Essays

Brutalism and Traditional Khmer Design Come Together in Phnom Penh’s Hiroshima House

Osamu Ishiyama’s structure exemplifies the surprising adaptability of humans in the face of dehumanizing events.

On the third floor of Hiroshima House, looking at the floating staircase (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — During the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, atomic bomb survivor Keiko Kunichika was inspired by a Cambodian athlete’s desire for his country to grow as Hiroshima had after the devastation of war. The Association for the Exchange Between Hiroshima Citizens and Cambodians was founded, and volunteers from Japan began building the Hiroshima House in Phnom Penh, brick by brick, from 1995 until its opening in 2007.

The Hiroshima House gets its name and inspiration from Floyd Schmoe, a Quaker pacifist who was a conscientious objector during WWII. After the war, he went to Hiroshima and began voluntarily making houses for homeless survivors there, eventually completing 21 of them. These “Hiroshima houses” were small functional monuments toward peace in the wake of unimaginable devastation.

As you walk into the central area; with two kids playing on the upper level

Masaki Tomohiro, the General Manager of Cambodia’s Hiroshima House, told me that it currently offers free Khmer, English, and Japanese lessons to around 40 street kids from the neighborhood. In addition, they provide lunch, school materials, workshops such as computer literacy, and access to their library, which features popular Japanese comics and illustrated books translated into Khmer. Tomohiro hopes that the building inspires in students and visitors a sense of community and a deep respect for peace. “We want to remind them that war brings nothing but tears and sadness.”

The Hiroshima House from outside the temple compound on street 13

As a monument for peace, a site for children, and a building within one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most important temple complexes, Wat Ounalom, the building itself is somewhat bizarre. From the outside, it’s an awkward, nearly cube-shaped five-story structure of progressively smaller cement and brick horizontal stripes. The weirdness culminates in a traditional Khmer roof plopped on top of the modern building. Surrounded by traditional Buddhist temple buildings, which are heavily ornate with highly circumscribed meanings, the Hiroshima House sticks out like a sore thumb.

The contrast in traditional Khmer architecture and the Hiroshima House at the entrance on Street 13.

The house, which is the work of Japanese architect Osamu Ishiyama, is a Brutalist structure that recalls the interior of Pilgrimage Church, designed by German architect Gottfried Böhm. Both buildings are supposed to be sites of healing and of peace, but their architecture — all confusing angles and raw harsh materials — is deeply unsettling. Looking at the exterior, the Hiroshima House is marked by an awkward and bulky form that is visually heavy. However, upon entering, visitors are struck by the openness of the structure, which allows for cool air and light to flood in. The interior is a pleasure to walk around in, with everything at awkward angles and telescoping lines. There is always a new, uniquely surprising vantage point.   

Entering the house’s central area, looking up at a telescoping stairwell and all the way to the upper roof

Maybe Ishiyama has made a structure that exemplifies the surprising adaptability of humans in the face of dehumanizing events. I see the harsh cement columns lines tracing falling bombs, something I don’t want to imagine at school or a library. However, the severity of the Brutalist structure doesn’t seem to deter; children play football inside, and their happy shouts echo throughout the building. 

The connection between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia feels tenuous. Of course, the Khmer Rouge’s rise was incubated by the United States’ illegal carpet bombing of Cambodia, which was then a politically neutral country. Either way, Tomohiro continues Schmoe’s laudable tradition of pacifist construction, in opposition to deplorable destruction.

The central area again, but taken from the other side
Arriving on the next level, with light flooding in from the wide-open upper level
Moving around the central open space

Looking up at the telescoping staircase from the second level

On the floating and telescoping stairs, which I was a bit nervous to walk on
The staircase photographed from the highest level. In the bottom central area there are paintings by children stuck to the brick walls.
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