In the 1950s and 60s, Phnom Penh was called the pearl of South East Asia due to a thriving arts scene and its remarkable architecture. The Khmer Rouge brought a violent end to Phnom Penh as an international tourist destination, however, many of the buildings which were constructed during the time of French colonization were still standing when the regime was overthrown in 1979.
Although the buildings survived the war-torn 1970s, they faced a new challenge in recent years as they have been torn down to make way for government and commercial buildings.
“French colonial buildings are destroyed because people are not aware of their historical value,” said Theodora Burgreat, a communications officer of the Heritage Mission Department from Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. “Those buildings are witnesses to Cambodia’s history. They are part of the identity of the country.
“With the rapid modernisation of the country, Cambodia – as is the case for most of the countries in the region – has had to find a delicate balance between economic development and preservation of its urban heritage.”
According to the book Phnom Penh Then and Now written by Michel Igout, construction during the first half of Norodom Sihanouk’s reign was crucial to the development of Phnom Penh as we know it today. Architects and urban planners during this time were responsible for “the layout of the city: the emergence of distinct districts and appearance of shop-houses.”
Unlike Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Vientiane in Laos, Phnom Penh’s French influenced architecture has had little protection from the threat of modern construction projects. Besides losing the visual remnants of its colonial past, the loss of French-influenced architecture represents a missed opportunity for private-sector industries such as tourism and film.
“In both Vietnam and Laos, the tourism potential hasn’t passed unnoticed,” said Darryl Collins, an architecture historian, “Many buildings in the ‘old quarters’ of these cities are being preserved and house government offices, museums, cultural information centres, banks, hotels and cafes – all potential draw-cards for tourists.”
Many of the remaining colonial-era buldings, such as the Chinese House (built in 1905) and restaurants like Romdeng, have been transformed into local hotspots.
Collins said the question “Why don’t we knock down everything old and replace it with modern buildings?” is not unique to Southeast Asia but is a question that modernising cities around the world must face.
Beside the benefits to tourism, these buildings can also enlighten a new generation of architects trying to make high-quality designs which respect Cambodia’s environment. Although many of the colonial-era buildings are run-down due to decades without maintenance, the fact that they are still structurally strong is a testament to the quality of their construction.
Income from film shooting is another benefit of these historical buildings, however, the degradation of Cambodia’s colonial architecture is making the country less attractive to production companies, who “can bring several million a year directly into the countries’ hotel, transportation and service industries,” said Cedric Eloy, CEO of Cambodian Film Commission.
These locations are an an ideal setting for film but as they disappear so does the aesthetic attraction of the Kingdom, according to Eloy.
While the impact of French occupation on Phnom Penh is debatable, the architecture created under French rule was some of the most stunning work since the ancient Angkor temples, but without the protection that has been given to Cambodia’s ancient architectural marvels, colonial Khmer architecture is quickly disappearing along with the economic opportunities they represent.