Phnom Penh's Cutting Edge

As Cambodia's once-sleepy capital city reinvents itself at an ever-quickening pace, leading architecture firm Re-Edge is finding new ways to stay ahead of the curve

The meeting room at Re-Edge, the architecture firm founded by Hun Chansan in 2011, is ringed by scale models of the works of Vann Molyvann, the Cambodian architect commonly described as the “man who built Cambodia”. Responsible for some of the Kingdom's most cherished structures, including the 1964 Olympic Stadium, he was at the forefront of a style known as New Khmer Architecture, designing more than 100 buildings under the patronage of the late King Norodom Sihanouk. While a coup in 1970 led to a development stall for the next 30 years, today the capital is a boom town.

“Until recently, we didn't have office buildings, malls and hotels,” says Hun, “but now there is a more global aspect to Cambodia. People travel to other countries, and then come back inspired.” The architect could just as easily be describing himself: on a family visit to Singapore in 1996, aged just 15, his parents decided to leave him in the care of a guardian. “Cambodia was very unstable at that time. There was an economic crisis, so I spent a year learning English and Chinese.” He then enrolled at government school, which is where he discovered art. “In Singapore you have to do art, so I studied painting, printing and patterns, and my teacher told me I should go into architecture—I didn't immediately understand what that was, and had to look it up on the internet!”

Quickly developing a passion for the subject, he went on to study architecture at Northeastern University in Boston. “Everyone I knew was studying management, marketing or accounting, but I wanted to be something different—not a businessman.” For Hun, the subject held worlds of possibility: “Architecture is not just art—it's science and innovation, it allows you to tell an audience about who you are. That's why buildings have to be art, and never just functional.” He references being a fan of the way the narrow subterranean entrance at Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao draws people in, an approach he has flipped on its head with his design for Phnom Penh's brand new Noro Mall, where an open-air plaza begins your journey through a multi-layered space, elegantly criss-crossed with interlocking passageways.

“My generation of architects no longer belongs to a movement,” says Hun, when I ask him about the style he follows. “There is no certain style to follow any more, instead it is more of a personal choice. For instance, I suppose my signature is to chisel away at the traditional block, and break it down into human scale, something that people can relate to and engage with. I like to create movement, and play with light and shadows.”

This approach is also apparent in his striking design for the nearby Lyve Inc hotel (formerly Lumiere), which provides multiple views of the city from floors twisted at angles, much akin to a Rubik's Cube. I'm now curious where the name of his firm comes from. “My master's thesis was entitled 'Re-Edging Retails', and I focused on a bleak urban block in Boston, 're-edging' it and turning it in a different direction, using space to help create a community. Then it was theory—now I'm doing it in practice.”