Design in Bloom

For French architect Antoine Meinnel, a chance visit to Cambodia saw him fall in love with the country's heritage architecture, and invent fresh ways to bring it back to life

Antoine Meinnel never expected to be running his own architecture firm in Cambodia, but when in 2015 his parents asked him to fly over from France to take a look at a heritage property they'd just bought in the sleepy seaside town of Kampot, it set in train a series of motions. “When I saw the beauty of this old, neglected colonial shophouse, I decided to quit my job in order to help them find a solution to preserve the 'envelope', while modernizing and adapting the inside. I only intended to be here for a few months, but during the work I started Bloom and ended up moving here.” 

In just a few years, the work of Bloom has increasingly caught the eye, from concept plans for downtown parks, to sleek office interiors and four-star resorts. However it is the heritage projects, which Meinnel prefers to label 'adaptive reuse', that stand out. The first of these was Atelier Kampot, a restaurant and pepper boutique beautifully transformed from the dilapidated shell his parents had originally purchased, and where the design aim was to 'offer a timeless experience without copying the past.'

“In our projects we do not do heritage work in the purest sense of the term,” explains Meinnel. “I would say that heritage relates more to monuments, sites or buildings with outstanding value from the point of view of history, art or science.” The structures they have worked on so far - the Kampot shophouse, reinvented garment complex Factory Phnom Penh, and the reimagined colonial FCC Angkor by Avani hotel in Siem Reap - have an interest for the collective conscience but were not intended to be monuments. “Our belief is that preservation of these buildings should be done by adapting them to contemporary needs and offering them new uses,” says Meinnel. “Unlike an artefact kept in a museum for tourists to look at, new spaces can respect the spirit of the past.”

Perhaps Bloom's biggest design goal, though, is providing the empowerment of the country’s architects, who have been long cast into the lengthy shadows (literally) left by renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who for a 15 year period from the mid-1950s was at the vanguard of a modernist movement now referred to as 'New Khmer Architecture', which combined the influences of Le Corbusier alongside local traditions. Intriguingly, many of Vann's best-preserved works are to be found on the campus of the city’s Royal University, just around the corner from Meinnel's office.

“His work is still very present,” agrees Meinnel, although notes Bloom's location is just a happy coincidence. “His reflections about defining the right type of architecture for Cambodia are very contemporary, while the way he adapted the spaces he designed and his use of concrete is impressive. It can also be tricky as his work is very anchored in modernism and the way we live nowadays is completely different. Young local architects should be inspired by the thought behind the building not its final aspect.” 

However, Meinnel says the more profound challenge too often facing budding local architects is cultural. “Most young Cambodians have still not yet learned the tools to express their intuitions. They have become scared of debating on a conceptual level what is told to them by the teachers. The scope of the architect here is often reduced to aesthetic matters, forgetting the architects’ role in providing an understanding of the use of a building, and how it integrates into its environment.” In his view, there is no real necessity for architects if they cannot provide relevant advice to their clients.

Having studied architecture at Ecole Nationale Superieure de Versailles, Meinnel later spent time at the offices of the likes of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and Herzog & de Meuron. “They were my references as I was a student. I learned a lot at both places, not only design-wise, for it has also shown me how important it is for an architect to have opinions and orient the client towards what we believe is the best way to build for a specific context. Both of these offices craft a specific solution to each project’s constraints, which is why all of their building are different from one another, yet with a familiar signature. This is the mindset I want to bring to Bloom.”