Kingdom’s Modern Architecture Fails Caveman

April is the cruelest month, as T.S.Eliot so famously put it, living in Cambodia, one could never truly understand how until one received his electricity bill at the end of the month. With an urban cottage in the style shown below, even electricity did not undo the heat.

villa in Phnom Penh
Stylish urban villa

Modern designed, large windows, clean-cut lines, all suggest hints of an ideal urban dwelling for the city bourgeoisie. However, as a matter of fact, city bourgeoisie fled as temperature indoors surpassed outdoors by a season, day and night. When spring dawns on the gardens, it’s summer indoors; and when it’s summer in the gardens, the interiors of the cottage advance into the status of Sahara mid-day, as a result in April daytime not only the human dwellers but also their canine companions opted outdoors for a chill out. The trick is the large windows.

Mies Van Der Rohe made the glass curtain wall fancy in the north hemisphere whereas architects of the tropics in recent years took it to themselves to incorporating the idea back at home, neglecting the fact that Mr. Van Der Rohe came from a rather cold climate. The consequence is fatal.

Glass-walled apartment in Phnom Penh
Another example of fatality

Mid-day Sahara from 7am through 8pm. Tenant of above apartment, which consists of glass curtain walls on two sides, might propose to reduce rent by half as she found it barely, if not at all, habitable during night and not habitable during the day. One cannot help but question the very purpose of human dwelling in its very originality. Why did the first caveman, in the long history of our species, take to moving himself to the cave in events of rain, heat and snowfalls rather than remaining on the surface of the grassland or, like the birds, perching himself on the tree top? He sought alleviation from nature’s cruelty.

Alleviation was the answer, not enhancement. The cave was the very embodiment of such alleviation, that being the purpose of human dwelling in its most primitive definition. And today, the ingenuity of our tropics’ architects afforded themselves no further than inviting us into nature’s enhanced cruelty, instead of its alleviation, by offering the kindly placement of a glass box over our heads, against the sun scorch, literally shown below:

vattanac capital
A landmark building in Cambodia

In a similar fashion of the following device as if we were vegetables who strived for budding.

green house


The caveman would have been badly saddened had he had the misfortune to live on and seen our glassed apartments in the tropics.

In the old-fashioned days of King Sihanouk and Mr. Vann Molyvann, tropical architecture was all about sensibility and elegance. One fine example would be The Shop cafe in Toul Kork district.

the shop cafe
Bird’s View

A faint influence of Palladio on the plan, judging from its cross design.

La Rotonda

Palladio’s La Rotonda, cross planned with pediments and access stairs on all four directions, and apartments hidden adjacent to the core of the cross.

Apart from planning, little else was Palladian, much was pure tropical invention to cope with tropics’ harshnesses.

phnom penh
North facade is modestly composed but not without glass windows and doors.
phnom penh, cambodia
Floor plan


To the south side, where tropical cruelty strikes the hardest, the answer was a curved arcade in line with the walls. Unlike classical arcades in Palladio’s buildings which often sit on columns of Greek orders, its support in our case is fin-shaped arches, providing further sheltering of the sunlight before it arrives at the large windows which are again abundant, allowing merely benign light through to light the interior.

phnom penh, cambodia


phnom penh, cambodia

Beyond the arcades are lushing trees and tropical bushes in the backyard to further shelter direct sunlight.

phnom penh
Arcade viewed from indoors


Interior, presumably the saloon and lounge in its original capacity and now as the cafe’s sitting area.
the shop cafe, phnom penh
Window frames made of solid wood, indicating its ancient quality.

The old-fashionedly built house was apparently meant to be someone’s home. The idea was not so much about not implementing glass, but all about not implementing it so boldly and nakedly in the Van Der Rohe style. That should well have been a point appreciated by the tropical caveman.