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Time running out to preserve historic architecture

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Lying in the heart of the old French Quarter, the 1892 police commissariat was remodeled in the1920s but has since fallen into disrepair. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days

The colonial police commissariat on the corner of Street 13 and 98 is among Phnom Penh’s increasingly rare examples of French architecture.

The building, which was built in 1892 and served as the colonial police force’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, has been mostly derelict for decades. Among expats, the building is widely known for its role as the guesthouse run by Jacques Depardieu’s character in Matt Dillon’s 2002 crime drama City of Ghosts.

Today, like many of Phnom Penh’s heritage buildings, its fate is uncertain. A battered green fence surrounds the perimeter to prevent people from strolling in, while the exterior walls reveal crumbling plaster and fading paint.

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“The building is collapsing,” says Sylvain Ulisse, who is in charge of the Heritage Mission, a national institution attached to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

The Royal Group, which owns the site, has no present plans for the old commissariat.

“There’s just a lot of ideas and everything,” Royal Group controller David Pearson says. “There is nothing concrete to report.”

The building looms over the northern corner of “Postal Square” next to the colonial-era post office, which today operates as the headquarters for the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Across the street is the old Manolis Hotel that was once the city’s only luxury hotel and today houses some 30 families.

These three buildings are among Phnom Penh’s several dozen heritage buildings that were either built during the colonial-era or during the New Khmer Architectural movement of the 1950s and 1960s. No enforced law protects them from being torn down or allowed to collapse. Since 2008 alone, both the Sihanouk-era Preah Suramarit National Theatre and the colonial-era Ecole Professionnelle vocational school have been demolished.

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Phnom Penh’s swift economic development could claim more historical buildings in the coming years, experts say.

With the fate of the remaining heritage buildings uncertain, local architect and Khmer Architecture Tours guide Yam Sokly says the city’s urban design philosophy stands at a crossroad: it could become Paris, where old buildings spanning back centuries have been well preserved, or New York, where urban preservation failed to take hold in time to save much of its architectural heritage.

“If the city decides to choose Paris as an example, all of the heritage buildings will be preserved,” Sokly says. “But if the city decides to use Singapore, New York or Hong Kong, it will be extremely difficult to preserve the heritage buildings.”

Economic pressure is the force behind the demolition of historic buildings.

“There is pressure from the economic development of the country,” Sokly says. “It is difficult to reconcile the needs of the owner, and the needs of the city.”

With economic forces frequently pushing the tide toward neglect and demolition of heritage buildings, experts are considering various methods to preserve Phnom Penh’s urban heritage.

One strategy, which has been promoted by Khmer Architecture Tours, involves raising public awareness of urban heritage in order to increase social appreciation for old buildings.

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“Our aim to raise awareness of the heritage value, especially on urban heritage, which means both the buildings from the French times and the ’60s,” Sokly explains.

Khmer Architecture Tours has sponsored an “Open Doors Day” for the past three years during the annual Our City festival of architecture and urban design. Open Doors Day, which is tentatively planned to occur again this Autumn, consists of 10 stops on a city architectural tour.

The stops, which have included the Manolis Hotel and the former Banque de l’Indochine that now houses Van’s Restaurant, are connected by a “public tuk-tuk line” that drives between the buildings for the duration of the day.

“You can visit different buildings, every type from residential, commercial and even religious, for free,” Sokly says. “People can even visit private houses, which is quite rare in Cambodia.”

But for neglected old French buildings such as the commissariat, time may be running out. Sokly says that they are an essential part of Cambodia’s history to preserve.

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“Whether we like it or we don’t like it, it is a part of the history. It is 90 years of the history of Cambodia, and architecturally, it is quite interesting.”

Sokly suggests government intervention could save Cambodia’s heritage architecure.

“They have authority (and) power, they are the ones who can, first of all, set up the protected area for safeguarding urban heritage,” Sokly says.

To that end, Heritage Mission advocates turning Postal Square into a protected heritage zone. However, little progress has been made.

“We would like to make a protection site, but nothing is happening now,” Ulisse says.

He noted that while there are mulitple organisations committed to saving the buildings, the old adage appears to be true: you can’t fight City Hall.

“There are a lot of different partners, and it is not very easy to progress. We cannot make decisions for the municipality.”

It may be possible, however, to strike a balance between economics and preservation without government intervention.

“You can’t protect at any cost, that’s impossible,” says Royal University of Phnom Penh linguistic professor Jean-Michel Fillippi, who authored the book Strolling Around Phnom Penh, a guide book to heritage buildings around the city.

“You should find solutions of compromise here and there that will still preserve the appearance of a building.”

While the appearance of an old building may be preserved, its function may have to be dramatically overhauled for the sake of accommodating the needs of modern society.

Alexis de Surmain, who owns The Plantation resort and urban spa which he renovated from a 1930s-era colonial administration building, says the old colonial buildings are impractically spacious by contemporary standards.

“It’s not that [developers] hate old buildings. They’re just not a very efficient way to use space in the centre of the city,” de Surmain says, adding that Phnom Penh had far more space to spare when the French first arrived.

The business owner says he tries to strike a balance between preserving the past and the needs of the modern world.

“I think that a building should be a living thing.”

With The Plantation, Surmain decided it would be best to convert the site’s old garden area into a lotus pond and art gallery.

“I did not stick to the original idea,” he says. “For my building, this is what I have to do.”

However, his compromise between tradition and modernity has created a profitable space that will likely keep the building standing for years to come, he maintains.

Filippi suggests that a similar solution be found for the commissariat.

“You could destroy the interior but keep the façade,” he says. “I think that such compromises will be the rule in the coming years.”

Filippi believes the overall prognosis for Cambodia’s French cultural heritage is positive.

“I don’t think that the French heritage is endangered in any sense.

 “We have enough French buildings here - comparatively much more than in Saigon.”

However, he believes the New Khmer Architecture is more vulnerable than the French, due to the former’s emphasis on external space.

“In the ’60s, space was an essential notion of architecture. Not only the building itself, but what surrounded the building was absolutely essential. And of course, that space which was part of that architectural composition is threatened because they now build everything they can around it.”

Such was the case with Vann Molyvann’s Olympic Stadium, which originally contained a series of pools surrounding the complex that were designed to absorb flood waters during the rainy season.

However, that area was filled in with new structures when a Taiwanese firm developed the area in 2000. In addition to harming Vann Molyvann’s architectural vision, the modification has increased incidences of flooding in the area.

“It is a very dubious conception,” Filippi says.

Such intentional functionality was an integral part of the New Khmer Architecture movement which, according to Fillippi, was unique in the region for its combination of brilliant aesthetics and striking practicality.

“I think it is one of the most original types of architecture. Cambodia was the only country in the ‘60s to have this modern, functional architecture in Southeast Asia.”

But despite the innovations of the New Khmer architects, Phnom Penh, says Yam Sokly, is still architecturally a French city.

“We are living in the French era, even now today. The street patterns, the architecture, the landscape: this is what we are living now. We still have some time to preserve, to become like Paris. We also have a chance to become like Manhattan.” 

To contact the reporter on this story: Bennett Murray at



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