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A contemporary Phnom Penh streetscape.
A contemporary Phnom Penh streetscape. CHHAY KANHA/FRENCH INSTITUTE OF CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh: From village to modern city

A multifaceted French Institute project explores how Cambodia’s capital city has evolved and where current development could take it

The changing face of Phnom Penh – the city’s past, present and future – is set to be explored in a series of exhibitions, seminars and film screenings kicking off at the end of the month at the French Institute.

Institute cultural attache Cecile Peyronnet said the hope was that Once Upon a Time… Phnom Penh City, running from September 30 until November 9, would increase awareness of the capital’s architectural heritage.

A postcard of Phnom Penh in the colonial days.
A postcard of Phnom Penh in the colonial days. FRENCH INSTITUTE

The centrepiece will be a presentation of historical material by the Heritage Mission, an institute operated by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, tracing the city’s development from its early beginnings in the 15th century up to the 1970s.

“The idea is to present the evolution of the city through a series of documents, illustrations, photographs and postcards in order make more known the past of the city, which is generally unknown,” Peyronnet said.

“This exhibition is the result of several years work of the Heritage Mission, which for the past decade has researched the heritage of the city.”

Meanwhile, a series of cityscape and architectural photographs by French photographer Jean-Francois Perigois and Cambodian photographer Chhay Khana will provide a contemporary counterpoint to the historical exhibit.

“Both photographers will provide their own vision of Phnom Penh today,” Peyronnet said.

An aerial shot of Phnom Penh.
An aerial shot of Phnom Penh. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF CAMBODIA

Concurrent with the exhibitions, three seminars will be held to provide context and explore issues around Phnom Penh’s development.

The first, titled Phnom Penh, Heritage City, will see Men Sisowath Chandev from Heritage Mission give a presentation on the organisation and its historical exhibition. The second, Sangkum: An Urban History, presented by APSARA Authority deputy director-general Khuon Khun-Neay, will examine the architectural legacy of the Sangkum period under the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

The final seminar, titled Phnom Penh, Today and After, will be a roundtable discussion on contemporary Phnom Penh and the city’s future with Seng Vannak, deputy director of Phnom Penh Municipality’s Department of Urban Planning; Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO representative in Cambodia; and Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD) country director Andre Pouilles-Duplaix.

An undated photo of southern Monivong Boulevard.
An undated photo of southern Monivong Boulevard. ARCHIVES NATIONALES DU CAMBODGE

“The idea of the last seminar is to have several speakers talking about the future of Phnom Penh, how they envisage the future of the city and how the city is going to [balance] development, preservation, innovation and sustainability,” Peyronnet said.

Also looking ahead will be the French Institute’s annual student architecture competition, which will focus on innovative ideas on how to refresh the classic “shophouse” building style – defined by its narrow frontage and shop or open living area on the ground floor – that’s been a popular feature of Phnom Penh since the late 18th century and still remains a dominant model of urban architecture.

The Post Office, built in 1895 by Daniel Fabre.
The Post Office, built in 1895 by Daniel Fabre. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CAMBODIA

“The winners will be announced on the opening night, with entries on display until November 9,” Peyronnet said.

Meanwhile, the selections for the French Institute’s regular film screenings during the 10 days will all follow the theme of urbanism and city, ranging from the 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis to Norodom Sihanouk’s Twilight made in 1969.

The opening of Once Upon a Time… Phnom Penh will be at 6:30pm on September 30 and feature opening speeches, the announcement of an architecture contest results, screenings, a DJ set, food and drinks.

The exhibitions An Urban History of a Capital and Contemporary Perspectives on the City will be on display at the institute until November 9.

Phnom Penh, Heritage City is on October 2 at 6:30pm; Sangkum: An Urban History is on October 7 at 6:30pm; and Phnom Penh: Today and After is on October 14 at 6:30pm.

For details of film screenings, check

All activities will be held at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, free and available in Khmer, English and French languages.



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