In remembrance of the old colonial row houses

In remembrance of the old colonial row houses

As Phnom Penh develops and rebuilds itself, much of its colonial architecture is being replaced, but if you look closely, a few remaining traces can be found

Photo by: Jet Odrerir
Street 108 (above) and resident Chang Lean (right) as they appear today.

I like the french stlye; There are not any other houses like it in phnom penh.

The street is shown in 1990. Chang Lean is on the far left. PHOTO SUPPLIED

ONE can imagine what the ad might have said 80 years ago: "For Sale: Charming two-story row house with European styling. Great views of Wat Phnom and a short walk to the soon-to-be-built train station! Avenue de la Gare and Street 51."

The style of accommodation called row housing originated in Europe in the 1600s. European colonialists introduced the style to Southeast Asia in the early 1800s as they rebuilt cities based on European styling, both in street and building design.

Row houses were originally designed to work together to appear as one grand structure. Often the windows and doors would be spaced to give the appearance of a columned building. Whereas apartments are defined as a collection of rooms inside a building, the row house was designed to be one distinct unit - ground floor to roof, facing the street.

The units share the wall that separates them, but each has its own separate infrastructure, allowing it to stand independently without requiring the support of the surrounding houses.

In Europe the main floor of a row house was typically used as the parlour, the dining room and, in the back, the kitchen.

When the row house was introduced to Asia, many owners chose to take advantage of the ground floor and turned them into noodle stalls, tailor shops and other small businesses. Thus, they are often called shop houses in this region.

In Phnom Penh, shop houses abound, but there are not many French colonial row houses left. Yet there is a beautiful collection of six row houses at 73-78 Street 108, built in 1931 in the Neo-Romanesque style.

The retail businesses on the ground floors have covered most of the street-level architecture with awnings and light boxes - though the round, arched doorways do peek out on two of them. The columns that were previously on the ground level matching the upper floor were all removed in the late 1990s to open up the doorways.

On the first floor of each two-level house there are two windows and a door - likewise all arched - leading out to a small balcony. The 18 arches run together from one end to the other looking somewhat like upside-down waves.

The top of the building has a railing bordering the pitched roofs, which are covered with terracotta, fish-scale tile. Two decorated facades above the second and fifth units display the building date as well as a lot of scrollwork. Each facade also contains three monograms.

Some of the decorative pieces on the roof have been moved from one side to the other over the years, though no one knows by whom. All of the row houses would have originally been the same colour to give the effect of being one building, but now they are each painted differently, suiting their owners' tastes.

An interesting feature of these houses is that the bathrooms and kitchens are in separate structures in the back of the lot about eight meters from the front section and are connected to the front rooms by footbridges that overlook a large courtyard.

Current resident Chang Leah recalls moving from Kandal province to Phnom Penh in 1961 after getting married. He and his wife lived nearby then on Street 136, and he can still remember how the row houses looked then.

The whole space under the footbridges was paved with cobblestones, some of which still remain.

"This was a place for people to relax in the evening. There were tables and chairs here and here," he says pointing. "Now there are more buildings here, but before it was open."

People have been adding small homes to the courtyard and even some of the footbridges since the 1980s. Chang Leah's own home is built in the courtyard.

The sturdy 70-year-old says that in the 1960s most of the ground-floor units were occupied by companies, but they were mainly offices, not retail.

Two of the units were used for storage for a shop named Paris's near Phsar Kandal - he remembers that because he was a delivery driver back then, and occasionally he picked up items there.

Chang Leah shows me a picture from 1990 when he moved in, still with dark hair, standing in front of a then-unchanged row house No 75. It lasted 60 years with no major changes to the exterior.

Srey Thida lives on the first floor of No 76. She tells of her father-in-law, Ey Chorn, who was the first to move back into the buildings following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, as Phnom Penh was slowly coming back to life. "He came with many members of his extended family and, like everyone else at that time, just moved in and made it their house."

With no paperwork remaining, people acquired their new property by living in it.

She says that most of the units were split into separate levels in the 1980s, and that now there is only one full row house.

Ey Chorn started a new family and has now passed his units down to his children. Srey Thida has been living in No 76 since 2000 and would like to bring it back to its original condition.

"I like the French style; the outside is so beautiful," she says, somewhat wistfully. "There aren't any other houses like it in Phnom Penh."


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