Mr. Vann Molyvann lived in exile during the bloodiest decades of modern Cambodian history, and when he returned to his homeland in 1991, he found that his carefully planned city had been largely dismantled by unbridled capitalism, corruption and urban sprawl.
The architectural historian Helen Grant Ross wrote of Mr. Vann Molyvann, “His life seemed to be entwined with the destiny of his country.”
He was born on Nov. 23, 1926, when Cambodia was still a French colony, and grew up near the Gulf of Thailand, in the southwest. In the 1940s he won a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the principles of modernism from disciples of Le Corbusier.
In 1956, Mr. Vann Molyvann was called home to put those principles into practice. The moment was historically unique. Newly independent, Cambodia was unburdened by war and colonial overlords for the first time in centuries, and the cosmopolitan but imperious King Norodom Sihanouk was free to shape the country according to his own wishes. He appointed Mr. Vann Molyvann his chief state architect.
Mr. Vann Molyvann went on to design more than 100 buildings, including monuments, breweries, royal villas and public housing projects. He oversaw the modernization of Phnom Penh, as the city grew from a dusty colonial outpost to a showcase capital.
But what should have been his most fruitful years as an architect were blighted by his country’s tumultuous history. King Sihanouk, his patron, had stepped down by 1970, and Mr. Vann Molyvann took refuge in Switzerland. He remained there for the next two decades, watching powerlessly as the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh and ransacked its buildings.
After a peace agreement was signed in 1991, Mr. Vann Molyvann returned home and became an advocate for responsible urban planning and preservation, finding himself at odds with the rampant corruption and kleptocracy that characterized Cambodia in the ′90s.
He served as culture minister from 1991 to 1995 and later became the head of the Apsara Authority, which administers the Angkor temples. He was ousted from the organization in 2001 after a disagreement over who should benefit from the admission proceeds.
Besides his daughter Delphine, his…