Preserving Phnom Penh

Lost Visions in a Changing Cityscape
Source: Phnom Penh Post, January 26, 2012
Liam Barnes and Meas Roth

New Khmer Architecture

PHNOM Penh is one of few cities in the region which has successfully managed to maintain an authentic South East Asian city demeanour. Its sprawling boulevards, lined with faded, colonial residences and post-independence style buildings dubbed ‘New Khmer Architecture’ gained Cambodia’s capital the nickname ‘the pearl of Asia’. However, as the 21st century catches up with the Kingdom and Phnom Penh attempts to match the rapid development its neighbours have experienced, its charm, bestowed in this urban heritage, is disintegrating.

By the time it gained independence in 1953, the capital had been transformed from a backwater fishing village into a functioning city with a grid street plan and an array of impressive public buildings and government structures. However, it was not until the late 1950’s that Phnom Penh instated itself as one of Asia’s most dynamic cities.

Buoyed by the enthusiasm of culture-conscious King Norodom Sihanouk, the city’s emerging educated artisans set about modernising the face of the capital as part of the New Khmer Architecture movement spearheaded by Vann Molyvann.

Educated in France, Vann Molyvann returned to Cambodia in 1956, as the country’s only qualified architect. He promptly ascended to the title of chief architect for state buildings and director for urban planning and habitat under which he notably built the previous Office of the Council of Ministers, state palace, National Theatre and Independence Monument, which remains Phnom Penh’s most famous landmark.

These constructions played a significant part in the modernisation of the country’s largest city, according to Deputy Director General of land and habitat management at Angkor Archaeological Park Khuon Khun Neay, who worked alongside Vann Molyvann during the 1960’s.

“He was the first to architect to make Phnom Penh and other provincial capitals the modern cities they are today,” he said, adding that the movement revived the traditional Angkor architecture.

Inspiration for the lotus-shaped Independence Monument, completed in 1960, emanated from Bakong temple, the first royal palace constructed during the Angkor era, said Khuon Khun Neay. Vann Molyvann also incorporated many modern techniques in to his design, particularly within the construction of the National Sports Complex.

“The stadium was designed in the shape of an umbrella, utilising air bricks and maximising shade to reduce heat and direct sunlight inside the complex,” said Khuon Khun Neay, adding that water pools were usually installed to help cool the building and integrate it into the flood plain.

Unfortunately, the original moat built around the stadium is virtually obsolete, with flooding an annual occurrence due to the haphazard development which now surrounds the threatened complex. However, this is not the only Vann Molyvann casualty. In the last six years, the National Theatre, Council of Ministers and Kossomak Polytechnic Institute have all been demolished in the name of progress, according to Stefanie Irmer, whose KA Tours focuses on New Khmer Architecture.

“City planning seems to be exclusively driven by capitalist forces, with land speculation and investment the main factors changing the cityscape,” she said. “Such developments are possible because no classification or protection of New Khmer Architecture and colonial buildings as part of the cultural heritage of Cambodia has been undertaken by government entities.”

There are many ways to promote and protect these sites once there is a consensus that they are equally important parts of the Kingdom’s diverse heritage, such as government entities introducing strategies to classify zones or buildings, she added.

“In the stage Cambodia is at now, the first step needs to be the expression of political will to consider urban heritage and protect it, supported at the time by more private initiatives.”

Investment has started to flood the Cambodian capital in the last decade, resulting in numerous demolitions and almost daily land evictions, paving the way for supposed mega-projects, in order for Cambodia to keep up with its thriving neighbours.

Dr Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy director general at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction believes it is a case of achieving the correct balance between economic pressures and urban preservation.

“In countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, which experienced miracle growth during the 70’s and 80’s, historical architecture was replaced with skyscrapers. However, these governments are now attempting to raise public awareness of the urban heritage,” he said, adding that Cambodia’s lack of human resources made it difficult to inform the public of the significance of certain buildings.

Dr Beng Hong Socheat Khemro added that ideas for an urban heritage pilot preservation project have been voiced in recent years, so far, however, the scheme has failed to get off the ground.

“We have received no funding for the scheme yet, we’re still waiting for an interested donor, but usually they are only interested in rural development,” he said, adding that while conservation laws are in place, they tend to only apply “primarily assets”, such as the Angkor temples.

Irmer highlighted the need for New Khmer Architecture and French-colonial buildings to receive a status not dissimilar from the Kingdom’s revered temples.

“Protection of sites and rules of conservation should not be driven by tourism alone. Vernacular architecture as well as temples, wats and 60’s buildings need to be declared as part of Cambodia’s cultural heritage – this is important to the country’s identity.”

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