Zaha Hadid designs five wooden towers to house Cambodian genocide institute

Oct 22, 2014
  • Article by Online Editor

Above image: Entrance. Image Courtesy of ZHA

Zaha Hadid Architects has unveiled its design for the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh. The highly anticipated project, commissioned by the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s (DC-Cam), will serve as Cambodia’s go-to archive for Khmer Rouge history and a leading centre for genocide studies in Asia.

Five wooden towers, inspired by ancient Angkorian architecture, will house the institute’s ‘cross-section of pursuits’, including a genocide research centre, graduate school, museum, document archives and research library. As the towers rise, the structures will interweave and link, connecting various departments above the ground level and uniting the institution as a singular whole.

South Facade and Memorial Park. Image Courtesy of ZHA
South Facade and Memorial Park. Image Courtesy of ZHA


From the architects: A vision of Youk Chhang, a tireless human rights activist and investigator of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, the Sleuk Rith Institute will house the Documentation Centre of Cambodia’s one million-document archive and, as the largest collection of genocide-related material in Southeast Asia, will become a global centre for education and research into the documentation, causes and prevention of genocide.

Despite the tragic history explored at the institute, Youk Chhang’s research led to the very considered brief for a building that promoted reflection and reconciliation, and also inspired and innovated. “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 a Cambodia’s rich cultural and religious traditions, we must move in a different and more positively-oriented direction,” says Chhang.

“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,” continues Chhang.

Reflecting Pool. Image Courtesy of ZHA
Reflecting Pool. Image Courtesy of ZHA


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 80 by 30 metres at the base, and 88 by 38 metres at roof level, the structures range between three to eight storeys.

Each of these five buildings will house a different function: the Sleuk Rith Institute; a library holding the largest collection of genocide-related material in Southeast Asia; a graduate school focusing on genocide, conflicts and human rights studies; a research centre and archive to influence national and regional policies and discourse; a media centre and an auditorium that can be used by the institute and the entire community.

Library. Image Courtesy of ZHA
Library. Image Courtesy of ZHA


The architecture of the ancient temple site Angkor Wat, and Cambodia’s many other remarkable Angkorian sites, builds complexity by combining and interlocking a multitude of geometric forms in a formal progression of connected enclosures. As they gain in height and coalesce, the Sleuk Rith Institute’s five buildings will 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.

The design connects the museum, library, school and Institute at various levels, allowing different users to interact and collaborate, enhancing their understanding and experience. Yet each of the Institute’s functions is also able to operate independently when required.


Foyer. Image Courtesy of ZHA
Foyer. Image Courtesy of ZHA

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

The site is located in the grounds of the Boeung Trabek High School in Phnom Penh, south of the city centre. The existing school buildings (abandoned when the high school moved to its new premises) were used as a re-education camp during the Khmer Rouge regime – as were many schools in Cambodia – making this a fitting location for the Institute: building on the past to educate the future.

To accommodate Cambodia’s tropical climate, the narrower lower levels of the Institute are shaded by the building’s form, while louvres on the upper levels keep out strong sunshine. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, the Institute’s buildings will be built on raised terraces, to protect from Phnom Penh’s seasonal flooding.

School. Image Courtesy of ZHA
School. Image Courtesy of ZHA


Visitors approach the building on causeways above reflecting catchment pools that mirror the building’s form and bring light deep into the internal spaces. As with the catchment pools of Cambodia’s ancient temple sites including Sras Srang and Angkor Wat, these pools – and those on the upper level courtyard and terraces – will be fed by harvested rainwater and are integral to the institute’s water management processes that minimise the impact on the local environment and drainage systems.

Entering through the atrium at the centre of the building, visitors are welcomed by exhibits from the Institute’s collection. From here, visitors are directed to the museum where exhibitions continue or to the school and auditorium. The auditorium is on ground level, while classrooms and professors’ offices are organised around the outdoor courtyard above and continue on upper floors.

Above the entry atrium, the Institute houses the Documentation Centre archive, with offices for researchers and Institute administration on the top levels. A bridge is suspended above the atrium to connect the school and library.

South Facade and Memorial Park. Image Courtesy of ZHA
South Facade and Memorial Park. Image Courtesy of ZHA


The building’s passive design – including measures to reduce energy and water consumption while increasing system efficiencies, and the installation of renewable energy sources – will increase its ecological performance. The Institute’s form minimises solar gain, and the external shading system will be varied on each elevation to reduce solar gain while maintaining sufficient daylight levels where required. Thermal buffer zones protect the archive and exhibition spaces and further reduce energy consumption. Water condensation from the air handling will be recovered for reuse and foul water will be treated on-site via bio-reactors or a natural plant-based wastewater treatment system that can be incorporated within the park.

The horizontal roof of the building is hidden from view to house renewable energy sources that are extremely effective in Phnom Penh’s climate: photovoltaic cells for power and a solar thermal array for hot water generation. Plant and air-system heat exchangers will also be located on the roof, maximising the area within the building for the Institute’s commemorative, educational, cultural and community programs.

The institute includes a 68,000-square metre memorial park for the entire community with sport fields, urban vegetable garden and fruit orchards, traditional meadows and a forest that will house contemporary Cambodian sculptures, many of these commemorating the women that helped to rebuild the country. The park slopes away from the building to provide further protection against seasonal flooding. The southern end of the park is landscaped to become a large retention pond during heavy monsoon rains, alleviating the city’s existing flood drainage.  The park’s many pedestrian paths link together neighbouring streets that had previously been disconnected, inviting the local community into the heart of the Institute.

The Sleuk Rith Institute complex has been granted approval and is scheduled to start construction on-site next year.

Architects: Zaha Hadid Architects
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Design: Zaha Hadid, Patrik Schumacher
Zha design director: DaeWha Kang
Zha lead designer/ Project Leader: Brian Dale
Zha project team: Malgorzata Kowalczyk, Michal Wojtkiewicz, Torsten Broeder, Fernanda Mugnaini
Client: Sleuk Rith Institute
Client director: Youk Chhang
Structure/Mep/Façade/Lighting/Acoustics: Arup
Project manager/Structure lead: Ben Lewis
Mep lead: Emmanuelle Danisi
Façade lead: Jonathan Wilson
Lighting: Giulio Antonutto
Acoustics: Philip Wright
Consultant project team: Chris Carroll (project director); Vincenzo Reale, Jason Simpson, Edward Clarke Anne Gilpin, Toby Clark, Sara Clark, Michael Young
Landscape architects: AECOM – Phil Black (design director), Mun Pheng Mak (project manager), Sarmistha Mandal (associate); Hwei Hwei Chan, Akarapol Chongwattanaroj, Eunice Chia, Chung Ho Kim (design team)
Renders: MIR
Illustrations: Jan-Erik Sletten
Film: Viktor Fretyán
Photographs: Courtesy of ZHA

‘Zaha Hadid Designs Five Wooden Towers to House Cambodian Genocide Institute’ by Karissa Rosenfield was first published at ArchDaily on 10 October 2014.

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