Positive lessons from a tragic past

Tuesday 14 Oct 2014

Zaha Hadid's design for Cambodia's genocide memorial and institute aimed at healing the wounds of the past

It is 35 years since the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge (KR) regime in what was then The Democratic Kampuchea (now Cambodia). The scar of the regime’s genocide – the execution of potentially millions of civilians and the death through disease and famine of an equal number – is still borne by the Cambodian people. Time is a great healer and now, a generation on, the country is coming to terms with its brutal past, publicly dealing with the surviving perpetrators and turning the legacy into a force for good – reconciliation, forgiveness, education and hope.

An integral part of documenting and dealing with the genocide is the proposed Sleuk Rith Institute – a museum, genocide research centre, graduate school and library for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s one million genocide-related documents archive. Its aim is to become a global centre for education and research into the causes and prevention of genocide. The name Sleuk Rith translates as ‘dry leaf’ and references the significance of dried leaves in Cambodia’s religious ceremonies, often evoking healing.

It has been designed by London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Hadid has drawn inspiration from the extraordinary north Cambodian ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat with soft lines and she has chosen warm wood as a primary material. The institute will be situated on park land to the south of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Pen. The proposed institute is looking for US$35m funding and the campaign is well underway with USAID already a key donor. The project is aiming for completion in 2015.

Moving forwards
The institute is the vision of Youk Chhang, a human rights activist and investigator of Khmer Rouge atrocities, who at 15 was a prisoner of the regime and whose many family members were victims of the Khmer Rouge. After a decade of researching and documenting the KR’s atrocities, Chhang developed a very considered brief for the building aimed at reflecting not just the bare, brutal facts, but also developing a structure that would promote reconciliation, reflection and inspiration. It aims not just to be a place where new generations are able to learn about the tragedies of Cambodia’s recent past, but also gives an opportunity to explore the healing process: to understand how to use those lessons for positive change and move on constructively.

This brief required a direction that breaks from some of the stereotypes associated with genocide memorial architecture. In describing the concept, Chhang says: “In the context of genocide and mass atrocity, memorial architecture has tended to reflect the evil and misfortune of the historical period it represents. In this sense, the architecture’s legacy is dark, sombre, and firmly oriented to the past.

“We were keen to create a forward-looking institution that deviates from the distress-invoking, quasi-industrial, harshness of most existing genocide memorial models. This is not to criticise or denigrate such models but, instead, to emphasise that in light of Cambodia’s rich cultural and religious traditions, we must move in a different and more positively oriented direction.

“The best memorials are not objects we visit once, contemplate, and file away. The best memorials evoke reflection and commemoration, but are also living, dynamic public places that engage with all generations in the community.”

As well as the commemorative nature of a memorial museum, the Sleuk Rith Institute aims to combine a strong educational and outreach programme together with its ongoing work for social justice.

Separate and yet together
The institute’s design is organised as five wooden structures that are separate volumes at ground level, but interweave and link together as they rise upwards; connecting the different departments, visitors, students and staff within a singular whole. With an overall footprint of 80m x 30m at the base and 88m x 38m at roof level, the structures range between three to eight storeys.

As they gain in height and coalesce, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s five buildings define an intricate spatial composition of connecting volumes; generating a series of exterior and interior spaces that flow into each other to guide visitors through the different areas for contemplation, education, engagement and discussion.

Constructed from sustainably sourced timber, the primary structure, exterior shading and interior partitions give natural scale and warmth. The more complex forms have been designed and engineered to be assembled from economical straight and single-curved timber sections with established technologies.

Water features strongly in the design with light being reflected from catchment pools deep into internal spaces. These pools are fed by harvested rainwater and the water management process helps minimise local environmental impact. Cambodia’s tropical climate and the area’s potential seasonal flooding risk have been mitigated through natural shading of the narrow lower levels, upper level louvres and building the institute on raised terraces.

External shading to reduce thermal gain and thermal buffer zones protect the archive and exhibition spaces and also reduce energy consumption. The horizontal roof of the building is hidden from view to house renewable energy sources and heat exchangers that are extremely effective in Phnom Penh’s climate. The building’s passive design – including measures to reduce energy and water consumption –aids its ecological performance.

The site is located in the grounds of the Boeung Trabek High that were used by the Khmer Rouge regime as a ‘re-education camp’ – as were many schools in Cambodia – making this a fitting location for the Institute: building on the past to educate the future.

The institute is set within a 68,000 sq m memorial park aimed at providing sports fields, vegetable gardens and fruit orchards for the local community. In addition there is a traditional meadow and a forest housing contemporary Cambodian sculptures, many celebrating the women who helped rebuild the country. This park and its myriad footpaths aim to link previously unconnected city neighbourhoods and firmly puts the local community at the heart of the institute.

Speaking about the institute, Hadid said: “Our hope is that the Sleuk Rith Institute and its Memorial Park can have a truly transformative effect, bringing new life and a bright future to a site that holds traces of the great tragedies of the past. An inviting place where reflection, interaction and connectivity are not only its spatial expression, but also embedded within its covenant to the people of Cambodia.”

Most fittingly the final word should be from Chhang, a man driven by the unshakable belief in using the country’s past tragedies to forge a better future: “Cambodia will never escape its history, but it does not need to be enslaved by it. Post-conflict societies have to move on. It is this commitment, determination and belief in our future that will define us.”

Anthony Spratt

Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects
Design: Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher
Design Director: DaeWha Kang
Lead Designer/ Project Leader: Brian Dale
Project Team: Malgorzata Kowalczyk, Michal Wojtkiewicz, Torsten Broeder, Fernanda Mugnaini


Structural, Acoustics MEP, Facade, Lighting: Arup Landscape: AECOM


Sleuk Rith Institute
Youk Chhang (Founder & Executive Director, Documentation Centre of Cambodia)

Project Data

Site area (including memorial park): 70000 sq m
Total floor area: 8,000 sq m
Footprint area: 2,400 sq m
Maximum height: 42.5 m

Key Facts:

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