Crossing the threshold from a street into a private space in the city of Phnom Penh is like stepping into the country's future. Contemporary architectural design is giving the city a vibrant facelift and creating an international style of quality architectural spaces - but only from the interior. Much of Cambodia’s capital city is left in the dust as the streets are dark and littered, and many people are cut off from the new construction and design that is currently transforming the city.
Phnom Penh has been rapidly expanding in recent years, and as in most developing contexts, there is little support available for public services and infrastructure. This leaves public spaces disregarded and discarded while privately owned spaces explode into modern stages for international design. However it is a slow process, and many of the trendiest spots are starting small, as miniature shops and pockets, that stay in proportion with the local context.
A prime example of this new micro-design has flooded one little lane way in Phnom Penh within the past year. A common Cambodian alleyway has been transformed into a social street lined with pockets of modernity on either side of the crumbling pavement. Bassac lane way consists of mostly boutique bars and a few places to buy food with plans for vintage shops and galleries, all of which have a recognizably unique but modern style not commonly found elsewhere in the city.
The atmosphere achieved by these modern designs is equivalent to any top designed establishment in an international world class city, not what you would expect after seeing the surface of Phnom Penh. Additionally, the concentration of these modern pockets bring a new dimension to the space in between, as the lane itself has become the social attraction and intersection for visitors.
These small spaces are just a glimpse of how quickly the city is changing and perhaps what it could be like in the future, with evidence of foreign design influences and demand for international standards. Popular coffee chains are being modeled after Starbucks and encouraging open design concepts with modern details in more public settings. Unfortunately the spatial quality has not yet been matched on street, and only by allowing privately owned contemporary ideas to spill externally, will Phnom Penh begin to break the division of indoor modernity and outdoor deprivation. Addressing the street and the public realm will have a greater positive influence on the city, however with a lack of public ownership and initiative, the transformation of public spaces may be a long way off.
Nevertheless, as international design in Phnom Penh is restricted to private spaces and those who can afford it, the city's architecture reflects the income disparity. Without public investment for urban upgrading and basic services, the outdoor and common ground of Phnom Penh will remain in the past, while behind closed doors the future of Cambodian architecture and contemporary design awaits.
Where does modern design live in your city? Do you live in a city that has such a juxtaposition between public and private spaces?
Credits: Images by Tara Whelan and Eli Meixler. Data linked to sources.