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Architecture of Corruption in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Architecture of Corruption in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

How does corruption affect architecture? Considering how corrupt Cambodia is (ranks 160 of 177 countries in the world) and that Phnom Penh does not have an implemented zoning or investment plan for future urban development, the architecture in the city reflects these unplanned conditions. So what does corrupt architecture look like – does it have

How does corruption affect architecture? Considering how corrupt Cambodia is (ranks 160 of 177 countries in the world) and that Phnom Penh does not have an implemented zoning or investment plan for future urban development, the architecture in the city reflects these unplanned conditions. So what does corrupt architecture look like - does it have a style, quality or impact? Since Phnom Penh is currently undergoing unprecedented urban expansion, the architecture of the city is rapidly changing into a more globalized modern society, but at what cost to the livability and design of the city?

Phnom Penh's skyline of corruption, Cambodia

Corruption runs deep throughout the country, beginning with children in school through to planning departments, professional services and transportation. Having an opaque government means that nobody needs to justify development, what gets built where and why, is not openly disclosed. Most major developments happen behind closed doors without addressing the public or current residents, such during the Boeung Kak lake infill or white building evictions. The quality of new structures also diminishes with unforeseen costs or bribes that are commonplace, and the construction sector is no stranger. Other effects of corruption on architectural design and quality in Phnom Penh include:

  • Poor (architectural) education;
  • Lack of historic preservation or vernacular design;
  • Poor quality;
  • No unified plan for city design;
  • And, decreasing livability/public amenities.

Giving permission to foreign developers to build where and how they like, not only creates a disjointed style but does not recognize the local environment or cultural traditions. Cambodia is a low lying country and depends on seasonal flooding for agriculture and fishing, flooding in Phnom Penh is common as it sits in a flood plain and once had many rivers and canals. The vernacular Khmer architecture responds to these environmental conditions with traditional structures that are raised above the ground level to accommodate flooding and provide extra shade. Unfortunately, with higher density needs and uncontrolled zoning regulations due to corruption, new buildings are built from the ground or basement levels up and become flooded, or facilitate flooding with impermeable design.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh was known for its beauty during the 1960’s, with many colonial structures dating from the French protectorate era that have been adapted to the tropical climate. Now many beautiful historical buildings are in poor condition or being lost to rapid urban growth; corruption in Phnom Penh has led to a focus on immediate gains instead of long term sustainable development.

After a recent history of trauma and conflict, corruption is still a major flaw and has resulted in a society that has no use for communal infrastructure. The public realm suffers from this and the local architectural style is being lost to foreign investment. Over the next few decades, the face of Phnom Penh could change drastically to reflect this uncontrolled exploitation of the built environment. Corruption is present in all societies to some degree, it manifests itself differently but still influences the shape of our cities.

How has corruption affected your urban environment? What are some methods in controlling corruption? Please share your city's story in the comments below.

Credits: Images by Tara Whelan. Data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Tara Whelan has recently graduated from a Master's in International Cooperation and Sustainable Emergency Architecture from the International University of Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain and is pursuing a career in humanitarian and social architecture...

  • Sirey

    Corruption is just an aspect to unsustainable city. However, you should consider many other aspects before jumping to conclusion. And you might change your view if you clear understand Cambodia’s (urban) environment.

    To do so, it requires holistic approach to understand the city history and urban context such as history, socio-politic, socio-economy, culture, foreign influence…

    As local resident, we accept that our country is one of corrupted country in the world. However, if you understand the country’s culture, the term “corruption” of yours might change the definition. Corruption alone will not make that much effect to city development. Let think about a few following aspect:

    – HISTORY: Have you ever heard about Khmer Rouge Regime? You should not neglect history and jump to conclusion of city development! Khmer Rouge Regime was a genocide that killed almost all scholars and educated people. This regime collapsed in 1979 and followed by several civil wars. We lost 3.3 million active work force who are mostly educated people. So! Do you think restoring human capital can make in a year?

    – Socio-political: Will changing political structures effect city’s development? Imagine if your country has confronted with these changes from royal regime, then social regime, then communist regime, then democratic regime. Think about reform, law, and so on…

    – Socio-economy: Will changing-socio-economic structure effect city’s development? Population, demography, capital investment, financial institution, economic structure, private finance, these are some of socio-economic that you should consider… Cambodia was an agrarian-based economic country. Then, it switched to light-industry. Imagine the population flows into the city based on pull factor of industrial sector, and cause rapid urbanization. So! Does this urbanization cause by corruption?

    Without further detail on cultural and foreign influence on city development, I think you could get the point why the city was shaped. Anyway, thank to your article that alert Cambodian city planner about our city’s condition.

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