City of Water, City of Land

Grant Ross, Helen The South-East Asian water-bound tradition versus a colonial earth-bound society – the case of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’ in ‘Living our Hybridity; Layered memories of cross-cultural encounters’ at the mAAN Istanbul conference ‘Re-thinking and Re-constructing Modern Asian Architecture’ 28/6/2005 pp 283-292.

Image source: Khmer Cities.

Article Abstract

This paper will relate how not only the built environment, but also the social subconscious of SE Asian society bears the trace of the major culture shock brought about by colonial concepts of urban planning and architecture by documenting some of the visible and intangible transformations of the last hundred years. 

Water exists in various unstable forms (solid, liquid, volatile). It is associated with abundance and benevolence of nature, of readily available food and drink, lack of constraint and freedom. Water symbolizes the moon, the circle, the colour blue, maternity and fertility. One symbol of this found throughout South East Asia from Vietnam through Thailand to Malaysia and Indonesia, is the water-dragon, the Naga, an ancient pagan tradition. Until recently in SE Asia, houses and whole cities were built on water. 

Earth is fixed, measurable, can be appropriated and lends itself easily to being bought and sold. It is associated with material values, control, possession and labour. Earth symbolises the square, the four cardinal directions, material values, logic and the colour black. 

The hypothesis of this paper is that as colonialism was instigated by earth-bound societies whose values were completely different to SE Asian this resulted in a generalized culture shock that has practically obliterated water-based values from social consciousness.1 

The whole idea of the city as it is construed in Western countries, of a durably built, historically established, politically empowered physical space is in itself an anachronism compared to the improvised social consensus and loose spatial organization of pre-colonial SE Asian habitat. 

There appears to be a direct relationship between earth-bound cultures and the desire to dominate, control and conquer that can be traced back to the Greek and Roman Empires. For several thousand years they have put pressure on other types of society (water-bound, nomadic, collectivist etc.) to adopt their values – and to develop their cities along their lines. Proselytizing through widely published theories and literature about architecture and cities still supports this dominance. 

French Indochina’s main cities designed in the early 20th century by Ernest Hebrard; Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane, all bear witness to the earth-bound coloniser. Aesthetic boulevards lined with trees create perspectives for public buildings. Buildings are boxy compared to vernacular openness. 

Indigenous waterways and lakes have been filled in and neglected, the ground-floor of buildings on stilts enclosed and the dominant members of society have adopted Western attitudes to property. The earth-bound city rejects its dirty water into the few remaining traditional waterways and pollutes them. As a result these areas have become zones for the poor, for squatters and pariahs of society hence reinforcing the rejection they inspire in the endowed members of society. The resulting ecological imbalance can be seen in widespread flooding and pollution. 

These are some of the visible effects but another consequence is that the collective subconscious still continues to function as if it was water-bound with dire effects on the development of the city which is neither thought and planned on earth-bound values nor on rationally considered water-bound values as the latter have never been elucidated. 

Even countries like Thailand that were not colonized have suffered this culture shock no doubt because they had not rationalized any model for development. Bangkok, called the “Venice of the East” in the 1930’s, with a population of approximately 400.000, has become landlocked with a population of 10 million, 3 million cars, inadequate rail and road, public transport and a few boats. Its network of khlongs has been filled in and the Chao Praya River has almost been buried in the city fabric. Widespread flooding worsens each year. Helen Grant Ross, Phnom Penh, mAAN June 2005.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: