"Everywhere there are only graceful pagodas and houses surrounded with beautiful
gardens in a perfect harmony of the Khmer tradition and modern Western style."
So wrote the editor of the French-Asia magazine in 1966 during then-Prince Sihanouk's
Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, which saw Phnom Penh, the "Pearl of the Orient",
mature as a capital city.
But as Cambodia emerges from its long-running civil war, that harmony is changing
quickly. Brick by brick, the city is being rebuilt by the development dollar.
"You turn your back and there's another building being knocked down. There's
no rules, no plan as to how the city will develop in the future," said Declan
O'Leary, an urban Planning Instructor at the University of Fine Arts.
A taste for things new and what they represent - progress - have captured the imagination
of his students, said O'Leary, but added that an awareness of conservation is emerging.
"I think new buildings are more beautiful but I would still like to keep some
of the older buildings to remind us of how comfortably people lived in the past,"
commented one student.
Municipal officials agree that it is difficult to maintain a balance between the
city's architectural heritage and the needs of its residents, particularly with a
population expected to reach 2 million in the near future.
A recently completed two-year project, conducted by French experts in cooperation
with municipal authorities, has produced an inventory of "around 300 buildings"
of historical value, said Vice-Governor Kry Beng Hong, who is responsible for construction
in Phnom Penh.
"We have to protect these (old buildings), they can not be modified or destroyed,"
said Hong, but acknowledged that some sites earmarked for conservation had already
hit the dust during the Pol Pot era or had collapsed under the weight of long neglect.
In addition, much of the city's dilapidated heritage has fallen into private hands,
frustrating the municipality's desire to "save history", according to Hong.
A planned sub-degree to protect the sites will be difficult to administer, admitted
"The law is the law but we have to recognize reality," said Hong. Many
of the city's crumbling structures have become dangerously decrepit, requiring either
immediate demolition or renovation, which may not fit with their historical value.
"Some families live in very damaged apartments. If we tell them to keep the
old architecture, they need money to repair it.
"So who will be responsible if they collapse?" asked Hong, adding that
he has already been forced to order the destruction of some buildings.