On a quiet back street south of the Russian Market, in Psar Doeum Thkov, sits a silent, gray, unassuming building, with battered gates and high, forbidding walls. An old warehouse, perhaps, or some sort of closed-down industrial premises. But, once you pass through the gates, past the peeling paint and knee-high weeds, you come across one of the most unusual houses currently available in Phnom Penh.
The project was begun a decade ago by Australian photographer Darren Campbell, who originally arrived in Phnom Penh in 1994 and started working as a commercial photographer. As he tells it, “due to the city’s then characteristic dearth of infrastructure, I was building things on a near day-to-day basis: lighting stands, boom arms, film drying cabinets, whatever was needed and unavailable.”
But Campbell had bigger building projects in mind, and in 2003 he bought a 16 by 40 metre plot of land, unfashionably far south of the city proper. “Ten years ago people asked me how I could consider living so far away. It was empty plots and wooden shacks and a dirt track choked with weeds. I could stand in what was to become my living room and watch the sun rise and set over my fence lines,” he said.
First, he built a studio, which he describes as ‘”the engine-room behind the entire project.” At 11 metres by 9 metres and nearly 5 metres high, it has “served mainly as a very comfortable photography and video studio where many of Phnom Penh’s high-end commercial images have been created. According to need, it has also functioned as a carpentry workshop, metalwork site, painting studio, storage warehouse, spare room for multiple guests and a lock-up car park.”
Gradually, working with local contractors, the house itself started to take shape. Campbell lived on-site through the duration of the build, sleeping in corners away from the construction itself.
Campbell says he has always described the house as “selfish” as it caters “exclusively to an independent lifestyle in which creative projects and relaxation take priority. It is also selfish in that the comfort and luxury are entirely internal.”
The open-plan, split-level design places the single elevated bedroom and a modern kitchen on either side of a vast central living area, all of which wraps around a generous plunge pool and landscaped garden.
It is an unapologetic house, designed precisely to Campbell’s specifications. It’s cool and shady, with trees and birds surrounding the pool; the peace and quiet is interrupted only by birdsong. All the furniture was made to Campbell’s precise instructions, from Indonesian teak.
So why is it now on the market? “It’s a fair question,” Campbell tells me. “I made this house for myself, to suit myself, and to spoil myself. And it is true that every day some aspect of this house still catches me and gives me pause for warm appreciation.” He looks out across the living space, and runs his hand across the smooth top of a bookcase.
About two years ago, “I stopped and looked around and said, ‘Yes. This is how it looked from the beginning. This is it.’ And the project was done. I feel extremely lucky to live here but it turns out that I am now an older man still with the energy of a slightly younger man.” Which means? “I am ready to build one more.”
Campbell is reluctant to give too much away about his thinking for the next building project, but if this one is anything to go by, it’ll be stunning. As he puts it: “in our home countries the weight of orthodoxy keeps us from embarking on such grand dreams; over here, where everything is absurd, everything is less absurd.”
The house is on the market for $570,000. Contact [email protected], or call 098 616108 (English/Khmer).