Above the world

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh // WikiCommons

The royal palace in Phnom Penh was inaugurated a hundred years ago this month, and a few words seem in order.

King Norodom, who moved the Cambodian capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh, built a palace here in the late 1860s, but by the turn of the new century it had become decrepit. Norodom died in 1904, and on 12 April 1912 King Sisowath wrote to the governor-general of Indochina to ask for assistance in rebuilding his palace, as “the majority of buildings, built of wood and dating from more than 50 years, are threatened with ruin”. The request was approved within 12 days — 10, allowing for Sundays — an alacrity that makes one suspect the letter was not unexpected.

The three buildings slated for redevelopment were the Phochani banquet hall, the Chanchhaya dance pavilion and the throne hall. The tenders sent out by the minister of the palace specified that their replacements were to be of reinforced concrete, the cutting-edge building technology of the day. François Hennebique, a Frenchman of Belgian origins, had a near-monopoly on the patents, so it was not surprising that the tender was won by his Saigon agency, Richaud et Papa.

The tender also stressed that the contractors should follow Khmer tradition for the roofs and their decoration. This was no mere cosmetic measure; the spires and tiers, with their supporting kinnari and garudas, symbolised the cosmic Mount Sumeru, home of the gods, towering above the three worlds and telling passers-by that here, in the centre of Phnom Penh, reigned Sisowath, the representative of the gods, and semi-divine in his own person.

The salle des fêtes (Phochani hall) and salle des danses (Chanchhaya pavilion) were finished by the end of 1914, and on 26 July 1915 the throne hall’s pierre rituelle (“ritual stone”) was installed. A commemorative card records the contractor as the Société cochinchinoise de béton armé (Cochinchinese Reinforced Concrete Company, formerly Richaud et Papa); Pierre Vila as architect; and Eugène Cazenave and François Tessarech, both senior staff of the French protectorate, as supervisory engineers.

The card names Victor Lamorte as the entrepreneur (the contractor; he was in partnership with Richaud, but Richaud is not mentioned). Lamorte, a theatrical designer, trained in the Paris workshop of Eugène Carpezat, who defined the Belle Epoque look of operas by Gounod, Delibes, Verdi and many others; Carpezat sent him to Saigon to assist with the new Saigon Opera House, and his skills in the decorative arts made a perfect marriage with Richaud’s in concrete construction. With Vila handling the technical side (the provision of architect-engineers was part of the secret of the Hennebique system), Lamorte painted the ceilings of the Phochani banquet hall and the throne hall (but not of the Chanchhaya dance pavilion, which was by Augustin Carrera, winner of the 1912 Prix d’Indochine) and oversaw the production, in reinforced cement, of the supplementary ornaments for roofs and window surrounds.

Richaud, Vila, Lamorte, Carrera — where among all these Frenchmen are the Cambodians? The consensus among modern historians seems to be that they were sidelined, but in 1954 a senior palace official named Ieng Sioeng offered these comments on his master Oknah Deb Nimitt Mak (Deb Nimitt is a title, not a name, and indicates something like “divine architect”):

From the reign of His Majesty Sisuvatthi [Sisowath] to the reign of His Majesty Samtec Brah Narottam Sïhanuvarman [Sihanouk], under which our Khmer country enjoys peace, we have had available, for the construction of houses and brah vihâr [temples, monasteries], workers who know very well their task and who strive to build by looking for new and varied methods. The methods are explained by bringing together the rules used up to the time of [Oknah] Deb Nimitt Mak, who was my master under the reign of His Majesty Samtec Brah Sisuvatthi …. It was Mr. Deb Nimitt Mak who constructed the [Phochani] and [Chanchhaya] and [throne hall]…

Madeleine Giteau, who published this in “Un court traité d’architecture Cambodgienne moderne”,  in 1971, adds a footnote on Mak’s titles and the palace culture of which he was part:

[T]he title oknah is the second [rank] of the Cambodian mandarinate. According to M. Ieng Sioeng the title of oknah deb nimitt was given successively to three architects who were also painters and decorators, oknahs deb nimitt Mak, Ras and Khieuv. This title was granted only during the reign of King Sisowath. The “Silver Pagoda” was built by the [oknah] Bibhakti Cakravit after the plans of the artist Mak, who became [oknah] deb nimitt only after the death of [oknah] Bibhakti Cakravit.

Sioeng clearly saw Deb Nimitt Mak as responsible for the palace, and gives no hint that his master felt sidelined. So this is my hypothesis on what happened: Sisowath and his advisers (the minister of the palace, and the priests who had charge of the texts containing the instructions for building palaces) had two objectives: to preserve Cambodian tradition and to build in reinforced concrete, the cutting-edge technology of the day. They relied on the French for funding (they had no choice; in the preceding decades the French had taken over control of Cambodia’s revenues and put the king and palace on an allowance), and so the French had to authorise each step involving expenditure; but the overall direction remained under Mak’s supervision. It is greatly to be regretted that the paintings on the ceilings of all three buildings were done by French artists (or in the case of the throne hall, by Lamorte’s team of Vietnamese artists trained in the mass-production techniques of contemporary Parisian theatre design), but overall the royal palace is a remarkably successful marriage of Khmer tradition and contemporary European construction, and Mak can rightfully be claimed as its presiding genius.

Philip Coggan is the author of An Illustrated History of Cambodia.

May 15, 2019
May 30, 2019