Well-preserved French colonial era buildings, unlike this one near the Post Office,
are hard to find.
Cambodia's capital city was once known as the Paris of the East.
The term conjures up an image of wide boulevards, small eateries, and of course beautiful
buildings. But if the guide books are to be believed, then the perception of at least
this last aspect has changed.
For example, the most recent version of the French travel guide, Le Petit Futé,
recommends that those tourists with an eye for architecture come to Phnom Penh sooner
rather than later.
Otherwise all the "colonial buildings and old Khmer houses [will be] destroyed
(even if they are classified and protected), [and] replaced by towers or horrible
buildings. [...] Hurry up if you want to visit the remains that were once the Paris
of the East."
That's hardly an advertisement to entice tourists to Phnom Penh, particularly the
masses who fly in to see Angkor Wat, but never set foot in the capital.
Other regional cities have got it right: Hanoi in Vietnam is perhaps the best-known
city for period architecture, but the colonial quarter in Luang Prabang in Laos has
also been preserved by a government aware of its tourist potential.
That, says Darryl Collins, a researcher at Architecture Research Khmer, is part of
the problem: Phnom Penh no longer has a distinctive colonial quarter, which makes
preserving a particular area more difficult.
"Phnom Penh has no area left as a unit. The Post Office is the only place where
you can find a concentration of French buildings," says Collins.
Until the early 1970s Phnom Penh was divided into quarters. The French area, known
as the European quarter, contained the government buildings, banks, and residences
The Chinese quarter took up the area around the Central Market, while the Vietnamese
quarter was by Psar Boeung Keng Kong in the south. The Khmer quarter was near the
Collins says there are many reasons, including economic and aesthetic ones, why the
city's old buildings were lost. Some were knocked down as it would have cost more
to repair them than to replace them.
"Also, old buildings were not seen as beautiful," he says, "whereas
the new ones were seen in that light."
Marie-Paule Halgand, coordinator with Asia Urbs, says the quality of renovations
is partly to blame for the lack of period buildings. Second rate materials are often
used, which can ultimately result in demolition.
"It's important that people are aware that so many interesting buildings have
been destroyed, while others have been neglected or altered," she says.
The ornate entrance to the Royal Palace police office.
Halgand points out some examples: the former military administration office in Street
118, which was demolished as recently as 2001. Another French-period building adjacent
to the Japanese Embassy on Norodom Boulevard was flattened three years earlier. All
that remains is a fenced-off lot.
On the same road nearer the Central Market stands the imposing yet decaying remains
of the former headquarters of the Cambodian Red Cross. Then there is the old military
compound on the river behind Wat Phnom. Squatters now live in the buildings, which
are now sadly neglected.
"A lot of buildings are flagged for renovation, but none of these projects has
yet started," says Halgand. "The municipality is trying to maintain the
old buildings, but has no specific program designed to improve the knowledge of those
architects who would be involved in preserving this heritage."
Another practical problem is that no one knows how many buildings have been destroyed,
says Halgand. She knows of six buildings that have been demolished, seven abandoned
and four modified in the past ten years, but admits this is clearly an underestimate.
Working out exactly what remains is therefore key to conservation efforts. The municipality's
Bureau des Affaires Urbaines de Phnom Penh (BAU) undertook a study to determine that
in October 1996.
Architecture students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh were given advice by
experts, then sent out to identify the capital's most interesting sites and buildings.
They took into account such factors as technical characteristics as well as the historical
and architectural value of the buildings they studied. The final list contained 615
sites, and is recognized by experts as vital.
"The listing made by the BAU is as important as the classification of Angkor
as a world heritage site," says renowned local architect Vann Molyvann.
That may be so, but despite its importance, the list hasn't been officially recognized
by the municipality, which has overall responsibility for the city's architectural
heritage. Halgand says the matter is still under discussion.
Deputy governor of Phnom Penh, Seng Tong, says the delay is partly due to the sheer
number of divisions involved at the municipality. Each has to have its say before
the municipality can adopt the list.
"We are also waiting for the approval of the government so that the list can
be officially adopted," he says. "Another problem concerns the land owners
who often don't realize the heritage value of what they own."
Nevertheless, says Vann Molyvann, it is "essential" that the list be adopted.
"It is another tool to conserve our heritage, and that is important as there
are no laws in Phnom Penh to protect them," he says. "These buildings are
part of Cambodian history."
The UN's cultural heritage body UNESCO also wants to see that happen. Country head
Étienne Clément speaks of the need to raise awareness of the value
of the capital's old building stock among Cambodians.
"People don't have the knowledge that is needed to preserve Phnom Penh's cultural
heritage, but we are trying to raise their awareness," says Clément.
The recently concluded Luceepp-2 program, a joint conservation initiative involving
the municipality, was designed to do just that.
The program concentrated on improving the management of old buildings, as well as
rehabilitating historically valuable parts of Phnom Penh, such as the area behind
the Royal Palace. It also involved improving the knowledge of architecture students.
In December 2001 the organization presented the results at an exhibition at Wat Phnom.
At the function, governor Chea Sophara said that UNESCO, NGOs and private companies
should work together with the municipality to help conserve what is left.
However, Halgand says that like the list of heritage sites, that topic too is "under
discussion". She adds that the municipality is aware more needs to be done,
but emphasizes some changes have already happened.
"The municipality now looks into the granting of building permits in Phnom Penh,
and ensures no inappropriate building is allowed," says Halgand. She adds that
recognizing the BAU list of historically valuable sites would help immensely with
UNESCO's Clément says he is pushing for a conference on the issue and hopes
it will take place later this month. He wants to include government officials, NGOs
and expatriates involved in related fields such as engineering.
"I hope this conference will push forward the thinking of Phnom Penh's officials
[on this matter]," he says. "At the conference we also want to launch a
movement involving civil society in developing preservation efforts."
The next urban conservation project from UNESCO, titled Luceepp-3, will run for a
year. UNESCO's culture program specialist, Teruo Jinnai, says the new program will
need to do better than the previous program at raising awareness.
"We would also like to adapt BAU's list of old buildings for the public,"
says Jinnai. "And we have also suggested a permanent exhibition at the municipality's
Unfortunately for tourists, many of the capital's remaining buildings are off-limits.
Among the few that can be visited are the UNESCO building near the Royal Palace,
and the National Library.
Ultimately, says Vann Moly-vann, for there to be meaningful conservation the country's
future architects must understand just how important the buildings are.
When that happens it will not only be tourists who benefit; more importantly Cambodians,
whose heritage these structures represent, will be enriched.
At the moment, says Moly-vann, that is not happening. However he is hopeful that
his book, which he recently finished writing in French, will help remedy that, particularly
once it is translated into Khmer and English and distributed to schools and libraries.
"Architecture students don't have any information about building regulations
or their country's history, but they do want to learn," he says. "It is
important to provide them with good teachers and to open their minds about building
practices and new technologies. After all the future is in their hands."
City markets in for major upgrade
Phnom Penh's municipality launched an architecture competition at the beginning of
May to renovate one of the city's most distinctive landmarks, the Psar Thmei, also
known as Central Market. The renovation effort will also upgrade Psar Chas (the Old
Market) nearby, and Psar Kandal.
The work at the 65-year-old Central Market aims to "rehabilitate or rebuild
a structure that could be classified as a world cultural heritage," says project
director Éric Huybrechts.
Among the improvements envisioned from the $8 million project covering the three
markets will be improved security and sanitation, more hygienic stalls, better drainage
for rain water, and some structural renovation.
The municipality has decided, not least for tourism reasons, that the Central Market
will remain open during renovation work, with the work undertaken piece by piece
to minimize disruption. It also means that only small numbers of vendors will need
to move for short periods of time.
"Many tourists visit the Central Market," says the head of the Central
Market Association Sok Kim Heng. "It is an historic site and one of Phnom Penh's
most visited buildings, which is why it's necessary to preserve it."
The municipality also promises it will consult with vendors so they can voice their
concerns. The city's partner for the three projects is Agence Francaise de Développement,
whose director, Francois Giovalucchi, maintains this constructive approach should
prevent any problems.
Six teams will present their project proposals in August. Work will start around
November 2003 and is expected to last two years.