Irish author Darran Anderson began writing Imaginary Cities, a work of creative nonfiction, while living in Phnom Penh. The book has been selected by The Guardian and the Financial Times as one of the best books of 2015. Audrey Wilson spoke with him this week about the the power of architecture and his time in the city
Question: You’ve attributed some of your initial inspiration to a conversation you had in Phnom Penh. Where were you, and what provoked you to consider the idea that cities aren’t “fixed” places?
Answer: I was on the roof of the Foreign Correspondents Club talking to a Finnish architect. It was rainy season and as we spoke these huge thunderclouds were rolling towards the city, and it just seemed surreal to me.
It struck me that if I tried to write about the place and the history that surrounded us, it would seem barely believable.
Phnom Penh has had so many incarnations. It was an ancient royal capital before falling into obscure “dark ages”, a French colonial city, then the cosmopolitan “Pearl of Asia”, a ghost town under the Khmer Rouge, followed by the transitioning city of today.
It opens your eyes to the fact that cities are ever-changing and that they are, for good and ill, largely dreamt up in people’s imaginations.
I started to follow that thread and realised it applied to virtually every city. It opens up all sorts of questions. Why do we let our cities be dictated to us by the powerful? When did the citizen become dislocated from the city?
How did you go from that initial seed of thought to the 600-page work that you published?
I began writing it in Phnom Penh, on the balcony of our house on street 300, under colossal downpours, watching lightning hit cranes in the near distance. I also wrote quite a bit in The Terrace on Street 95, and when I left, different chapters in Paris, Vienna, Edinburgh and my hometown Derry.
It started as an article for 3:AM Magazine, but it soon spiralled out of control. The first draft ended up being 1,700 pages long. You could carry it in a suitcase.
You’ve mentioned power residing in a city’s “tallest towers”. In Phnom Penh’s case, some of those towers are empty. Where do think power resides here?
Power, and its relative absence, are written into the very fabric of the streets. I think it’s more obvious in Phnom Penh as the disparity in wealth isn’t quite as hidden as in other places.
Just walk down any street and notice the amount of gated housing and Lexus drivers right next to people sifting through garbage for a living.
A very symbolic example is to stand on what was once Boeung Kak lake and take a look towards the government buildings – (the Peace Palace on Russian Boulevard, for example – and the bank towers on the skyline.
Hun Sen has been a very canny operator, but he’s walking a pretty unsteady tightrope between Western corporate capital and the Chinese state. These things are much more amorphous – hence the empty buildings.
And beyond those power dynamics, what do you see as some of the most interesting places here?
It’s a miracle any of it survived, but there are some remarkable examples – and last bastions –of modernism that should be much more recognised in international architecture circles.
I love Central Market; I used to wander around it, watching tiny little birds darting around above the heads of shoppers. I loved the graffiti that Seth did around the city, and seeing the art of Sera and others in exhibitions.
I can’t deny that the Vattanac Capital Tower and the Canadia Tower are impressive at night as much as they are vacuous by day. I’m cautious of the voyeurism associated with the White Building, but I’d love to see it renovated for its inhabitants.
There are lots of crumbling French Colonial buildings that would be a crime to lose. Mainly, I’m excited and curious to see what directions Khmer architecture will explore in the future.
That tradition offers something that the glittering skyscrapers pale next to.
How do you think history shapes a place, and how much of that can be changed – or physically destroyed?
It matters hugely but it’s not inescapable, not for the living at least. We tend to think in symbols. It is notable that most of the country’s political forces have appropriated the silhouette of Angkor Wat on their flags and insignia.
All of them want to claim a lineage to this lost civilisation. Yet none of them, or any of us, entirely know what Angkor Wat was actually like. Was it a place of wonders or horrors or both? So much is projected and so much is manipulated in terms of history.
I count Angkor as easily one of the wonders of the world. Bayon is the only place aside from Venice that left me speechless when I first went there.
Yet the contemporary cities of Cambodia are infinitely more important than the glorious ruins of the past.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q&A/ with darran Anderson, author