Phnom Penh, Cambodia has had a tumultuous history that spans architectural ingenuity to human tragedy. It is currently undergoing a rapid phase of urbanization and modernization. As this sleepy city steadily grows, many new structures are changing the face of Cambodia’s capital. There are mounting concerns about how such change could affect the city’s culture, atmosphere and history. Will this new period erase all evidence of former terror? Will residents forget the glory of the city’s golden era? Or will Phnom Penh’s past and character still be evident after it catches up to the rest of the world?
Unlike other major cities that were steadily developing, Phnom Penh as well as Cambodia as a whole, were thrown back to year zero in 1975. The country and its cities have been scrambling to rebuild itself ever since. While the pace of development has picked up in recent years, this has come at the cost of some of its remaining heritage. Plans for the future are vast and disconnected, with little consideration for Cambodia as a whole.
So far the structures going up across the city are internationally indifferent, like Aeon Mall, the first high-end shopping centre in the country. With plans for more exclusive shopping complexes, the vitality of street life and accessibility of the lower classes will suffer, while any contextual architectural or community development opportunities remain ignored. Companies are growing quickly and they want their buildings to be constructed as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. As Joel Brinkley explains in Cambodia’s Curse, developers see a picture of a building somewhere in the world and tell the architect to build it. Otherwise they will get another architect to do the job, leaving little room for thoughtful design.
With a lack of regulations and government oversight, the city is at risk of producing architecture without ideas and a city without a vision. There are many critiques concerning the city's development, and even a Facebook group concerned with “The ugliest building in Cambodia” which posts images of interesting and questionable design choices. As copycat buildings keep appearing in Phnom Penh’s skyline and private and public sectors are only concerned with growth rather than quality, Cambodia’s past can no longer be the one to blame for the future of the city.
Trying to move on from the landscape shaped by the Khmer Rouge, while still respecting it is difficult, but building anything and everything overtop it is not the best approach. Cambodia is struggling to create a new vision for the country and its capital city in order push the reminder of its awful past from the minds of the international community. However, hasty construction and lack of planning, along with dissociated architecture, can expose the city to many perils during the rare opportunity that Phnom Penh has to rebuild itself.
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Credits: Data linked to sources. Images by Tara Whelan.