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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Scandinavian architecture giant designs a future in Cambodia

Scandinavian architecture giant designs a future in Cambodia

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The Room Design’s Bernard Wouters (left) and Tengbom’s Runniva Viking (right)? with other menbers The Room Design’s staff?. Photograph: Rupert Winchester/Phnom Penh Post

The Room Design’s Bernard Wouters (left) and Tengbom’s Runniva Viking (right)? with other menbers The Room Design’s staff?. Photograph: Rupert Winchester/Phnom Penh Post

One of Scandinavia’s leading architecture firms has signed a deal with a Phnom Penh-based architectural practice to strengthen its presence in the country.

Sweden’s Tengbom, which is one of the biggest and most successful architecture and urban planning companies in the world, has identified Cambodia as an ideal place to plant its flag and expand into the country and into the region.

It has signed a cooperation deal with Phnom Penh’s Room Design Studio, which is is owned and run by a team of Swedish architects, and  has been active since 2008, employing  some 15 people in architecture and interior design.

Head of The Room Design, Bernard Wouters, says he is excited about the tie-up. “Right now, as a small company, as we are, its not so easy to give confidence to the clients; often a project can require a significant financial input and clients want to make sure that we can live through it, like bigger companies.”

Wouters went on: “Because Tengbom is a very, very large company, with more than 500 people, - I think it’s number 28 in the world - that inspires a lot of confidence. Bigger agencies have the ability to attract bigger clients because they know you’re going to be around for a while, and you have a bigger reputation, and there is less risk. That gives us more confidence from the clients, and that’s a good thing for us.”

Tengbom has been active in Asia for several years, but wants to increase its presence here. Last year the company received one of the world’s most prestigious architectural prices – the MIPIM Future Projects Award – for its urban planning project for the sustainable city of Wuxi, outside Shanghai, China.

Wouters said there are several reasons for Tengbom choosing Cambodia to establish itself. “Firstly, they obviously want to expand into the Asian market, and have a foot directly inside the market.”

He dismissed the idea that Tengbom was attracted by the low costs of doing business in the kingdom. “Its not just that we can provide access to lower cost labour, but we can provide exposure for Tengbom’s architects to come here and have exposure to a new culture, which is an added value and a training point, both for Swedes coming here, and hopefully for Cambodians going to Sweden, establishing a broader link between Swedish architecture and Cambodian architecture.”

Sunniva Viking from Tengbom is currently in Phnom Penh making sure the integration goes smoothly. “Tengbom has over a hundred years of history. It was founded by Ivar Tengbom, the famous Swedish architect, and his great grandson still works for the company. We’ve expanded immensely over the last two or three years. The market in Sweden and Scandinavia is very strong at the moment, but we’re very interested in Asia.”  

Wouters says there is a clear need for quality architecture in Cambodia: “Like anywhere else in any developing market, there is always going to be pressure on the cities, because of urbanization, and projections show very clearly that there will be a strong need in the construction sector. Similarly, we are also seeing that people are changing their lifestyle, people are becoming more and more modern, and they have different concepts about what success is, and what they want to have. This kind of lifestyle change creates a strong need for quality architecture, which we can provide. Therefore we think the future will be very good.”

Wouters says that Tengbom’s vast experience and history will sit well in the kingdom, without sacrificing Khmer style. “There are certain levels of expertise which we can provide from Sweden, which can bring extra added value to Cambodia. Cambodia needs Swedish architecture.”

He continues: “It’s not about the aesthetics, it’s more about the functionality. Swedish architecture has always been very strongly based in functionality, so aesthetically things don’t need to change very much, and we can work with the aesthetic values that are wanted here in Cambodia, with the culture and expectations, but on a functional level. That’s where our expertise will come in.”

Taking an environmentally-sensitive approach is part of what Scandinavian architecture offers. “Part of this comes from its very strong green approach, it’s very heavily worked though with green thinking, but also because it provides a new example of a new urban environment – it’s all about scale, and about providing enough green areas, and things like that.”  

Wouters is cautious when pressed on his thoughts of the current pace and style of development in Phnom Penh. “There is a lot of transformation happening right now, and we know for sure that development, if everyone does the same, it will not be sustainable and there will come a point somewhere where new ideas and new ways of going ahead will be needed to get the balance back.”

“There is a tendency to have developments that have a lot of high buildings set in a green park-type environment - we see a lot of these in China – but that kind of development isn’t the only way forward.”

Wouters said these satellite-city type developments don’t always work in isolation. “The problem with that is that you’re not adding to the urban fabric, you’re not adding any value to the city because a city is a kind of organic creature, and you can’t just cut off pieces of it, so to speak.”

Wouters says it can be a challenge to work in Cambodia: “It requires a lot of skills and knowledge about how the local market works, there are a few little twists and nuances that you have to learn to work with here. And there are a few limitations on what you can do. Or not really limitations, but how you can best utilize the capacities that there are here, and those capacities might not be the most hi-tech capacities, but that doesn’t matter, you can still work with these kind of materials, with these technologies and solutions.”

Having been in Cambodia since 1998, Wouters believes that new thinking is necessary. “What I’ve found myself after all these years working in Cambodia is that we’ve become so focused on how to do things here so it doesn’t give much room for fresh thinking. That’s what I’m hoping that Tengbom and The Room can bring together, to offer to Cambodia.”

Tengbom’s Viking says that the company is going to focus on Cambodia in the near future. “We need a period of consolidation, and this project, with The Room, is our great focus at the moment which is very interesting and everybody is very excited about it. It’s a fantastic country, with fantastic people, and so far everything has met my expectations times 100. I feel really optimistic about it.”

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