In 2016 I had the opportunity to meet one of Cambodia’s most important architects, Mam Sophana, in his office in Phnom Penh. Mam Sophana, born 1936, studied architecture in the United States and returned to Cambodia in 1965. In 1974 he went to Singapore, was, among other projects, involved in the design and construction of Changi International Airport, and returned again to Cambodia in 1992. Today he runs his office in the heart of Phnom Penh and works as adviser for the governement.

Mr. Mam Sophana, you were born and grew up in Cambodia. But you studied architecture in the United States, at Miami University, Ohio. How did this happen?

I was about twenty when I finished my secondary school in Phnom Penh. It was the time of the French colony, the 1950s. Nearly all my friends went to France to study. But what pushed me to go to the USA? The reason was that one day I went to the American library. I flipped through the magazines and saw beautiful mountains, water, and clean places. This attracted me.

Before then, I wanted to become a doctor, but also I wanted to design something, so that I could express my ideas, create a place. With my efforts after a few years I learned some English and succeeded to pass the exam. My urge to go to the USA made me learn English. Out of one hundred candidates they took ten and I was the second one to get a scholarship. The Institute of International Education in New York offered me a five year scholarship.

I liked America, not only because of the architecture. I liked the society, they make people independent. They offer jobs. I washed dishes, I baby sit, I cut grass. Then I got the money to support my material studies. That made me feels independent.  When you have trouble you push. When you get easy, you don’t push. They gave me a scholarship only for the room, for food, things like that, but not for the materials. My parents couldn’t send any money. So the whole thing made me independent. I worked hard to be independent.

In the States they offer you freedom. They do not force you; they just let you do what you want with a little bit of guidance. They give you freedom of creation. So when I came back from America, I got two things: I got education in terms of designing buildings and I learned to be independent.

School of Electricity of Cambodia, Architect: Mam Sophana, Foto: Moritz Henning

Which were the most important things you have learned during your studies?

The most important things to learn were about culture, American culture and American life. From American culture I learned to be free and happy. But this was good and bad. To be happy often means giving up responsibility. But if you are careful, study hard, look here and look there, plays a little bit, and then you are responsible yourself. You are free. You can do everything. That was number one: culture.

Number two: What frightened me the most was what I can describe as ‚culture of no fence. No fence in front of the house, no fence between the houses. In a small town like Oxford, Ohio, there was no fence. And: if you go to street, there was no need to take care of cars. This was my impression at that time.

What was the most important thing you learned at university?

While I was young I only thought about working alone. Now I’d like to let you know that life is not like that. We have to talk to each other. Because in life, things are interrelated. I had to mix up a little bit with society and culture. That is what I learned architecture is for. Architecture, again, is not to design a building; architecture is almost nothing but everything. And you have to know almost everything. For instance: when I studied architecture, we had to go to the laboratory. I asked: „I study architecture, but why do you ask me to cut a mouse?“ I was a little bit nervous about that, but 20 years later I found out that it is true: you have to know about biology. Then they asked me to study psychology. I said „What the hell are you talking about? I’d like to learn drawing, why do you ask me to go to study psychology?“ They said: „Don’t be hard-­headed, you are student, we asked you to do it, so just do it like everybody else.“ I got mad, was down, but 20 years later I said yes, it was good to learn about psychology.

For understanding architecture you have to ask where, what place, what country? Asia? America? What kind of culture? What type of government? That’s what we talk about in architecture. I don’t know how you learned about that, but I learned it like that. I learned through my mistakes. I like to expand, from the bottom of my heart, the truth, what I feel. What you feel, what you hear, what you like and don’t like – it’s your freedom, it is your right, you have the right not to learn, not to understand, not to like, but I also have my right to explain with my style.

So when you ask me something I have to do it like that. You might say „Oh, this man is too old, when I ask something he answers something else!“ Well, too bad, sorry. If you want me to talk like that, I can’t continue the interview with you anymore. If you allow me to expand out, then I can continue. You understand?

What did you get from learning architecture there?

If you want to be an architect, you have to create identity by yourself. You cannot learn by just opening internet, see a good building and copy it. That is not architecture. You have to be inspired, inspired by Le Corbusier, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, but you should not copy. To be inspired means to learn from. To learn is not easy thing. So I learned how to create my own self. My style is curve. Why curve? I hate angles. Angles are easy to draw. But curves are very hard to draw. At that time the most important thing was fingers. The finger to me means feeling. No finger no feeling. You sketch with your fingers. The computer alone is not good, the computer has no feeling.

And the most important thing now in the world is the team work. Architecture is teamwork, construction without design is nothing. Design needs construction to implement things. So you have to collaborate.    I learned that you have to go outside, you have to draw, you have to paint, have to look at the magazines. That you have to discuss a project with people, sit down all around and criticise, why project is good or why it is not good and find solution.

I said to you that from design point of view I like style of curves, free. I make the mold by myself, I didn’t ask the worker to make the mold, I take time, take time myself and then I’m satisfied when I created something. Right now at this moment I could burn money, but I can sleep (laughs).

When you came back to Cambodia in 1965, how did you start?

When I arrived in Cambodia I had only one pair of pants and one shirt, no dollars. So I asked myself what to do. I said: no choice, I’m an architect, I have to start somehow! But where? I rented a small place to set up a cabinet: Mam Sophana, architect. It was only me. Who is the architect? I am the architect! Who is the engineer? I am the engineer, I calculate! Who will clean the office? It’s me, I will clean! Who will talk to the contractor, will supervise? It’s me!  I started to do everything on my own! I didn’t have a car, what should I do? Cyclo! People told me: ‚Young man, you are very nice and clean, but cyclo is for the poor people.’ But I didn’t care. It took almost six months before I got the money to hire a draftsman, an architect, and engineer.

And how did you get your clients?

This is the most important thing! When a father raises a child he has not necessarily to give heritage or property to the child. A father should give to his child a good name. My father had a lot of good friends, was a very nice man, good hearted. So when I came back from America, I went to Samdech Son Sann. Son Sann was the chief of the Bank Khmer (National Bank of Cambodia) at that time. He didn’t know me and asked‚ Sophana, you are very young! Where do you come from?’ I said: ‚ I studied architecture‚ Architecture? You design houses? Very good! But Sophana, who are your parents?’ ‚My father he was Mam Soth’ ‚Oh, Mam Soth! Mam Soth was good to me!’ So he called the secretary: Hey, secretary, you will take Sophana and give him some jobs, right now!’ At that time he (the secretary) asked me to design and build his house. I have drawn it by myself, and have calculated by myself. I did the foundation myself. Right now it’s still there! Construction was in 1967.

The young architect who came back from America … So your clients were mostly private clients, families and so on…

Yes, they were all private clients.

Did they ask you to design in a western style?

No. During that time (Sangkum). The clients, they didn’t ask anything like that. They just said: ‚Go!’

So they didn’t come to you because you were trained in the USA?

No, they said: „Go, you are free! We trust you. We heard about you, we trust you!“

There weren’t many other architects around at that time; I think you were the third or the fourth…

No, we had about seven or eight architects at that time. There was Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap … Lu Ban Hap came from France, they came before me.  They did the government work.

Did you discuss your ideas, did you work together or was everyone separated?

Very little, no time. And all had a different style. No discussion, lot of work. It happened that everyone was separated, we were so few, we were not enough to make an association, so we were separated. There was one from Australia, one from Czechoslovakia, one from America, one from France. From France there were many, four or five, including Vann Molyvann. Lu Ban Hap, Seng Suntheng, all those people came from France. From Czechoslovakia. One from Australia, me from USA, and one or two more from USA so all together about less than ten.

I read that you also taught at Royal University?

Yes, during Sihanouk time and Lon Nol time. The faculty of architecture had just started the education of architects during Sihanouk time?
No no, the Royal University of Fine Arts was created a long time ago. They had a cut during Pol Pot time. A lot of people got killed. A lot of teachers killed, and architects got killed.

But in the sixties …

Someone from Russia, from France, from America were teaching, that’s all. It was a very small group of architects and students.

You never worked for the government?

I worked for the municipality, I worked for Electricity of Cambodia, I worked here worked there, helping them, but my office I kept private.

You kept your office and never became employed by the municipality or the government ?

No, I worked with them, the government asked me to do advising.

People like Vann Molyvann or Lu Ban Hap were very close with Prince Norodom Sihanouk at this time. Did you have any relationship to the royal family?

Yes, they knew me when I came back from the States. I had the chance to see him. My father was a friend of his father.

For me it is very fascinating that earlier people like you came back from their studies abroad, there were only the French architects and the colonial style. But then, after independence, with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, everything changed. It must have felt like creating a new country?

True, true. I felt that. You see … what I feel strange is, you have to write down this: Architecture has changed tremendously. Listen to me carefully, two things have changed. Number one: Pol Pot killed most of the architects. What does this mean? The loss of educated people. Number two: I happened to be alive. But I’m suffering. Not suffering in terms of money, but suffering in understanding, in questioning why I’m alone. Why is it not like before? Before, they came to see me, they trusted me, and they paid me well. I did things responsibly, I made very beautiful things …

You stayed here in Phnom Penh after 1970, after Lon Nol took over power while some others left the country. Could you describe this time and your work in this situation? How was your work going on during Lon Nol time?

To make it quick: during Lon Nol time, that means from 1970 to 1975, my work was mostly private, of residential type. Then the Electricity of Cambodge hired me also to help to build a training school. And the municipality asked me to advice on some constructions, a little bit here and there … This is what happened during Lon Nol time.

I understand that it was a shift in power and political system. But did this shift influence your work as an architect?

This question is very important. I also thought about that but not very often, but your question makes me wake up; remind me to think about it again. You ask me if changes in politics can affect my work, my architecture. No this shift did not influence my work because the shift was short. Space, time and culture did not change much. Architecture depends on location, it depends on country. Why country? because of its culture. Thailand has the culture of Thailand; Cambodia has the culture of Cambodia.

During Lon Nol time it must have been difficult to build because of the situation in the country …

I build a lot of houses during Lon Nol time, nobody stopped me! Until 1974, time before the fall, maybe half a year, Khmer Rouge they shot the rockets. That is all I can tell you. I was working as an architect, I was not in a military group, I was not a politician, I was just working like a cow and played basketball each day. How could I be not happy? I got the money, not much money, I wasn’t a rich man, but had money enough to move around.

It seems to me that a big influence on your work was Frank Lloyd Wright. Am I right? Others, like Vann Molyvann, were influenced by the French architects like Le Corbusier, but if I look at your buildings…

Yes, I was influenced by him; America taught me how to make it more proportional. The proportion of the building is very important.

I agree with you. When I saw this photo (Villa of Chrea Sipha), I thought what a wonderful proportion. And your assistant showed the building to me, it is very simple and clear…

Simplicity – that’s beauty. The Americans told me how to keep it simple. Changi airport was designed to be very simple. I do not make fun. I made it true. Faithful, but you have to be very clean and simple. I know, people come to study the terminal 1 at Changi Airport and when they go back they tell everyone it’s the best airport in the world. I was involved with others who worked over there. Lee Kuan Yew, the leader of the country, was very happy with that.

(Browsing the CV:)

These houses (Workers‘ hostel, Kompong Som/Sihaoukville) were for the workers, a quarter for the workers for Petroleum Company in Kampong Som. The company asked me to design a place for the workers to stay. But a lot of people told me these are not worker’s homes, these are villas. It looks like a villa but they are not rich people who stay there, it’s for the workers. It is because I designed it very symmetrical and very clear that it looks like villas.

Tell me: which are your favorite projects of the period before Khmer Rouge?

The School of Electricity of Cambodia at Tuk Thla. Sihanouk gave me a gold medal for that. Vann Molyvann also came there during inauguration. The second one is the round house.  I wanted to show people freedom and character of uniqueness with that and no one could copy it.

Mr. Mam, I would like to make a big step forward now, maybe we can leave the 60s and the 70s. In 1974 you went to Singapore and in 1992 you came back. Could you please explain why you came back?

I stayed 17 years in Singapore; I was working as a senior architect, I was learning with them, how they worked. When Cambodia opened its doors again I came back to serve my native country. That’s why. The prime minister told me: You have the right to open a private office because your salary is not enough.

So you came back and went into politics and at the same time you opened your own office. I’ve also seen here in the CV that you did a lot of buildings here since 1992.

But it is not the same situation as during Sihanouk and Lon Nol time. Different style, different situation …

So you had to share time between architecture and politics. What I have seen, that there was a change of style in your architecture. The buildings have a lot of different styles …

It’s too bad that I don’t have the time to tell you in detail, but I can tell you quite shortly   about the reason why I changed my style. When I came back to Cambodia, I had two shoulders. One shoulder is the politician, one shoulder is technician. This is very hard. Because you don’t forget that people know very well, that you have two shoulders

To come to an end: maybe you can tell me few words – from your point of view as an architect – about the development of Phnom Penh. What I’ve seen during the last days is that there are a lot of changes. A lot of things get lost but on the other hand I see that you cannot keep it all, you need space for new construction.

Very easy question. I don’t need time to think about. Very, very easy. The change is a must, because everywhere when there is a growth of the number of people, a demographic growth, they have to compete for food. This means that the country needs income. And the country needs to ask foreigners to invest, to give employment to the locals. Giving employment and looking for investors is very important, survival of the country depends on this. To keep the old is only possible at a place that the country determines that this is a preserved region to show Angkor Wat, old temples, to show traditional, French colonial architecture, all these things, like in Singapore. Singapore did that.

We know also that sooner or later this place here where we are now will not be a housing area anymore, it will be a shopping area. Like in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, everywhere, Bangkok, it’s the same like there. Why there will be no housing? A house/home is a place designed to be quiet, to have fresh air and family, that’s housing. So this place here in Phnom Penh was full of houses, designed by the French, full of small houses, small roads, but now it’s the same road but then tall buildings. Get the picture? Money is there. But the side effects on environment we do not talk about yet. Les egouts, the treatment plants, sewage, like rubbish. But this is very important. Later on, Boeung Keng Kang will not be a housing area anymore. After 20 years it will be a shopping area, there will be a lot of noise. And then, what happens to the people? They will buy lands in the suburbs. This happens everywhere in the world. And this is my answer to you.

So you say to bring employment and money into the city has priority over preservation?

We will not forget about that. We love culture! We love preservation! But there is a conflict. We cannot say that „Oh darling, I love you, you love me but we don’t have money. You don’t have money, I don’t have money, what to do? OK, we go to sleep and lock the door and we die, hungry“.

A big „thank you!“ goes to Pen Sereypagna, who helped me to find Mam Sophana’s office and to Chumn Sovatha, who generously took me on the back of his motorbike and showed me some of Mam Sophana’s soon-to-be-lost buildings.