Anne Lemaistre, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, said that while the proposals were still “just ideas”, she was optimistic that the UN heritage body would be able to promote a Phnom Penh landscape that doesn’t sacrifice the city’s architectural character.
“UNESCO has been working very hard for a very long time to preserve two kinds of heritage: obviously the Angkorian heritage... but also the 20th-century heritage, both the colonial architecture and the New Khmer architecture,” she said.
Plans discussed, said Lemaistre, included creating a protected architectural zone around Wat Phnom and the former colonial post office, implementing an “urban master plan” that includes a list of specific protected structures and promoting the idea of a historic urban landscape – one that would prohibit huge developments in certain areas.
“You can insert into a historic urban fabric [pieces of] contemporary architecture, as long as this cultural identity of the city is preserved,” she said, calling for a national decree protecting 20th-century buildings.
Hotelier Alexis de Suremain, who operates the Plantation hotel in a colonial building, said that such a decree – which would take business out of the equation – is the only way to protect historic structures.
“In a city where you have a strong protection on old buildings, the value of the asset [the piece of land] is the value of the building,” said Suremain, who leases the building that houses his hotel.
“In a city where you don’t have a strong protection, the value of the building is not the value of the building; it’s the value of what you could potentially build [on the land it occupies].”
That makes developing the land tempting, he added, noting that if he owned his building, “a bank would come and offer me $20 million to build an office tower”.
“What would I do?” he asked. “What would you do?”