As Phnom Penh continues to build out, and upwards, at a rapid – largely unregulated – rate, a growing number of architects wonder if there could be a market for an aesthetic that is more uniquely Cambodian
In the studio of Architecture Design Intelligence (ADI) one morning earlier this week, architect Tang Sochet Vitou’s team were intently manipulating multi-coloured virtual models of buildings soon to be added to Phnom Penh’s skyline.
A power-point presentation of ADI’s recent design portfolio includes residential towers of up to 15-storeys, a fairytale castle-style boutique hotel at Kirirom, government buildings, modern luxury villas-cum-mansions and more. Some are complete, others are under construction, while a few are still awaiting the go-ahead.
The team – who are based in the Lyla Fitness Centre in Boeung Trabek, which they designed themselves – have been busy lately, as Phnom Penh undergoes a construction boom. According to figures from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, permits for 1,478 construction projects worth $2.03 billion were issued in the first nine months of 2014. In 2013, total investment in the construction sector was $2.77 billion.
But not all construction is good construction, and with the flood of development comes criticism that much is ugly or poorly constructed. There has even been a Facebook group created in which users poke fun at over-the-top villas and gauche high-rises.
Vitou, who studied architecture at the University of Hawaii and is a member of the Cambodian Society of Architects, said he is battling to improve the standard of Cambodian architecture by designing buildings that respond to the local environment and culture.
But he said clients are not always sympathetic to his cause.
“Only those who have the money have influence,” he said. “You are lucky if the developer understands the importance of architecture; then they give you the time and maybe financial support to explore the art of architecture.
“Otherwise, they say: ‘This is the building I want. You do it as cheap as you can and fast as you can.’ And that’s it. They bring in a picture of a building from somewhere and say: ‘This is what I want. Can you do it? If not, then never mind, I’ll find someone else.’ It’s a big problem.”
Cambodia’s architectural heritage
Previous periods in Cambodia’s history have left a rich architectural legacy.
Angkor Wat remains one of the greatest architectural marvels of all time, the traditional rural Cambodian stilt houses are well-suited to local conditions, and the French built many fine villas and public buildings during the colonial period while laying out the basic design and infrastructure of Phnom Penh.
As with music, arts and film, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era between 1955 and 1970 under Prince Norodom Sihanouk is often heralded as a golden age of Cambodian architecture. It was then that Vann Molyvann designed and built more than 100 Western-influenced but distinctly Cambodian buildings, including the Olympic Stadium, Institute of Foreign Languages, National Theatre and 100 Houses Project.
The civil war and Khmer Rouge put a stop to that, bringing in a dark age from which the country is still struggling to emerge, said freelance architect and urban researcher Pen Serey Pagna.
Little development took place in Phnom Penh for nearly 20 years after the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979. Once the capital was repopulated, some new buildings up to four or five storeys were built copying the existing Chinese shophouses and French villas – still the dominant style of low-rise housing. “The movement upwards came around 2000, when the economy boomed, and the Chinese and Koreans came in and started building apartment buildings,” said Pagna.
‘Architecture without ideas’
Pagna said he wasn’t impressed with the architecture of Cambodia’s modern age. “What we have right now is architecture without ideas – they just copy the buildings from China, Korea and Vietnam,” he said. “When you build a building, you should respect the site, environment and culture, the technique of the local people.
“My thinking is that the current buildings lack respect to the culture and identity of the Cambodian people.”
He pointed to projects including Koh Pich’s under-construction Riviera building, which will feature three 38-storey towers joined by a 200-metre long swimming pool similar to Singapore’s Marina Sands resort.
Touch Samnang, project manager for OCIC which is developing Koh Pich (Diamond Island), said a team of 10 Cambodian architects were responsible for designing the buildings on the island. He said they were briefed to adopt a mixed-use style, drawing from European and Asian influences.
Meanwhile, some say the city is becoming a mish-mash of styles due to a lack of government oversight.
Independent Property Services real estate agent Bobby Peoples said little effort was being made to turn Phnom Penh into a cohesive modern city.
“If you were building a building in New York, Paris, London or Sydney, there’s a building permit you need to get, and your design is scrutinised and it’s amended so that it fits into the single vision they have for the city or district it’s in,” Peoples said.
“Nothing like that exists in Cambodia. If you’ve got the money, you can build it.”
He said the government needed a department that would give approval for each design, but said that would just add an extra level of corruption.
“I mean, who’s going to end up making those decisions? Are they architects? No. They’ll be government bureaucrats who will just see it as a way to make more money.”
But Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, a city planning expert and former spokesman for the Land Management Ministry, said such planning controls were not needed in Phnom Penh.
“Cambodia is a free democratic country where the government doesn’t have regulations to impose on the developer,” he said. “We give the freedom to the developer to design the buildings.”
He said high-rise buildings had a “universal aesthetic”.
“No country can claim ‘this is American, this is British, this is Chinese or Korean’. High-rise is a modern design, so there isn’t much identity [in them from] any nation, tribe or culture,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said projects falling under the city’s remit would not be approved if they affected other properties or neighbours, for example by intruding onto their land.
“However, we cannot decide whether a design is good or bad,” he said. “Developers are free to choose their architectural style, and we don’t think the architecture these days has affected the city’s appearance.”
Some say the city is simply going through the same growing pains all developing cities endure during times of rapid economic development.
“As with any country that goes through a real-estate boom like this, there are always time and cost factors that mean [building] quality is not always at the highest levels,” said Daniel Parkes, general manager at Hongkong Land.
He pointed out that during the building boom in London during the ’50s and ’60s following World War II, there was a lot of shoddy construction.
And he said there was in fact a lot of “really good development going on in Phnom Penh”, including Hongkong Land’s Landmark building, next to the US Embassy.
The Vattanac Capital tower has been hailed as a world-class quality project, the Brown cafe chain would not look out of place in New York or London and the planned Sleuk Rith institute – designed by internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid – should set a new standard for architecture in Southeast Asia. The institute will be the new home of the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Boeung Trabek.
What’s left behind
So what architectural legacy will the current era end up leaving?
Martin Aerne, a Swiss architect and professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, said there may not be one.
“We come from the Western mindset, which is that the city is something durable, you build it and you have it,” Aerne said. “In Cambodia, the only thing from 1,000 years ago that’s still lasting is the temples, so the temples are the focus of the culture. It is not part of the culture to maintain and support the fabric of the city … They are something that comes and goes and you replace.”
Pagna, the urban researcher, said a form of architectural natural selection would come into play. “If the home works for the people and it is suitable for them, it will last longer, like the homes in the ’60s,” he said. “If you have to use air-conditioning 24 hours a day [because the building has no airflow], people will change it.”
Beauty in the eye of the beholder
Who is to say what is good and bad architecture?
Last month, renowned architect Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, was quoted by the Guardian dismissing all but a tiny fraction of the world’s architecture.
“In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit,” he said. “There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it.”
And the users of the Facebook group “The ugliest buildings in Cambodia” are never shy to cast judgement.
In the group, users post and comment on examples of garishly coloured hotels, gauche cinderblock sheds, over-the-top European-style villas and unsightly skyscrapers. Some have unusual design features, such as a Takhmao village house that features a roof terrace in the shape of the Sydney Opera House.
But Sambour Thang Van – a retired 63-year-old who lives in and designed the villa himself – said he didn’t mind.
He said via phone that he decided to include the Sydney Opera House-inspired feature after seeing the iconic Australian building on television.
“I’ve never been there,” he said. “I just love those shapes.
“I gave the builders a drawing but they could not match it exactly.”
He said many people had expressed their appreciation of the new and different style of the house since he started construction in 2013.
“Even if some people say my house is an ugly house, I don’t care because I think it’s beautiful.”