Future Architects’ Passion Powers Library Project

If Phnom Penh architecture students had their way, the National Library of Cambodia would be more than just a place to read and check out books.

“We want this library to be a public space,” said Ly Bunpheng, a 23-year-old student at Pannasastra University. Visitors “can enjoy reading and the green space,” to meet with friends, connect with nature—and also enjoy a good book.

The winning model of a National Library expansion proposal is displayed at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
The winning model of a National Library expansion proposal is displayed at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Bunpheng and two classmates won first place on Tuesday in the Institut Francais’s fourth annual architectural design competition, in which aspiring architects were tasked with designing a “public library” as an extension of the National Library in Phnom Penh.

Nine teams from five Phnom Penh universities came up with plans for a new National Library complex, which had to incorporate the existing building without compromising its historical structure, said Pierre Ananou, director of communications at the Institut Francais.

The National Library was built in 1924 by the French colonial administration. Its books and bibliographic records were largely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, with less than a fifth of the original collection believed to have survived.

After being re-established in 1980 with help from foreign governments and NGOs, the National Library now houses more than 103,000 volumes in Khmer, French, English and German. According to the winning team, it’s also “the only public lending library in the country.”

Their model includes a transformed National Library building that would be used as an exhibition hall and cafe; a new, modern building to house books; research rooms; individual and communal reading spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows allowing natural light to flood in; outdoor tiered seating; and an underground parking garage.

Team member Ram Vongkrasem, 21, said their design would encourage visitors to “not just come into the building to read.”

The current National Library is difficult to access and aesthetically uninviting, while the interior lacks dedicated space for reading, research and group activities, Mr. Vongkrasem said.

His team would take down the fences surrounding the current library. The books would be shelved in the center of the building to avoid deterioration from sunlight, while reading nooks would line the windows on the new building’s perimeter.

“The building is about problem-solving,” Mr. Vongkrasem said of his team’s proposal.

The contest winners will present their design during a conference on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the institute, where an exhibition of the models runs through December 25. Entrance is free.

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