"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

Saturday, 15 August 2015

32. Zaha Hadid's Cambodia Genocide Museum: A Preview

(Image via Sleuk Rith Institute)

It's now been 36 years since the genocidal Khmer Rouge were toppled off their perch in Phnom Penh. It will be at least 40 before the country gets its memorial museum. That's not a particularly long time. It took 52 years for a memorial to the Armenian genocide to be built in the country's capital, Yerevan:

Armenian Genocide Memorial
(Photo via KatieAune.com) 

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin wasn't finished until 54 years after the WWII holocaust:

From the air, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum looks like a fractured Star of David.
(Photo via Studio Daniel Libeskind)

Genocide has a way of shocking societies into numbness and immobility. It can take decades to recover.

The architect chosen for the Cambodian project is the incomparable, Pritzker Prize winner Dame Zaha Hadid. That choice has upset a number of people - mostly Cambodian architects - who feel that the prestigious project should have gone to one of their own. After all, Libeskind is Jewish and was born in Poland, one of the main theatres in which the holocaust played out. His parents were holocaust survivors. By contrast, Hadid was born in Baghdad and is based in London.

The counter argument is that there aren't any Cambodians who can design at Hadid's level. As counter arguments go, it's a pretty darn good one. There aren't many architects in the world who are at Hadid's level. I mean, who even thinks about designing a subway station that looks like this one:

Metro Station at King Abdullah Financial District, Riyadh Saudi Arabia (under construction)
(Image via Zaha Hadid Architects)

The name of the memorial will be the Sleuk Rith (Power of the Leaves) Institute. Cambodian religious leaders and scholars have historically used dried leaves to document history, disseminate knowledge and preserve culture during period's of harsh rule and grave peril. The Institute is the brainchild of Youk Chhang, the Executive Director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, and a survivor of the killing fields himself.

Like his antecedents, but using more up-to-date technology, Chhang has documented the three years, eight months and 20 days of barbarity that claimed nearly two million Cambodian lives. His "dried leaves" include 600,000 pages of documents, maps of 20,000 mass graves and 4,000 transcribed interviews with former Khmer Rouge soldiers. 

One of Chhang's key goals is to transform the whole notion of a memorial. Like traditional memorials, the Sleuk Rith will document and institutionalize the horrors of the past. But Chhang also wants to focus on future reconciliation. "In the context of genocide and mass atrocity" he has said, "we were keen to create a forward-looking institution that deviates from the distress-invoking quasi-industrial harshness of most existing genocide memorial models....in light of Cambodia's rich cultural and religious traditions, we must move in a different and more positively oriented direction.

A change in concept demanded an equal transformation in architectural style, and Hadid was more than up to the task. The architect best-known for her long, undulating, free-form structures built of white concrete:

Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku Azeraijan
(Photo via Arcspace)

replaced her signature material with tall, tree-like forms of wood. The overall effect is that of clumps of forest rising to varying heights: 

 (Image via Sleuk Rith Institute)

The irony here is that Cambodia's forests are experiencing their own genocide. The country is the third-most deforested country in the world. The operation of illegal logging (and not all of it is illegal) is being done with the collusion of government and military officials, with all of the wood going to China. Many species are losing their habitats, forced to walk further along their own path to extinction.

The Sleuk Rith building will sit atop raised terraces - testimony to the floods that often spill over onto the sight at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Visitors will approach on causeways above reflecting catchment pools:

 (Image via Sleuk Rith Institute)

From a distance it will appear to be one building, but the Institute will, in fact, be composed of five buildings, separated at the tapering bottom:

 (Image via Sleuk Rith Institute)
but interwoven through a series of indoor and outdoor spaces that widen and square off as they rise to heights ranging from three to eight storeys:

(Image via Sleuk Rith Institute)

Each building will house a different function: a library with the largest collection of genocide-related materials in Southeast Asia; a graduate school; a research centre; and a media centre and auditorium. The Institute is intended to be a true community resource, both outside and in. It will include a 68,000 sq. metre memorial park with sport fields, urban vegetable garden and fruit orchards, meadows and a forest displaying modern Cambodian sculptures, many of them commemorating the women who helped rebuild the country.

That's an amazingly ambitious vision. The question is will it ever be realized - and realized in a form consistent with Hadid's vision? There are reasons for doubt. Construction of the building has been approved but not all of the needed funds have been raised. Originally, groundbreaking was supposed to take place in 2014 (then in the first half of 2015) with the building finished in 2016. Meanwhile, it's now the second half of 2015 and not an inch of ground has been broken. 

Assuming the funds are raised, will they end up where they're targeted? Cambodia currently ranks 20th on the global list of corrupt countries, and there are plenty of generals, politicians and businessmen with extensive experience in diverting well-intended money into their own pockets. Meanwhile, the sustainably harvested timber with which Hadid has promised the building will be constructed, has yet to be sourced.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the character of the Cambodian people themselves. Cambodians have not shown an overwhelming desire to seek punishment and justice for war criminals. Only three members of the Khmer Rouge have ever been convicted of genocide. Cambodians even allowed the Khmer Rouge to hold onto the country's western frontier bordering on Thailand until 1996. In fact, the Khmer Rouge refused to fully relinquish the lands until Pol Pot died - unbloodied and unbowed - in western Cambodia in 1998.

There is yet another irony at play here. Westerners are completely baffled as to why Cambodians remain largely uninterested in pursuing justice against the war criminals who perpetrated genocide. Yet in the late 1970s it was the Cambodians who wondered why the west was so uninterested in stopping the atrocities in the first place.

Good luck Dame Zaha, we wish you all the best in bringing the world another one of your magnificent creations. We hope you don't get bogged down - like so many others have before you - in a quagmire called Cambodia.