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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - What's age got to do with it?

What's age got to do with it?

Officials claim Phnom Penh’s iconic Hotel Renakse is over 100 and hence a threat to public safety. Critics question how old it really is, and say it should be saved regardless

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

Darryl Collins’ former home has been reborn as The Chinese House, showing the restoration potential in Phnom Penh’s “architectural masterpieces”.

When officials and police entered the compound of the Hotel Renakse early last month to evict its manager, staff and guests, they came brandishing a Phnom Penh Municipal Court order that had some observers scratching their heads. The order cited two reasons for the hotel to be cleared out: that it had fallen into severe disrepair and that it was more than 100 years old.

In recent interviews with the Post, a handful of architecture historians and urban planners have called into question the reasoning behind the order, challenging whether the Hotel Renakse is in fact 100 years old and, more importantly, whether that should matter given that age is only one determinant of a building's safety.

Not only is the Renakse not older than 100, they say, but it would be difficult to determine which, if any, French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh fall under that category. As a result, the age put forth in the order was essentially meaningless.

How old is it anyway?

The age of the Hotel Renakse has been a point of contention ever since the eviction order became public. Kem Chantha, the ousted former manager, told the Post this week that a 20-year lease she signed on the hotel in 1992 indicated that it was built in 1934. She also said a Phnom Penh guidebook published in 1920 features a picture of the Royal Palace that includes the plot of land on which the Renakse now sits. In the picture, she said, the plot is home to nothing but a garden and some trees.

This dovetails with documents uncovered by Unesco. Philippe Delanghe, a program specialist in culture at the organisation's Phnom Penh office, said archival materials indicate that construction began on the hotel in 1926.

"This is information that we got through French archives, which were given to us by French experts," he said. However, he clarified that because it was "secondhand" information, it was not possible to say with absolute certainty that 1926 was the correct date.

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

The Hotel Renakse is now barred to visitors, wrapped in netting and slated for demolition.

Darryl Collins, an art historian and co-author with Helen Grant Ross of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, wrote in an email that part of the difficulty in pinning down the exact date the hotel was built lies in the fact that it might have been built in stages, with parts of the foundation being built "just over 100 years" ago and the current facade being built during a renovation in the 1920s or 1930s.

But Teruo Jinnai, head of Unesco Cambodia, said that even if the foundation was in place 100 years ago, the hotel "wasn't in its current structure or current form". 

When asked which other buildings in Phnom Penh are more than 100 years old, those familiar with local architecture said only a small number of buildings might fall under this category.

"The local tradition was to build wooden lightweight structures, and they don't usually survive that long," Grant Ross said via email last week. 

Neither Jinnai nor Delanghe could give specific examples of buildings close to the 100-year mark.

"I am sure there must be some French archives that would give you more information on this, but I cannot say," Delanghe said.

"I don't know what material is available, but I'm sure that somewhere out there it must exist."

Age no benchmark for safety

No one interviewed for this story had ever heard of the government treating 100-year-old buildings differently from younger ones. Many also expressed doubts about the sense in using an arbitrary date when marking historic buildings for preservation or destruction, suggesting it was little more than a pretext for a takeover.

Officials in the municipal  Department of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, which was cited in the court order as having determined that the building was unsafe, could not be reached for comment this week.

Delanghe said the age cited in the order seemed somewhat meaningless. He argued that the length of time a building has been standing is just one factor influencing its structural soundness and safety.

"We have lots of buildings all over the globe which are much older than 100 years and are still in perfect condition," he said. "But we also have examples of buildings less than 100 years old that need to be demolished because the structures are becoming dangerous for people to live in or to be around. It all depends on where these buildings are standing and how they have been built."

When it comes to assessing an individual building, he said, "You need very careful analysis of the structure before you can say it must be or must not be demolished".

Walter Koditek, an urban planner based in Battambang, wrote in an email that factors to take into consideration include the construction style and materials of the building in question, how that building has been maintained and the different functions it has accommodated over time.

With this in mind, he wrote, "I think combining such a directive with the limit of 100 years (or any other age) makes no sense".

According to Collins, destruction is not the only solution for buildings that have fallen into disrepair. "There are relatively simple remedies and opportunities to reverse these conditions; to renovate and restore fine examples of secular, public and sacred architecture," he wrote by email.

However, the city seems to have little interest in preserving its past, he said.

Many historic buildings have already been destroyed in the name of development, and there are few examples of old buildings being renovated and reused.

He singled out his former residence on Sisowath Quay, which has been renovated into a lounge bar and gallery called The Chinese House, as a model to follow.

A dilapidated colonial-era building behind Phnom Penh's FCC also points to the preservation and re-use potential of many of the city's historic landmarks.

The building was bought by the FCC and is currently being used as an art venue until it can be restored to its former glory and put to an economic use, most likely as a boutique hotel.

In the absence of private enterprise, government intervention is needed to ensure more of Phnom Penh's heritage buildings survive the wrecking ball, regardless of age.

But Collins lamented the lack of interest on the part of city authorities.

"Neighbouring Asean countries have policies to redevelop and treasure early architectural masterpieces," he said.

"Shortsighted destruction will leave a city characterless and with absolutely no sense of history."



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