Cambodia’s Green Architecture Movement

Design innovators are rethinking the country’s urban landscape

Claiming to offer respite from the spirited concrete jungle that is Cambodia’s tropical capital, many restaurants and higher-end hotels in Phnom Penh will commonly brand themselves through similar terms – from a one-of-a-kind leafy haven or oasis of green to a much-needed garden escape, to name a few. And it’s mostly true – heavy foliage drips from the facades of some of the city’s most striking new constructions, and entering can similarly involve crawling through mountains of jungle to get through.

Yet beyond these semantic cliches is something more meaningful: a new design movement that has reached Cambodia – monuments, inspired by nature, that stand in serene contrast against the traffic-congested highways and towering, faceless blocks that have defined Phnom Penh’s building boom until now.

The youngest generation of designers and architects in Cambodia are creating intriguing spaces through a new kind of mindful architecture that is both innovative and responsible. It represents the latest rung in the country’s long and tangled architectural history that has been marked by innovation and decay, visionaries and violence – from ancient Angkorian marvels, to the modernist pieces labelled New Khmer Architecture, to the contemporary vernacular forms now finally coming into existence in this once-abandoned capital.

Our new green townhouse project in Phnom Penh uses bioclimatic principles

Building on a rich architectural history

Cambodia has a strong tradition of bioclimatic architecture, which in this context means shaping design to cope with the region’s harsh temperatures as well as other geographical factors, such as heavy rains. The intricate hydraulic networks of ancient temple complexes acted as cooling systems, while covered open-air walkways welcomed natural airflow. Typical Khmer housing, much more modest and less durable than their grand religious predecessors, is often raised off the ground to protect against flooding, encourage a breeze through the structure and provide shaded areas for social gathering underneath.

The New Khmer Architecture movement in the 1950s and 1960s was strongly inspired by this history. Architects such as Vann Molyvann and Mam Sophana built on vernacular traditions to create new kinds of sturdy, climate-resilient structures. They used high ceilings and spacious roofs to act as buffers from the heat, cooling drainage moats, as well as louvres and perforated walls to provide cross ventilation.

The legacy of this movement continues today, from the earth, water and concrete of Molyvann’s iconic National Sports Complex (now known as the Olympic Stadium), to the elegantly curved marble columns and double-facade of Sophana’s National School of Electricity (now the National Technical Training Center).

Today it’s not much different – architects are tasked with finding energy-saving, low-cost design solutions for these same problems.To brighten a space with natural sunlight, without temperatures inside soaring, necessitates a nuanced understanding of sun paths, which dictates the orientation of the building. Interior central courtyards with, for example, water fountains, hanging vegetation and vertical gardens can reduce air temperature and improve air quality, while exterior walkways also form a cooling envelope that can protect against rain and sun. Most importantly, this kind of natural ventilation reduces the need for energy-draining air conditioning units and the stale air which comes with it.

Cambodia also offers ample opportunity to embrace responsible design inspired by its bountiful and beautiful natural landscape. The Room uses local materials and engages with local artists where possible. Using traditional materials keeps prices low and minimises environmental impact – bamboo, the fiercest and most versatile of materials, is plentiful across the country, and has been used in construction for centuries. While historically dismissed as a poor man’s timber, its reputation has been steadily growing across the region.

The design of the Hanchey Bamboo Resort was inspired by its peaceful natural surroundings

Responsible design shifting Phnom Penh’s landscape

Countless hotels, cafes, offices and restaurants have already felt this shift in Phnom Penh and beyond, which is beginning to touch larger developments like open-air malls and other so-called community spaces that are in the pipeline. Latest trends in private housing are also beginning to favour greener homes.

Our new four-floor residential townhouse in Phnom Penh uses environmental principles in this way. A wall decorated with foliage stands alongside hanging vegetation that spans several storeys, hitting visitors immediately upon arrival – a dramatic entrance point to the building. They are guided upwards by an open-air staircase which sits in a void on the south side of the building and acts as a kind of boundary between the outside and inside space, where a wall formed of breezeblocks shields against the sun while allowing for natural light and a breeze to pass through. The resulting empty space then creates a delightful illusion of endless green on all sides.

Most of the structure is open in this way – double-facades and cross ventilation reduces temperatures without darkening interior spaces, and tall glass windows give residents idyllic views of the surrounding neighbourhood from their own personal green hideaway. A terrace rooftop also becomes the perfect little space for a garden, completing this pastoral urban dwelling.

Visitors are immersed in greenery when entering the home

Green principles proven to enhance wellbeing

Design literature has long hailed the benefits of biophilic design, the idea of bringing elements of nature into built environments. Biophilia says that humans have an innate, therapeutic connection with the natural world that tells the body to lower blood pressure, steady the heart rate and ultimately reduce stress, improve mood, and day-to-day productivity and creativity.

This means that, beyond functionality and even aesthetics, interior gardens directly impact the physical and mental well-being of the inhabitants of a space. While plants are a start, this also means plenty of natural light, views of the outside world and other reminders of nature that engage the five senses. This could be playing with textile patterns, artwork, or surfaces. In recognition of the eventual economic advantages, workplaces around the world have increasingly been embracing this philosophy with the aim to boost employee satisfaction and performance.

This kind of thinking is fundamental to the Hanchey Bamboo Resort, an off-the-beaten-track spiritual retreat for nature lovers, and informed our design for its expansion. Perched unobtrusively on a quiet mountain-top corner of Kampong Cham province, the resort is a centre of wellness – here, meditation sessions are led by monks – where the existing structures were built to blend with the green space that hugs the resort on all sides. Expanding involved adding modern functions and amenities while keeping the natural feel that is so central to its function as a place of healing. Rammed earth and grass form a natural envelope around a modern office that is encased in a glass box, while bungalows constructed from locally-sourced bamboo, rammed earth and clay brick are kept naturally-ventilated yet remain low maintenance.

Using natural materials helps enhance the aura of calm of wellness retreats like Hanchey Bamboo

Questioning the boundary between inside and outside allows us to reconnect with nature when urbanisation has driven us further from green fields, fresh air and the soothing circadian rhythms needed for a healthy life.

Going green is more than a cliche – on the one hand, there’s no better time to enrich our personal little spaces than when COVID-19 has us all stuck inside. On a grander scale, honouring the rich histories of a region allows local designers to evolve the kinds of urban creations peppering their city’s landscape, not only cementing a new kind of architectural identity but spearheading the responsible design movement and setting a much-needed example for the future.

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