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Examining Phnom Penh's flood-prone architecture

Examining Phnom Penh's flood-prone architecture


Motorists make their way through a flooded road in front of Phnom Penh's Royal Palace during heavy rains in May. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

During rainy season, it is typical to see parts of the capital flooded. Floods are a considerable nuisance, negatively affecting people’s business and travel plans.

It was with the city’s torrential floods in mind that Fulbright Research Fellow Shelby Elizabeth Doyle, who received her Master of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design, set her research sights on Phnom Penh. In her Fulbright-funded project City of Water: Architecture, Infrastructure and the Floods of Phnom Penh, the architect looks into how the city’s historical design has contributed to its flood-prone state.

The research focuses on the relationship between the growth of the city and the existence of water, going back to the days when Cambodia was a French protectorate and urban development was beginning to pick up speed.

“I wanted to look at the impact of the French legacy of placing the capital in the Mekong flood plain and how these decisions are impacting the development of the city today,” she said, adding that she also had wanted to look at flood protection measures and the possible effects of filling the lakes. “All of these are the relationships between the city and water.”

And while rain is precious in the provinces of agriculture’s dependence on the waters, heavy rain is treated the opposite in the city, where it’s seen as detrimental to urban development.

“When people [in the city] think of flood, they think it’s bad,” said Doyle. “But the floods also sustain many livelihoods such as farming and fishing. It is an ongoing challenge to balance the development of the city with the realities of flooding. Hopefully, they can be designed to work together.”

Apart from completing her research, Doyle also taught a course in Architectural Design at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT). One of the outcomes of the class is the blog - a collection of conceptual and analytical drawings and writings about contemporary urban conditions in Phnom Penh.

Doyle said: “Putting together [students’] work on the blog, it is an attempt at capturing and sharing a contemporary moment of Phnom Penh. Things might be lost in the changing of the city, and it is very hard to see them on a map. The city is experienced in perspective so they put photos and videos on the blog to show the experience of the city from street level.”

Vanna Pheatravisal, an architecture studies student at LUCT and one of Doyle’s pupils, felt the blog was a way for students to participate in Phnom Penh’s planning and development.

“Through the blog, we can expose our ideas and works, like articles and photos, to those who find our work practical and can make a change to the city’s betterment in the future.”

Doyle’s research has been ongoing since October 2011 and is expected to be finished by December. It could be a legacy that she leaves behind.

“I give away all my work to other people who do research in Phnom Penh. They don’t have to start over again and spend one year to find an AutoCAD [Computer Aided Design] map of the city.”

City of Water is not the only work this researcher has been working on in Cambodia. Her previous architectural work has included the design of the Friends Center at Angkor Hospital for Children with Cook+Fox, a New York-based architecture firm. A collection of Shelby’s works can be found on her blog:

“I find it really interesting to try to document a city that is changing so quickly,” Doyle said of her time in Phnom Penh. “Everywhere you go, you can hear construction and see the buildings changing. It is like trying to create a living archive.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chanvetey Vann at [email protected]


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