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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's proud history of building art

Cambodia's proud history of building art


The Office of the Prime Minister on Jok Dimitrov Boulevard. All photographs: Rithy Lomorpich

A collaboration between media students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the new magazine Sthapatyakam has highlighted some of Phnom Penh’s architectural treasures, from the Angkor period through to the contemporary styles that have occasioned the city’s development boom. Project supervisor Dr. Tilman Baumgärtel discusses the origins of the project alongside excerpts from the publication.

When I moved to Phnom Penh in 2009, one of the first things that piqued my interest was the Naga-adorned parapet along Norodom Boulevard between Street 106 and Street 108 south of Wat Phnom. Why were these Nagas there? It looked like a bridge, but a bridge over what?

It was only when I started to poke around at the wonderful and surprisingly well-endowed National Archive of Cambodia that I came across a picture that explained the mystery to me: during the colonial period, Norodom Boulevard used to cross the Verneville Canal here. This channel separated the French Quarter around Wat Phnom from the Chinese downtown of Phnom Penh, and has since been replaced by a small park strip. Ever since, whenever I ride my bike over this ex-bridge, I think: “I am driving over water.”

Phnom Penh is a city full of little mysteries and great buildings. Ride your bike through the city with an open eye, and you find a bizarre little tailor shop called “Casanova Tailor” on Street 19 that looks like it has been in operation since 1950. A former colonial-era delicatessen-turned-hotel-turned-flophouse has old French shop signs on the walls (the “International” on the corner of Street 13 and Street 130).

Behind this non-descript wall, east of France Street, is a military hospital where not much has changed since circa 1900.

These are just some of the fascinating buildings that we could not include in our magazine Sthapatyakam: The Architecture of Cambodia, a semester project that I did with my journalism students at the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Since we had only a limited number of pages, we could not include many of the architectural marvels that make Phnom Penh such a wondrous city – despite the dirt, the neglect and the grime.

We hope that we can inspire both Phnom Penhers and visitors to look at the city as a treasure chest of some of the finest European-inspired colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. At the same time, as an ensemble of the most advanced modern architecture in the post-war period in all of Asia: the private residences and official buildings that Vann Molyvann, the first “eco-architect” in history, and his contemporaries created in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period. We hope that much of it will survive the current speculation boom and modernisation of the city (especially the Olympic Stadium), so Phnom Penh stays a city that is attractive and habitable for its citizens.

Wat Botum Vathey
Vorn Sokhan
Wat Botum Vathey was established in 1442 by King Ponhea Yat. “Wat Botum Vathey, whose original name was Wat Khpop Ta Yang, was built on a raised ground,” says Chem Thyrack, deputy chief monk of the pagoda. “At that time, Buddhist temples were built from wood.”

In 1865, it was rebuilt under King Norodom and renamed Wat Botum Vathey, which means “Pagoda of the Lotus”, because it was surrounded by ponds full of lotus flowers.

He adds that at that time, this kind of natural decoration was the only way to adorn the pagoda. The lotus ponds kept the pagoda beautiful. This technique was also used in Angkor Wat, where the temples originally were also surrounded by water. In 1937, King Sisowat Monivong and the Venerable Panhatybor Sok had the main temple rebuilt in brick and cement.

The Wat Botum complex is 260 metres long and 202 metres wide with six gateways. There are 44 houses, one Buddhist temple, one gathering hall, one residence for high-ranking monks, one library, the building of the Writer’s Association, two primary school buildings, one bell tower, and 37 monk houses.

Around the main temple, there are many stupas, and behind the temple there are sculptures of tigers and lions. On the south side of the temple is the most important stupa of the Wat, which contains a bone of the Buddha. On the walls inside the temple are paintings about the life of Buddha.

Chinese House
Sam Chanmaliny
The Chinese House belongs to the family of Tan Bunpa, a Chinese merchant of Hokkien descent. Tan Bunpa bought the land on Sisowath Quay on the banks of the Tonle Sap River and built the house in 1904. As this was during the French colonial period, the house was designed in a combination of Chinese and French style.

The Chinese House was built following the concept of Feng Shui, meaning “wind and water”. As the building is located at the riverbanks, the air from the Tonle Sap can blow into the building and cool it.

The whole building is built out of concrete that has been painted in light yellow and white, with a traditional Chinese roof with clay tiles. The door and window frames are painted in a dark green.

The Chinese House has two floors. Traditionally, builders pounded dirt and soil to create the floor of a house or laid a foundation with bricks, but this building is different because the floor is tiled with French tiles from the colonial period. The roofs, doors, and pillars are all in traditional Chinese style. The upper floor is made out of hard wood, and Chinese lanterns hang from the roof.

The building was owned by Tan Bunpa’s family until 1975. The house was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge period. In the 1980s, some families from the neighbourhood managed it. From the 1990s to 2007, the owner was Darryl Collins, an Australian art historian. The great-granddaughter of Tan Bunpa bought the house in November 2008 and owns it now.

The Chinese House is still in a good location, and it still serves as a business house. Originally, Tan Bunpa used the house to sell food and to supply foodstuffs to the ‘Prison du Protectorat’, the colonial prison, and other departments of the French administration. Nowadays the great-granddaughter of Tan Bunpa rents the house to business people, says current manager Antonio Lopez De Haro. Today, the Chinese House is a restaurant that attracts both local customers and tourists.

The Office of the Prime Minister
Chey Phearon
The Office of the Prime Minister, also known as the Peace Palace, was officially opened on October 19, 2010, by the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen. According to a press release from the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, the building’s design is a combination of Khmer building styles from the Angkor period and modern architecture that defines a new style.

The building has two wings which have been added to avoid the simple square shape which is, according to architect Chheang Sidath, “considered to be a flaw in architecture.”

Besides that, the two wings provide more space for the building’s function, in order to house meetings and conferences such as the recent ASEAN summit.

On the eaves on top of the building is the Cambodian coat of arms surrounded by the Bang Klaeng ornament; one decorative element in ancient Khmer architecture first used on Preah Ko Temple in the 9th century, that is part of the Rolous group in Siem Reap, and featured on Banteay Srei temple in the 10th century. The walls and the main gate around the building are embellished with the modernised version of the Bang Klaeng.

The building was constructed by the Ly Chhuong Construction Import & Export Company in consultation with Samdech Chaovea Veang Kong Som Ol, the Minister of Royal Affairs. According to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Peace Palace is considered as a symbol of Cambodia’s great achievement, since all engineers, architects, constructors and designers who contributed to the building are Khmer.

The Peace Palace was constructed exclusively out of the national budget. The building cost US$50 million, a sum that does not include the interior equipment and furniture.

Sthapatyakam: The Architecture of Cambodia is on sale at Monument Books for $2.50



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