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Temple Of Timber: Zaha Hadid’s Ode to Cambodia’s Tragic Past Is Filled With Contradiction, Hypocrisy … And Incredible Beauty

Rising from the forest floor like a dense thicket of golden bamboo, the proposed Sleuk Rith Institute in Cambodia marks a new chapter for Zaha Hadid Architects.

It is to be the firm’s first major structure constructed in the region, and their first proposal to consist almost entirely of timber 
— it also constitutes a notable shift in style, away from the tidal waves of curvaceous concrete and steel that have emanated from this firm over the last decade.

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The design, unusually reserved by ZHA’s recent standards, is symptomatic of the building’s somber purpose  the complex will house an enormous collection of documents relating to the harrowing atrocities carried out in the country under Pol Pot’s regime, from 1975 to 1979. Over 2 million Cambodians were killed during that time, around a quarter of the country’s entire population  to conceive architecture befitting such a tragedy is surely a task approaching the impossible. Nonetheless, ZHA have risen to the challenge with a refreshing degree of sensitivity towards context.

 

During the early stages, project architect DaeWha Kang was guided around the country for five full days by human rights activist Youk Chhang, the leading advocate for the project. This allowed him to gain an in-depth knowledge of Cambodia’s architectural make-up, as well as learning about its traumatic political history. It was an unusually immersive experience for the firm, and the rigorous research has resulted in a subtle, nuanced proposal in contrast to the firm’s swooping, amorphous gestures of the past ten years.

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As well as the archive, five intersecting volumes will incorporate a museum, research center, graduate school, and library, encouraging new generations of Cambodians to learn lessons from their country’s fraught past. Surrounding the complex, reflecting pools and a landscaped park will frame the building and offer further spaces for quiet contemplation.

While the five towers nod to the extraordinary forms of Angkor Wat, their twisting timber columns are more evocative of the sprawling roots that have all but consumed parts of Ta Prohm’s ancient walls. Comparisons with the base of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Centre Towers are well founded, but the timber texture lends a warmer, softer glow to Hadid’s incarnation.

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The tapering blocks appear simple at first glance, but a closer examination reveals intricate lattices of louvers, resulting in interiors bathed with warm, filtered light. The internal images allude to a muted atmosphere that appears appropriate for the function of remembrance and quiet reflection. The building strives, in the institute’s own words, to “soar upward into the light, conveying aspiration in place of dejection, hope in place of remorse, pride in place of shame.”

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Despite these positives however, skepticism over the selection of ZHA will undoubtedly persist  this is a firm that has recently carried out works for regimes with appalling human right records. The Hydar Aliyev center in Azerbaijan, whilst an undeniably stunning piece of sculptural modernism, was constructed against a backdrop of controversy, with many residents being forcibly evicted to make way for the landmark. ZHA also received criticism for turning a blind eye to the conditions of workersconstructing the World Cup stadium in Qatar.

Add to this the fact that the current Cambodian government has direct links to the Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the atrocities of the 1970s, and the project is unable to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. Chhang has responded to such skepticism, defending the choice of ZHA for the commission:

“You don’t choose an architect because of who they have worked with before. Architecture can be a tool to change the vision of a corrupted system. A painter can’t do that, but an architect can.”

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Political conflicts of interest aside, the building forms an elegant container and is a softly-spoken tribute to the victims of unimaginable suffering. It is markedly more understated than ZHA’s previous cultural institutions, and rightly so  the documents and artifacts on display should be the primary focus of visitors to this profoundly solemn institution.

On occasion, architecture pales in insignificance compared to the purpose for which it is built. This is one such occasion.

Yours sincerely,

The Angry Architect

Images via: Architizer