditional building were incorporated into Cambodian modernism, such as spatial proportions, elevated walkways and some ornamentation.


Phnom Penh is truly the heart of modernist architecture and where many of the best examples can be seen. A third place worth the distance is a lesser-known seaside town called Kep, situated on the Gulf of Thailand. The best way to see the stars of New Khmer Architecture in Phnom Penh is with a tour by Khmer Architecture Tours. They feature a tour titled New Khmer Architecture of the 1960s, which can be taken with a group or booked for a private excursion. Get the full experience of living in the golden 60s of Phnom Penh, with a stay at The Sangkum boutique hotel. The renovated, modernist villa is set back from the street behind a walled-off courtyard shaded by palm trees. A vintage Vespa parked by the breezeblockenclosed entryway gives an immediate retro vibe throughout the hotel. Decorated with mid-century modern antiques, and old 60s, Cambodian film posters, the indooroutdoor space of the ground floor opens up to a restaurant and outdoor pool.


When you are ready for a break from the dust and busyness of Phnom Penh, hire a car for a 3-hour drive to Kep. From 1953 until 1970, Kep was deemed the Saint-Tropez of the far east. Hundreds of custom-built, modernist villas sprang up along the coastline and hillside, for luxurious getaways to the aristocrats. Nowadays, only about 100 remain, many of them ghostly ruins of a glamorous structure that once was. Still, they are unmistakably modernist and beautiful, even after wreckage. A trio of such villas have been renovated into a resort right on the water called Knai Bang Chatt, a high-end boutique hotel. It is adjacent to The Sailing Club, another modernist salvage with an elegant, nautical-themed restaurant. “It’s worth a stop for at least a drink, just to see the restored building in case the neighboring hotel is out of budget,” said Dr. Erik Karlsson. An expat in Cambodia, Dr. Karlsson was immediately struck by the ailing architecture of Cambodia’s history, and has found Kep to be his favorite vacation spot. There are no official tours of the villas in Kep, so travelers can go solo on a rented moto, the streets are well-paved and clear, or by hiring a tuk tuk driver. Simply tell your driver you want to see the old mansions and you will be whisked around to parts unknown, for a spectacular line-up of exclusive ruins.


Traveling great distances to get an up-close look at a must-see, mid-century modern building can be exhilarating for design enthusiasts. Hunting down the remnants of a solitary, modernist movement offers a new level of satisfaction, like uncovering a secret treasure. This is especially true in Cambodia where New Khmer Architecture buildings have held up through unsurpassable devastation and now face an uncertain future.


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