The Architecture of Cambodia

Image of ancient and ornate carvings and architecture, Cambodia

Architecture in Cambodia has been shaped by a myriad of influences, most notably Buddhist and Hindu temple-building traditions in addition to French Colonial construction techniques.

In urban areas, a degree of Soviet influence is also evident in the concrete municipal buildings, marketplaces, and apartment blocks. In the countryside, however, tried-and-tested designs have been maintained, and rural buildings continue to use locally sourced materials, such as timber, bamboo, and palm leaves, which are well suited to the tropical monsoon climate.

Temple Architecture

Up until the 10th century, temples in Cambodia were made mainly with brick. Khmer ceremonial buildings after this time were constructed using sandstone, usually with a lower section of laterite (moist clay blocks that harden over time). Their elaborate decorative designs, created by expert stonemasons, incorporate religious and spiritual themes and also reflect historical, military, and dynastic events.

Many features of classic Khmer architecture, such as nagas (serpents), elaborate pediments, and lintels, were later incorporated into Buddhist buildings in the region. Modern temples in both countries are more similar to contemporary Thai designs, featuring a pointed roof, front veranda, and an elaborate gateway.

A central tower, or a number of towers, crown Khmer temple complexes. The characteristic ogive design is thought to represent a lotus flower bud. The lintels are richly carved with religious figures, most often those of the four Hindu gods associated with the cardinal directions.

Colonial Architecture

The most important architectural reminders of French rule are found in 19th- and 20th-century buildings in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Kampot. Kep also has a fascinating number of Modernist seaside villas, some restored, but most in ruins.

Rural Architecture

Houses in rural areas are traditionally wood and bamboo structures, built on stilts to raise the home above seasonal floodwaters. The main living quarters of each rectangular two-story building is divided into sections for sleeping and cooking, with a storage area above.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh showcases a grand façade and elegant collonaded balconies. It is a great mix of old and new Cambodian architecture intertwined with bits of French colonial influence.

Two-story brick and stucco villas are one of the enduring legacies of Colonial rule, although many have been poorly maintained since independence. Phnom Penh boasts a particularly fine collection of French villas.

Wooden houses on stilts are usually built with a steep staircase. The roofs are tiled, thatched, or made from corrugated metal. Shuttered windows shade the interior from direct sunlight while the slats allow a breeze to circulate and cool the house. Space below the house is used to keep livestock.

Modern Cambodian Architecture

Influenced by the clean lines and simplicity of the Modernist movement, New Khmer Architecture, at its height from 1955 to 1972, draws heavily on ancient Khmer temple designs. The National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh, for example, was laid out on an east-west axis, mirroring classic Khmer buildings with barays (reservoirs).

The most influential architect of this period, Vann Molyvann, created structures such as the startling library at Phnom Penh’s Teacher Training College, with its radial roof resembling a farmer’s hat. The sharply geometrical building of the National Bank of Cambodia and St Michael’s Church in Sihanoukville are also striking examples.

Another fantastic example of Modern Khmer Architecture is the stupa-like spire that emerges from the roofline of the Chaktomuk Conference Hall. The fan-shaped roof of the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, designed by Vann Molyvann and completed in 1961, has a stunning façade that is supported by concrete stilts. Renovated in 2000, the Chaktomuk Conference Hall now hosts conferences and performances of traditional music and dance.

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