Jean-Michel Filippi’s passion for Cambodia’s architectural golden age is tempered only by his restrained frustration at its rapid erasure.
Author of the new book Strolling Around Phnom Penh, a walking tour of 150 years of local history, Filippi sees a lot to lament in the city’s changing urban character.
In the 1960s, newly independent Cambodia led the region in the pursuit of an audacious vision for its capital. Abdicating from the throne to lead the country’s post-colonial government, Norodom Sihanouk commissioned a number of bold works from French-trained Cambodian architects.
The great edifices of that time were aimed at propelling Phnom Penh firmly into modernity after nearly a century of colonial presence: the National Theatre, sprawling education campuses and low-income apartments by the banks of the Bassac River.
Each was a masterpiece of architectural innovation, relying on a balance of natural ventilation, climactically suited construction materials and aesthetic grandeur.
“In the ’60s, all those architects were remarkable because it was the only modern architecture that was both functional and beautiful in all of Southeast Asia,” Filippi says.
Drawing inspiration from the brutalist trends in Europe, the most striking feature of development at this time was the fetishised use of concrete in almost every major building project.
At one time, the renowned architect Vann Molyvann was accosted by a student, expressing amazement that the recently constructed concrete bridges to Koh Pich were left unpainted. Vann’s imperious reply was that an architect should not be ashamed of the material they use.
“Concrete was an ideology of the ’60s everywhere in the Western world. Concrete was no more something ugly. All of a sudden concrete was not only seen to be beautiful but also a symbol of modernity. It meant that you had no need to paint it – in fact it became absurd to paint concrete,” Filippi says.
Evidence of this ambitious vision’s decay is nowhere more apparent than in the infamous White Building on Sothearos Boulevard, originally constructed to provide low-cost housing for civil servants and now a rundown haven of poverty and vice.
One of a dwindling number of buildings left over from the period, it is widely assumed to be slated for the same process of eviction and demolition as some of its former neighbours. Even without such an intervention, decades of neglect could see the building collapse on its own at some time within the next decade.
Filippi’s greatest sorrow is the lack of appreciation for the legacy of the pre-war era, particularly the unwillingness to temper development with an appropriate use of space. In his book, Filippi cites the construction of Naga Casino next to the Buddhist Institute as the development boom’s most obscene consequence.
“I believe in the aesthetic. I’m the kind of person who believes that in order to create a regime, a new life, a new vision of politics, you need to act on town planning and architecture. This is absolutely fundamental,” he explains.
Contrary to expectation, Filippi does not blame the anti-urban policies of the Khmer Rouge, but the upheaval caused by the arrival of the United Nations in Phnom Penh after the Paris Peace Accords.
“You can very well use the metaphor of national theatre. It wasn’t killed by the Khmer Rouge period. Obviously, the Khmer Rouge didn’t help that, but it still existed. What happened in 1992 was very simple: all of a sudden, they gave up. I have the impression that at the time, when you had that fantastic rain of US dollars on the country, people began to equate being Khmer with poverty, and what was coming from outside was prosperous.”
The story of development in the last 20 years has been the utter rejection of the city’s past innovation, in favour of modern developments indistinguishable from the other metropolises of the world. While the trained eye can still follow the city’s history from 1865 to the present, the opportunity diminishes with each new monolithic, glass-plated addition to the skyline.
When considering the prospects of a belated appreciation for Phnom Penh’s unique style, Filippi is less than sanguine.
“If we consider the notion of patrimony, this doesn’t exist in Cambodia,” he rues. “Not yet. There is a kind of complex in Cambodia about being too far behind, what they want is of course to look like the others. At the same time they will tell you here that old is not beautiful. To preserve what is old in some sense is seen as a kind of mistake, so to be modern is to build a tower – nothing looks more modern than that – at any price.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]