For the past nearly quarter of a century on the flip side of the planet from my Pacific Northwest nest, the World Monument Fund has been helping bring modern day workforce training opportunities to would-be architects, engineers, archaeologists, and artisans in the midst of a still-recovering country tangled in layers of civil war and jungle-eaten ruins. This is the story of the Preah Khan Project at Cambodia’s Angkor Temples.
I grew up in a land of peace and plentiful resources.
When landscape architecture wormed its way into my curious mind at age 14, I’d already squirreled away countless years of urban planning and city management experience (ahem, they’re releasing a new version of SimCity this year, by the way…). But seriously, when I chose to pursue landscape architecture in university, my world was rife with opportunities to study, to travel, and to gain practical experience in modern-day design, construction, and management.
In other regions, access to higher education and workforce training is not so simple; in other regions, entire generations of skilled artisans and professionals have been lost to war.
Countries like Cambodia, filled with natural and cultural landscapes in need of preservation and protection, riddled with histories of instability, are all too often left to wither alone or to be plundered by foreign governments, unscrupulous business ventures, and outside interest groups.
Happily, I share an encouraging story today. One of foreigners banding together to partner with Cambodian citizens to increase education, skills, and ultimately care for the Cambodian people’s cultural heritage.
Earlier, I wrote about the Floating Villages of the Tonlé Sap, the dwelling and settlement patterns on the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and the efforts by many to stand for environmental and social responsibility in an age of mass tourism and resource depletion.
Following that tour, during Ted’s and my visit to the Temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I was intrigued by the Preah Khan Conservation Project and the progress made by outside organizations coupled with initiatives aimed at engaging and training the local workforce to restore, preserve, and steward their country’s remarkable landscapes.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, barely more than a decade into the slow process of healing and rebuilding after Cambodia’s civil war and the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the World Monuments Fund initiated efforts to rescue Angkor, beginning with the proposal focusing on the Preah Khan Temple Complex.
In the last twenty years…the site of Angkor has been inaccessible to outsiders because of the civil war that ravaged Cambodia in the 1970s and the isolation that followed it. Only in the last two years have international experts been able to visit Angkor again and assess the damage done by the war. They have discovered that although Angkor sustained little damage owing directly to military conflict, it is in extremely fragile condition due to the 20-year hiatus in regular conservation, maintenance and security…
Most tragic, however, has been the total loss of trained Cambodian professionals capable of managing the site of Angkor in the future. Of the young architects, engineers and craftsmen trained by the French School of Oriental Studies, only one professional and a small number of craftsmen have survived the war. Moreover, education was disrupted, and only in 1992 will the University of Beaux-Arts in Phonm Penh graduate its first class of students in 20 years.
–Proposal of Conservation of the Historic City of Angkor, Cambodia, Preah Khan Temple Complex
With the approval of their original proposal began the reclaiming of Preah Khan from the encroaching jungle and the intentional preservation as a “partial ruin” to showcase both the beauty of the original construction as well as the the time- and tree-eaten conditions of the nearly millennium old site.
WMF’s Welcome Sign at the Preah Khan Temple Complex
Through the process of this stabilization work, the WMF not only brought their own professionals and skilled workers from outside Cambodia to contribute but also chose to open opportunities to Cambodian students interested in care and preservation of their own cultural landscapes, using connections beyond the borders to facilitate higher education opportunities for those who desired to become the next generation of architects, planners, and preservationists.
“Although the formal training of architects and archeologists is not strictly with WMF’s purview at Angkor, through its international contacts opportunities may arise for the placement of students abroad to enable them to complete their undergraduate or post graduate formal education. WMF has decided to try and seek such opportunities for the present group of Preah Khan students that may be interested in continuing their eduction outside the country. Two universities in Italy have already offered to provide one year scholarships to further the scope of architectural education of selected Cambodian Students, and in America the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin program has offered at least one apprenticeship…”
–Preah Khan Conservation Project Report
Today, to walk through Preah Kahn is to see the evidence of an ancient civilization and fruits of the modern day workforce’s efforts to preserve and tend this site of cultural significance.
Existing Conditions and Repair and Strengthening Documentation
Places of decay and ruin are preserved, so to speak, alongside pieces artfully restored.
Tensions of time and history held together in the balance.
“WMF’s aims in Cambodia from the time of its first mission to Angkor in 1989 have been to devise appropriate techniques for conserving and presenting its monumental remains and to help train a new generation of professionals and skilled workers. Detailed planning and conservation began at Preah Khan in 1991, and was the first activity of its type since the country’s devastating civil war. WMF’s work has encouraged the training of young Khmer architects, engineers, and archaeologists, and employment of a local work force has been a hallmark of WMF’s efforts.”
–World Monument Fund
Models of Best Practices for Communities
The principle objective of WMF program has been to train a new generation of Khmer craftspeople and professionals to replace those who were lost during the war, allow the local community to fully engage with the project, promote economic self-sufficiency, and build total capacity through training and eduction. WMF’s philosophy at Angkor is based on a double challenge, ‘to preserve a magnificent heritage site and to ensure that its Cambodian custodians possess the expertise required for its care and management’ (WMF, 1991)…
All projects at Preah Khan have been staffed by Cambodian architects, archaeologists, engineers and other workers, all as part of a team of approximately seventy workers trained on-site in restoration crafts and conservation technology… In 1992, twenty-five students from the Department of Architecture and Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, began training in the history of Angkor, the philosophy of building conservation, general survey methodologies, and archaeology. These students assisted with the planning and supervision works at the site. Seven of these students later joined the WMF team to study heritage conservation, by working and studying at Preah Khan, spending four months per year for five years making survey records and receiving on-site training in conservation technology by WMF international consultants. They assisted with documentation (measuring, drawing) analytical studies (planning for and execution of reconstruction of repaired masonry), project management (day-to-day site maintenance and conservation operations) and design and construction supervision.
To say I was humbled by my walk through the restored ruins at Preah Khan would be an understatement.
In an American culture of easily accessible continuing education opportunities and a sometimes saturated workforce, it’s shamefully easy to forget the entire generations of professionals and artisans who have been lost in the calamities of war, to forget that their countries’ remnants of civilizations are at risk of being forever lost.
It’s one thing to play SimCity and watch a natural disaster or UFO landing blast a digital civilization to smithereens. It’s quite another to consider the real-life fallout from war, from pillage and plunder, to think about valuable lives and knowledge sunk into chasm-voids, lost forever.
It is heartening to witness those who are willing to partner together and pick up the pieces.
May we learn to stop needless destruction before it starts.
May we honor and celebrate education, planners, thinkers and designers, preservationists and keepers of heritage.
May we be the first to step up and advocate for restoration in all manners of life.
May we rebuild ancient ruins.
World Monuments Fund
“World Monuments Fund is the foremost private international non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of architecture and works of art whose loss or destruction would impoverish humankind. Founded in 1965, World Monuments Fund is headquartered in New York City with international affiliates. Through a program of fieldwork, grant-making, educational programs, and advocacy, it brings public and private support together to preserve or rescue monuments worldwide.”
World Monuments Fund – Preah Khan Temple Conservation Project
“Conserving and presenting the remains of Preah Khan temple in its jungle setting” – an effort spanning more than 20 years.
Rebuilding Khmer After the Rouge (Times Higher Education June 2001)
WMF Report Map: Preah Khan, pictured just to the north above Angkor Thom…
The Book of Isaiah, 61:1-4 ~
The Lord has chosen and sent me to tell the oppressed the good news,
To heal the brokenhearted, and to announce freedom for prisoners and captives…
The Lord has sent me to comfort those who mourn…
He sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow,
Olive oil in place of tears, and joyous praise in place of broken hearts.
They will be called “Trees of Justice,” planted by the Lord to honor his name.
Then they will rebuild cities that have been in ruins for many generations…