Among the aged temples and deteriorating colonial buildings in Phnom Penh, rise a new architecture of an international contemporary style that could be located anywhere in the world. Everyday new developments erase part of the city’s past, and without a strong effort to preserve some of the meaningful structures, Phnom Penh’s current construction boom could destroy the city’s architectural heritage.
Phnom Penh has a unique and diverse architectural history that ranges from ancient Khmer culture to French influenced city planning and residential villas, to Corbusier’s modernist ideas with a Cambodian twist. Of course, none of these styles is as prominent as they once were after Cambodia’s traumatic past, which saw the city of Phnom Penh withstand war, bombing and occupation. All of the building elements, including the decay and scar-marked facades are part of the city’s charm today. Unfortunately, older cultural buildings are becoming a rarer site among the rapid urban development taking place in the city.
In a developing country, architectural preservation lies low on the list of priorities. Property is valued on the investment potential of the land rather than the existing cultural or architectural value. Seeing how much Phnom Penh has grown in recent years, it is no surprise that the built environment is seen as temporary, every new structure fulfills a function and when that function expires so does the building. Cultural heritage is appreciated, but conveniently enough, it lies over 300 kilometers away in the ancient city of Angkor. Other than the ancient temples, the rest of the country’s property, especially that of the growing capital is up for grabs.
Rapid urban development results in rapidly vanishing heritage, and that is the case for much of Cambodia’s corbusier equivalent Vann Molyvann’s projects. His influence on the city has been praised as the golden age of Khmer architecture during the 1960’s, which constituted many public works surrounded by green spaces. Unfortunately, the open spaces were the first to go. The white building (pictured below) is a prime example of Molyvann’s initiatives that are losing ground, as the final remaining structure in a social housing complex. The deteriorating condition and lack of government support makes it vulnerable, but it has evolved into a vibrant community of artists who are now standing together to combat threats of eviction.
Several attempts to protect Phnom Penh’s heritage have been led by the Heritage Mission and UNESCO, but most structures are still at risk of demolition, and helpless against the offers of developers. Asian Heritage Properties also buys and restores heritage buildings to rent out, like the elegant Chinese House - the oldest chinese shop in Phnom Penh is now a hip restaurant and art gallery. However, there is much debate about the authenticity of the few restorations, sometimes resorting to facadism - keeping only the front street facade and building a new structure behind it.
Supporting the restoration or preservation of the city’s architectural heritage structures is a start in combating the volatile shift in urban development. However, as long as the the city allows unprecedented growth without a comprehensive master plan, the buildings that made Phnom Penh what it is today will continue to disappear, and without records -these structures along with the city’s past- will soon be forgotten.
What historic or cultural buildings would you want to protect from vanishing in your city? What organizations keep your city's architectural heritage safe?
Credits: Images by Tara Whelan. Data linked to sources.