Albert Samreth examines the fading legacy of New Khmer Architecture

... which wanted to represent recently independent Cambodia as authentically Khmer, but also legibly modern.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — There is a room in Phnom Penh where the myths of Cambodia’s modernization come into a strange, intimate focus. Grand narratives from the 1950s and ’60s of progress, modernity, and nationalism were forged together with a monumental amount of labor and cement. However, this tucked-away installation, Albert Samreth’s new exhibition New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC, reminds us just how thoroughly architecture and design can remain empty vessels.

Installation shot of New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC
Installation shot of New Khmer Architecture at SA SA BASSAC © SA SA BASSAC


Now, memories of that era and of those buildings, still standing or not, have become largely hallucinatory. Many could not survive the harsh realities of time and politics; half of the buildings listed above are now gone. Corruption, poverty, poor planning, and war have left many of the structures crumbling, yet their legacies continue, albeit not as originally intended.

The exhibition, made into a fashionable and modern living room, begins to pick at the edges of this history. NKA was modernist architecture without modernization; the buildings hinted at the Angkorian empire, but it was centuries gone. These oppositions are most clearly embodied by “Memory Object 1” (2017), an awkward cement cube, with suggestions of design elements from the villas around Phnom Penh. The quality of the object is such that we are unsure if it is being torn apart or repaired — whether it’s a remnant or a model to be built from. This is a lingering feeling throughout the city.