Research Proposal

Statement of Proposed Research

This research aims to document the relationship between water, architecture and infrastructure in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The objective of this project is to record the architectural and urban conditions sustained by and subject to the cyclical floods of the city’s rivers.

My interest in this work began while working on the Angkor Hospital for Children’s Friends Center in Siem Reap and studying the work of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. In a 2005 New York Times article Molyvann is quoted regarding the outcome of a major flood in Phnom Penh: ”Three hundred thousand people would lose their homes… you can’t imagine what could happen here.” (The City He Built)

Located at the confluence of the Tonlé SapMekong, and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh is a city of 1.5 million people, many of whom live along the riverbanks. Millions more people are sustained by these rivers and their accompanying deltaic landscape. The result is a topography defined by a mosaic of urbanisms and an intense interdependence between the inhabitants of the region and its rivers.

More than a third of the population of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – some 60 million people – live in the Lower Mekong’s watershed, using the river for drinking water, food, irrigation, transportation and commerce. Millions more in China, Myanmar and beyond the boundaries of the basin benefit from the rivers’ waters through hydropower electricity production. Beyond these human connections the river also powerfully demonstrates the scope for shared interest and competition. The Mekong has influenced political boundaries and conflicts for thousands of years, beginning with the Khmer Empire which once included the entire Lower Mekong Basin and beyond.

Most notably, the 12th century Khmer capital of Angkor was home to a million people and to an elaborate water management network, including flood-control infrastructure. Angkor provides an important cultural context for the project and I propose a brief trip to the site to document the water infrastructure of the temple complex. It is believed that the Khmer Empire’s collapse was brought on by the economic consequences of substantial modifications to the landscape, and unpredictable events such as flooding and warfare. Angkor’s demise strongly anticipates two present-day issues threatening Phnom Penh: climate change and rapid development.

Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of flooding in Cambodia, creating a precarious relationship to the water which sustains the region. Consequently, the potential risk and possible loss of life and property may well exceed Molyvann’s predictions. Research indicates that climate change is largely anthropogenic, fueled in part by the construction and maintenance of the built world. Therefore, the relationship of this cyclical flooding to architecture and infrastructure is central to a discussion of climate change and development and I intend to study how individual buildings and larger urban fabrics engage this precarious relationship to water.

Due to the region’s relatively low level of industrialization, high levels of poverty mean that it will be disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and its ability to respond ability to respond exacerbated by limited economic and institutional capacities. Deforestation and soil erosion intensify problems from flooding and drought, threaten the usable water supply, and put the population of adjacent cities in danger. Given these conditions, architecture, urban design and infrastructure play a critical role in the health and safety of the region’s people and property.

Pursuing observational documentation strategies in the Lower Mekong Basin is key to the success of this proposal and this study is particularly necessary for several reasons:

 1) Lack of Access to Researchers. Years of conflict have hindered academic dialogue in Cambodia and prevented designers from documenting its unique typologies, designs and urban data. The region has been in a state of occupation or conflict for the past two hundred years and has played a decisive role in the successes and the failures of colonial and post-colonial regimes, of American war efforts, and of modernization and development. A selection of  regional conflicts, geographic extent and dates are documented in the maps shown here.

2) Heavy Handed and Rapid Development. As the region has stabilized politically, foreigninvestment has poured in contributing to an economic and construction boom. Many of these new projects have neglected the existing water infrastructure or failed to provide new alternatives. Poorly constructed buildings, including hotels, restaurants, bars, high-rises, and residential buildings have sprung up rapidly around the rivers. Additionally, those examples of Modern architecture that do exist are under threat of destruction from new development. To cite an example from my research in Cambodia: The previously quoted Van Molyvann was he first formally trained Cambodian architect and Urban Planner. He studied at the L’Ecole de Beaux Arts, returning afterwards to practice in Cambodia. Before escaping the Khmer Rouge, Van Molyvann produced a body of work known as Khmer Modern as well as much of the master plan for Phnom Penh. One of the most stunning examples of which is his 1962 ‘Olympic’ Stadium‘. The Stadium was recently sold to a developer who filled in and built upon Van Molyvann’s carefully designed network of flood channels and surrounding canals, threatening the foundations’ stability and therefore the future of the complex. 

3) Documentation of Disappearing Water Management Strategies. The 3,000 mile-long Mekong, once the backbone of the Khmer Empire, now connects some of Asia’s most complex societies. It is home to myriad cultures, struggling to preserve their identities and unique physical environments. I anticipate that there are vernacular solutions to water management that could be employed in the context of contemporary environmental issues. However, they have not been employed in more urbanized contexts because they are not well documented or widely known. Such a study will uncover strategies for improved design and planning practices for urban environments engaged with flood zones. Coastal environments around the world are increasingly threatened by changes in climate and water level. This research will contribute to expanding the tools available to designers to work meaningfully in these challenging environments.

4) Observation of Water Rights + Access. On April 19, 2011 (New York Times) the four countries that share the lower reaches of the Mekong River voted and failed to agree upon the construction of a controversial dam in Laos, the first dam on the river south of China. The Laotian government has proposed moving people who live in villages that will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir to a spot farther upstream. All four countries retain the right to build dams with or without agreement by neighboring countries. Therefore the dam will likely be constructed, kicking off the construction of at least five other dams already slated for the lower reaches of the Mekong. The impact of theses dams may result in future conflicts between countries sharing the river. This study will engage in documenting those institutions in place to protect the River. Additionally, a goal will be to map the distance of populations from the water and who controls access to water and how that access, or lack thereof, is manifest physically.

5) Little Existing Design Literature. Design analysis and research will offer a unique, and under-documented perspective of contemporary Phnom Penh. Currently, little literature is available on the urbanisms of modern Phnom Penh. Studies are available on related topics such as: agriculture, biology, irrigation, forestry resources, fishery resources, mineral resources, navigation, and hydroelectric power generation. Urbanism is considered in these texts as a related component. It is not however, the lens through which Phnom Penh is viewed. I believe that this is a critical piece of missing research on the region.(Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970 is one of the few books available, however it is out of print.)

I plan to document architectural and infrastructural strategies for water management at varying scales and from various historic eras. Acknowledging that the complete documentation of both is unrealistic, I propose to focus my work on identifying and analyzing representative examples of typologies as well as anomalous conditions. I will include a variety of typologies, from floating villages to vernacular homes, and informal settlements to contemporary development. This documentation will focus on varying scales of physical water management, from downspout details and roof geometry to street layouts and drainage canals and other large scale water infrastructure.

My primary methods of investigation will be analytic drawings and photography, coupled with interviews and video surveys. I will use the digital and graphic skills I have gained during my architectural education to produce visualization models, maps, and architectural detail drawings. Additionally, I will supplement my work with primary source and archival material (architectural drawings and photographs of historic conditions), when available.

To accomplish this proposal I will draw upon my previous experiences in Cambodia. In 2006 I began work with Cook+Fox Architects on a project in Siem Reap, a Visitor’s Center for the Angkor Hospital for Children. The project carefully researched and integrated the collection and reuse of rainwater at the hospital. The majority of design work for the project was completed in the New York City office over the course of two years. However, in 2008 I spent three weeks in Cambodia photographing this project and assisting with construction administration. In 2010 I returned to Siem Reap to photograph and document Naga Biofuels – a group that promotes biodiesel use among Cambodian NGOs.

This work will be an extension of my thesis research with Toshiko Mori, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which focuses on the agency of architecture and physical objects to engage in disaster prevention, rehabilitation and reuse: Neft Dashlari: Architecture, Oil and Urbanism in the Trans-Caspian Union. Additionally, at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I studied the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the resulting flooding, and the role of the environment of New Orleans in Katrina’s legacy. This will be an opportunity to continue this research with a comparative study of architecture and urbanism of another flood region and to actively participate in documenting the built environment of Phnom Penh.

The results of my inquiry will be a written document and a website. The written document will record my observations and research in writing, photographs and analytical drawings and will also serve as a resource for articles, slide presentations, and further writing which I will continue up on my return to the United States.  I  also will compile my observations and visual arguments into a website containing text, images, video, analytic drawings and  interactive maps.

Cambodia has emerged from decades of civil war and unrest to reveal a stunning architectural topography, quickly garnering attention from designers around the world.  This website is intended to document this quickly disappearing topography and to develop an exchange with the Cambodian design community and like-minded researchers.

Shelby Elizabeth Doyle, 2011


Every effort has been made to correctly identify sources when and where possible. The research and photos are mine, unless otherwise noted. I have shared the research in hopes of introducing Phnom Penh to those unaware of or interested in its architectural and urban history.

Use of this work is limited by a Creative Common License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This research was funded in part by the The Fulbright U.S. Student Program sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Fulbright Program provides funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools.

This website,, is the personal research website of Shelby Elizabeth Doyle. The views expressed herein are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the The Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Program is not in any way responsible for the content or data made available or accessible on

Please feel free to e-mail me at with questions, comments or concerns.


8 thoughts on “Research Proposal

  1. amyuthus says:

    Shelby! You and your work are amazing. I nominated you for a Liebster award 🙂
    Go here to read about it:

  2. Hi Shelby! I just had a quick look and really like your project. Bookmarked it for later reading. It’s a very interesting topic and one I have thought about often. But glad to know I’m not the only one interested in this topic. You might be interested in reading about a similar topic I recently presented on Actually, a participant asked me about potential Phnom Penh flooding after the presentation.

  3. virakroeun says:

    That’s Great Shelby!!!

  4. steph says:

    You have some great information and documents listed here. Are you having conversations with Architects & Planners who are working here in the ‘heavy handed development context”? cheers

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