Bassac TheaterSeptember 13, 2007
The latest casualty in the government’s drive to sell off important parts of Cambodia’s heritage is the impending loss of the Bassac Theater. It was designed by Mann Molyvann, Cambodia’s most renowned modern architect. The building, damaged by fire in 1994, is none-the- less currently being used as rehearsal space, although probably not when it rains, since it has no roof.
Though the exterior of the new theater resembles the original, the interior hasn’t the same flourish, it’s only one-quarter the size and it’s tucked away in back of Spark nightclub on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. Mao Keng of the Culture Ministry made the astounding comment that the location was more centrally located than the riverside and that it was closer to where the artists live. While the latter may well be true, the present location perfectly complements the cultural focus of the National Museum and Royal Palace and is far more accessible to foreign tourists.
Of course, it isn’t only the artists that need to access the building, which, according to the Daily article, is located down a narrow path. The present theater has 1200 seats, the new one has 300 with room for half again as many standees: quite a few people to move through a narrow path at the beginning and end of performances.
I stopped buy the new theater but didn’t see the path mentioned. It is, in fact, accessible from a wide driveway through the Spark parking lot. Except for a wall separating it from the entertainment center, it almost looks like a smaller adjunct to Spark’s two large structures. The building was designed by a team of architects at the ministry, and while reminiscent of the old theater in its essence, has a very strange feature.
From the parking lot you see a grand staircase, half the width of the building, leading to a… blank wall! Off to both sides and set back are what I took to be small entrance doors. Now I probably didn’t explore the area sufficiently and so I may be missing something, but trying to get an audience of nearly 500 through those small doors or through the narrow path I couldn’t find, or both, seems like it’ll be a decided hassle.
This reminds me of the extreme inadequacy of architectural training here in Cambodia. The best example of that is ELT’s new classroom building. It’s a pretty decent building (aside from being painted in a hideous dark orange color) in most respects except the staircases are woefully inadequate. One of two is well-designed but still only about two-thirds of necessary capacity, the other is idiotically configured with a narrow bottleneck that is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other.
At the close of class at 6.30, the busiest time, many students can be seen hanging around waiting till the crush of people trying to get down the staircase subsides. It takes about seven minutes to
clear it. This is especially ironic considering the worst aspect of the original building was the inadequate stairways. There has to be an extremely simple calculation of how many people you can move per minute on a stairway of given width and it’s easy enough to figure how many people are attending class and need to be accommodated. This obviously wasn’’t done.
At least each step is the same height in the new building. It is commonplace in the developing world for stairs to be of varying heights, which is disconcerting if not a bit dangerous. The only thing that saves us here is that we’re used to such anomalies so always ready to adapt.
I’m also reminded of a nutty example of the architectural maxim “form follows function”, turned on its head: A staircase in a hotel I stayed in in Medan, Indonesia had its stairs designed to match the height of quite large tiles that were planned to cover it with. They were about twice the height of standard stairs and very strange and uncomfortable to negotiate.
Getting back to the Bassac, it will be a shame to see it turned to rubble, especially since Mann Molyvann is unequivocal about the ability of its roof to be repaired. Furthermore to replace it with a building that is not only set way back from the street but stuck behind a pop entertainment palace reflects very poorly on the priority given to traditional Khmer culture.
A national theater worthy of its name should be a grand building in a prominent location that’s easily recognizable. I wouldn’t be all that surprised to see, at some future point, that the Cambodian government, prodded by its people, finally realizes that civic spaces are at least as important as commercial spaces. At that time this new theater will be relegated to rehearsal use and minor performances and a ‘new’, new theater built that adequately reflects Khmer culture.