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Battambang's battered buildings

Preserving Battambang's architectural past is key to protecting its tourism future


PHOTO BY ELEANOR AINGE ROY, INSET IMAGE SUPPLIED

This French colonial house has been earmarked for preservation by the Battambang District Administration . The drawing (inset) by the administration’s Master Plan Team is the start of that process.

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia's second largest city, is home to some of the finest French colonial-era buildings  in the country.

This rich architectural heritage is a legacy of the northwestern city's importance as a regional administrative centre and a vital link between Phnom Penh and Thailand during the period of French rule from 1863 to 1953.

While views on the benefits or otherwise of French rule inevitably remain mixed, few disagree that the city's nearly one million inhabitants have done well out of France's attention to architecture and urban design. The city's wide boulevards, grand gardens and sweeping alleys of trees make the city an attractive place to live and visit.

Battambang district Governor Uy Ry is well-aware of the importance of the city's colonial French architecture to tourism in the city, particularly the simple French shophouses that flank the edges of the Sangke River, which flows through the centre of town.

"There are 800 good examples of French colonial architecture in Battambang province, most of which are shophouses or flats," he said.

"It is very important that we preserve their original style both for tourists and students who want to conduct research on this style of architecture."

The Battambang District Administration is leading the preservation effort, dividing the city's examples of French colonial architecture  into two categories.

Almost 800 properties have been listed in the "Important" category and are considered to be of utmost priority for conservation. Another  40 have  been listed in the "Secondarily Important" category.

As part of the conservation effort, the administration has initiated a number of regulations relating to the preservation of French colonial architecture in the city, including a ban on owners making changes to the exterior of protected buildings. Interior renovations are permitted.

The Battambang District Administration has also recently begun receiving aid from Germany and the EU to help preserve and restore the houses.

Uy Ry says conservation is of utmost priority. "Recently the owners of these French colonial houses have started thinking about their value and realising  that, if they are willing to protect them and keep them in good condition, they can potentially make a profit," he said. 

Khoun Vanthat, whose family has long lived in a French colonial house in the city, is among those waking up to the economic potential of her home. "When I was a child, I didn't want to live in this house because it was too old," she said.

One of the biggest problems is a lack of awareness about the cultural and economic heritage value of these buildings.

"But as I grew up I came to realise the value of it. Many tourists like to see the house, so I am now happy to live here. But it is badly damaged, and I am worried that in five or 10 years I may lose it as I don't have the money to repair it in the same style."
Long road ahead

Walter Koditek, who is working as an urban planning adviser to the city for the German Development Service [DED], said the majority of colonial-era houses in the city are in poor condition, mainly due to a lack of regular maintenance.

"A lot of heritage buildings from the French-era are in rather poor condition, but this does not mean they cannot be renovated, as the buildings' substance and structures are generally very solid."

However, renovation must be done carefully. Today, economic progress rather than neglect is the greatest threat facing the buildings, as private owners undertake renovations and updates themselves, often making a mess of the original structure.

"The major changes have appeared with economic development and investment done by the owners - mostly small-scale businesses - during the last ten years," Koditek said.

"Furthermore, some public buildings in prime locations have been sold or swapped, and the administrative heritage buildings are under serious threat of being demolished for new developments. Some are gone already."

There were two main obstacles to preservation, he said. "One of the biggest problems is a lack of understanding and awareness about the cultural and economic heritage value  of these buildings among the public and officials in Cambodia. Everyone is focused on the Angkor temples."

The second challenge was the lack of a specific law for urban heritage buildings and ensembles, he said. "The existing regulations are too general, and they are not properly implemented."

Koditek said a draft regulation for heritage conservation was prepared years ago by the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction but was never passed into law.

Local action

The future of the city's architectural history is now in the hands of the Battambang District Administration, which has delegated responsibility to its Master Plan Team, with support from the central government, the European Union and Koditek's DED.

The team, which was originally charged with working on spatial planning issues in Battambang, is made up of 10 to 12 officials from district offices and some provincial departments. It began paying attention to conserving the city's rich urban architectural heritage just last year.

 The group has already begun its work under Koditek's supervision, surveying the buildings in the old city centre with a view to designating the area as a conservation zone for the preservation of colonial buildings.

A survey has also been carried out on the old provincial hall, and a Battambang Heritage Calendar will be released in 2009 to raise public awareness.  A heritage seminar is also scheduled for next year.

Bol Chantrea, a receptionist at  Moon guesthouse, said the success of the preservation effort would be critical for the tourist industry.

"I am worried about the French colonial houses because some are damaged and soon more will be damaged," he said. "If the authorities do nothing, we will have a problem."

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