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Buildings in Cambodia slowly losing Khmer design elements

Pheung Sophorn (c) and Van Chanthorn (far left) pose for an upcoming architecture event.
Pheung Sophorn (c) and Van Chanthorn (far left) pose for an upcoming architecture event. Moeun Nhean

Buildings in Cambodia slowly losing Khmer design elements

Construction sites, new buildings, high-rise apartments – all these are not uncommon to the eyes in Phnom Penh. What remains common, however, is the absence of traditional Khmer designs on these rising giants.

Pheung Sophorn, state secretary of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction (MLMUPC), said last week that Cambodia is a country that gives much liberty to investments in the construction industry, where investors can materialise their architectural vision however they want to.

“As the ministry’s policy states, we want the architecture of new buildings to showcase Cambodian identity as much as possible,” Sophorn said. As the present process goes, when an investor applies for a building license, the ministry would urge them to include some element of traditional Cambodian design in their architecture. However, “If they choose not to take those suggestions, it’s not going to become a problem,” he added, because the MLMUPC has no stipulated law which enforces builders to include traditional Khmer design elements.

Sophorn, a former architect, counts several notable projects under his belt, including having a hand in designing the current Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation building.

Thai Norak Satya, spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told Post Property that while construction laws are not under the authority of the ministry, it still is the authoritative body overseeing all construction projects under the counsel.

He noted that public and private developments were rising by the dozens, not only in Phnom Penh, but also in many other provinces.

“Public buildings should always showcase more Cambodian identity, even if they are equipped with modern construction materials[elevators, air conditioners, and other equipments],” Norak Satya said. As for private investment projects, they have freer rein on the design, meaning they can usually bypass the suggestion to incorporate Khmer elements.

Examples he provided included the recently inaugurated provincial hall in Tbong Khmum province, and governmental offices in Siem Reap, which were all strictly designed with traditional Khmer aesthetics.

According to Van Chanthorn, vice president of the Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association (CVEA), people from Asia and the Asia-Pacific prefer living in modern dwellings.

“For customers from Asia and Pacific countries, almost 99 percent of them prefer living in modern homes with modern designs,” he said.

“Contrary to this, 99 percent of those from western countries aged 40 and above usually like traditional or classical styles, especially wooden Cambodian homes or houses in the style of French colonial era,” said Chanthorn. “The customers from the west probably want to experience what living as a Cambodian is like, that’s why they prefer traditional Khmer homes.”

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