PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – Soaring lines and somber tones are featured in designs for the Sleuk Rith Institute, a future Khmer Rouge genocide museum and memorial. Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect, has prepared designs for the center, which will include a graduate school, research institute, and archive documentation center.
The Sleuk Rith Institute was the vision of Youk Chhang, a human rights activist and long time investigator of the Khmer Rouge. He proposed the institute 15 years ago and approached Zaha last year. To be built in Phnom Penh, the Institute is to be an outgrowth of Youk Chhang’s existing Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“This was a true collaboration between the client and architect – one of the most intense collaborative endeavors an architect could undertake,” said DaeWha Kang, Sleuk Rith Institute project director at Zaha Hadid Architects. “Engaging with Youk and his team, as well as the people and communities in Cambodia is critical throughout the design and development of the Institute. It is a building for the people of Cambodia.”
“We have made great efforts to consider the human experience of the building; not just the form or the space, but the light, the shadow, the very material of the building should help to cultivate serenity and transformation,” said Kang.
The documentation center, with over one million documents, is the largest genocidal archive in Southeast Asia. Chhang spent years amassing documents as evidence of the atrocities committed by the former Cambodian regime, the Democratic Kampuchea.
The Sleuk Rith Institute, which will be built at the uninhabited site of the former Boueng Trabek High School, in southern Phnom Penh, will become a global center for education and research into the prevention of genocide.
“Cambodia will never escape its history, but it does not need to be enslaved by it,” said Chhang. “Post-conflict societies have to move on.”
The design breaks away from Phnom Penh’s existing genocide memorials, Toul Sleng and the Killing Fields.
The design features five wooden structures ranging from three to eight stories, interweaving in and out of each other as they rise up. Each houses a different function.
The Institute will also include a 38,000 square meter park with reflecting pool, vegetable garden, sports field, and a forest dotted with Cambodian sculptures.
“In the context of genocide and mass atrocities, memorial architecture has tended to reflect the evil and misfortune of the historical period and it represents,” he said. “In this sense, the architecture’s legacy is dark, somber and firmly oriented to the past.”
“We were keen to create a forward-looking institution that deviates from distress-invoking, quasi-industrial harshness of most existing genocide memorial models,” said Chhang.
“This is not to criticize or denigrate such models but, instead to emphasize that in light of Cambodia’s rich cultural and religious traditions, we must move in a different and positively oriented direction,” said Chhang.