News / Asia

Cambodian Capital's Colonial Architecture Disappears

The Hotel le Royal, one of the best examples of renovated French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh, May 2010
The Hotel le Royal, one of the best examples of renovated French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh, May 2010
TEXT SIZE - +
Robert Carmichael

Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, is in the midst of an architectual transformation.  Most of the buildings in the relatively young city are only two or three stories tall. But now much of the city's century-old French colonial architecture is being demolished, to make way for modern high-rises.

The change is being driven Cambodia's dramatic economic growth over the past decade, creating jobs and new infrastructure to one of Asia's poorest countries.  A robust economy also means that the capital's old French colonial architecture is being rapidly replaced with modern residential and office high-rises, altering the city's skyline.

Some architects and historians here say as many as 40 percent of the colonial buildings that survived decades of war and the brutal Khmer Rouge government have been demolished in the past 20 years.

The remains of Phnom Penh's oldest training school, built in 1908 and demolished this year
The remains of Phnom Penh's oldest training school, built in 1908 and demolished this year

Michel Verrot, a French architect and a longtime Cambodian resident, heads the Heritage Mission, a French-funded project trying to preserve what remains of the architecture from 150-year-old French colonial period. Verrot explains that during France's rule, Phnom Penh was designed as a city of gardens, avenues and pleasing views -- now lost in the rush to modernity.

"What is happening is that all the views are becoming very, very disturbed, with things very, very different without any idea, without any global idea of the town development," said Verrot. "This is really today the most important problem. The second one is that everything is done without any general plan. We do the things one after one," Verrot said.

The Heritage Mission has mapped the architectural history of Phnom Penh, and has helped restore several buildings, including the iconic Central Market, which is a favorite with tourists.

And owners have restored a few commercial buildings, like the Hotel le Royal.

Verrot thinks the government has little interest in preserving old buildings. He says that is in part because the gem of Cambodian architecture - the temple complex of Angkor Wat - so dominates discourse that it leaves little space for other types of architecture.

But Cambodia's colonial architectural heritage is also part of the country's history, even if recalling that past can prove uncomfortable.

Cambodia's top culture ministry official Samraing Kimsan says his office's ability to preserve the city's architectual history is limited.  The task is made more complicated, he adds, by the attitude of many Cambodians.

"They do not understand or do not love the traditional and old style of building," said Samraing Kimsan. "They do not understand."

Samraing Kimsan says the ministry struggles to educate people to value old buildings despite a lack of money in the budget to preserve historical structures. He adds, the French government has funded some preservation efforts, but that money may not last.

"Everywhere in Cambodia the provincial departments are all French colonialist buildings. So many old buildings are French buildings - [they] need to be restored. France has not much money," Samraing Kimsan said.  "But the government needs to get money. But we are now on the way of development."

Samraing Kimsan himself seems less than enthusiastic about colonial buildings, describing them as windy, in need of air-conditioning, and expensive to restore. His preference is to develop a modern, Khmer-style architecture that marries the old with the new.

However, tourism is a key industry here in Cambodia, and the government is encouraging tourists to stay longer than the usual three days at Angkor Wat, in the town of Siem Reap. Verrot says preserving old buildings in Phnom Penh would fit with that aim. He and other preservation advocates also note that renovating old buildings has other benefits.

They say it is much cheaper to renovate than to rebuild. Renovation uses local materials, while new buildings require expensive imported steel and glass.

But the government does not see Phnom Penh as a heritage town, as it does Siem Reap. And critics say that means the focus for the capital is on modernity: glass and marble high-rise towers, as in other Southeast Asian cities, such as Bangkok.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid