Roeun Sokhom’s first solo watercolour exhibition, Old Buildings: French Period, is about documenting the architectural changes underway in his hometown of Battambang.
As the city has modernised in recent years, the older buildings have been disappearing at an increasing rate, replaced with modern offices, shops and apartments.
“I’ve been living in Battambang since I was very young and I love all those buildings, and I’m worried they are under threat of destruction,” Sokhom said at the Bophana Centre yesterday, while hanging his realistic paintings of pre-Khmer Rouge buildings.
One of the buildings Sokhom painted – a grand two-storey structure once used as a veterinary clinic, but at the time surrounded by a blue iron fence with graffiti scrawled upon it – was demolished just one week after Sokhom finished the painting.
“They destroy [these buildings] but when they build something new it is not the same, it’s a different style,” Sokhom said.
Exhibition curator Roger Nelson said Battambangs’s architecture was distinct from the rest of Cambodia’s because the city had been under Thai rule before Cambodia became a colony of France. In some paintings Thai and Chinese influences can be seen on the typical French colonial style.
He added it was easier to secure funding to save colonial buildings than modern Khmer architecture.
But he said there were also great examples of modern Khhmer architecture from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s worth saving, such as one of Battambang’s most famous landmarks, Phsar Nath Market, which bridges late classical colonial and new Khmer architecture styles.
“It’s got clean lines, it’s very utilitarian, it allows the air to enter and exit, sort of like an early example of green architecture,” he said.
While the old buildings had value in themselves, Nelson said, they also represented the importance of history, and many artists, like Sokhom, made work that responded to the changing environment and cities in an attempt to point to some of the larger changes they were experiencing in their lives.
He said Sokhom’s show was not about wanting to preserve everything – he did not expect history to stop or turn back time.
But he said it was interesting to show how the function and appearance of the buildings change, and they can be appreciated in different ways than was originally intended.
Sokhom said he hoped his paintings would encourage those who make new buildings to consider how they can incorporate historic architecture into their work, or even think about preserving and not demolishing the old buildings Battambang is renowned for.
While some buildings are replaced with their modern counterparts, others have been repurposed and this gives Sokhom hope for the future of other colonial architecture.
His own art studio, featured in one of the exhibition’s paintings, was once a private residence, and another private residence has become a Bank of Cambodia building.
“This was a former train station,” said Sokhom, pointing towards a watercolour painting of a ghostly railway building. “Now it’s abandoned and some people just use it as shelter, and by painting this I hope that we might have trains running again.”
An opening reception for Old Buildings: French Period is on tonight at the Bophana Centre, #64 Street 200, at 6pm.