"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Thursday, 16 July 2015

31. Art Deco and Post-Modern in Phnom Penh

You won't find any 600-year old temples in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The place didn't even exist back then. Nor will you find any 300-year-old palaces. The Thais completely torched the town in 1874. And the Khmer Rouge didn't exactly contribute to the cause of urban development when they captured the capital in 1975. Their first act was to drive its entire population out of the city and into the killing fields.

With a history like that, it's perhaps surprising to discover that Phnom Penh has at least a couple of pretty spectacular buildings. The older of the two is the massive, Art Deco, Psar Thmei or central market set in the heart of downtown. It was based on a design by little-known French architect Louis Chauchon and built from 1935-37 on reclaimed land over a former swamp.

The market has a symmetrical layout. It's centred on a yellow dome that is 50-metres high, with four wings radiating outward from the dome, each 50-metres in length. The ochre colour is typical of the shading given to French colonial buildings throughout Indochina.

Psar Thmei is every bit as impressive inside as out. The soaring roof gives an impression of airiness and, indeed, its open windows create a  coolness and airflow that are absent outside.

Inside the wings, row upon row of concrete arches lend both structural support and aesthetic appeal.

The interior has some nice Deco touches. Like the central clock:

And this elongated lamp:

You're probably wondering about the glass structure peering over the top of the central market. Wonder no longer. It's Phnom Penh's other piece of Wowchitecture - the city's version of a post-modern L-Tower. It's not officially called the "L-Tower" although it really does look like an "L".

This is in marked contrast to Toronto's version, which is officially called the "L-Tower" although in reality it's shaped like the letter "I".

(Via Studio Daniel Libeskind)                                  

But I digress.

Cambodia's building is called the Vattanac Capital after the bank with the same name. It consists of a 39-storey (189-metre) glass tower, slightly arched backwards, with a protruding point in front. A second cube-shaped building sits on the large tower's extended lap. The tower houses offices, luxury retail and a five-star hotel. The smaller structure is called a "lifestyle cube" with cinemas, fitness facilities and medical floors. The project was finished in 2014.

Like the Art Deco market, Vattanac pays a lot of attention to small details. The protrusion on top that looks like the spout on a salt box, is actually a cantilevered sky-bar. The main tower extension that supports the cube, is made of strong but attractive overlapping steel:

The glass in the cube is decorated with traditional Cambodian motifs:

It all looks great by day -- or by night:

(Via ARUP)

The complex was deigned with Feng Shui principles in mind. The architect, Terry Farrells, and the bank say that the tower calls to mind the silhouette of a dragon or serpent deity called a Naga. Here's what a Naga looks like:

I don't know about you, but I don't quite see the resemblance.

Still, maybe that's what good architecture should be: a Rorschach test which we interpret through the lens of our own cultural perspective.