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Is Phnom Penh Losing its Luster under Rapid Urbanization?

February 18, 2015

By Silas Everett

There were around 32,000 people living in Phnom Penh when the Pol Pot regime was expelled from the city in 1978. Today, there are over 2 million people crammed into Cambodia’s capital, growing by an estimated 50,000 people each year. Its rapid growth comes with increasing pressure on the city for jobs, housing, services, and transportation. As the informal sector in the city swells to accommodate more and more jobless people, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how economic development alone will take care of the basic needs of residents such as housing, education, and environmental and health infrastructure and services.

Phnom Penh sunset

Phnom Penh has played the role of economic, political, and social center of Cambodia for almost 150 years. Now, rapid urbanization threatens the city’s architectural heritage. Photo/Flickr user Jonas Hansel

Cities in developing Asia are known to suffer from extreme divisions. In many places, the poor live in informal settlements and slums while the rich live in gated communities and well-serviced condominiums. With urbanization comes the all-too-familiar problems of flooding, gridlocked traffic, trash removal, lack of access to sanitation, insecure land tenure, overcrowding, and air pollution. While the rampant destruction of heritages sites is equally commonplace, it is often overlooked or written off as “collateral damage” of development.

Cambodia in many ways is an outlier. Angkor Wat, a living symbol for the Khmer nation at its height of command almost 1,000 years ago, holds a place on foreigners’ bucket lists, attracting over 2 million visitors last year alone. The quality of Angkor Wat’s preservation is attributed to the Royal Government of Cambodia’s decision in 1993 to combat looting, clear landmines, and turn the site into a world-class tourist destination. Yet even with the influx of foreigners, Siem Reap province, home to Angkor Wat, remains one of the poorest in Cambodia.

Cambodia struggles with its past as much as it does with its current development. Visitors flock to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, while few appreciate the equally stunning sunrise over the less famous Olympic Stadium at the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh. The complex was sold to a developer in 2001, and today, new high-rise construction projects loom over the stadium, a heaving cornice of concrete. The number of new condominiums alone is expected to increase five times in the next five years. Inspired by Angkor Wat, the Olympic Stadium is a rare piece of Cambodia’s modern architectural heritage. For the thousands of city residents who come to the stadium for their daily morning exercise it provides one of the last open spaces in the city.

Olympic Stadium

Inspired by Angkor Wat, the Olympic Stadium is a rare piece of Cambodia’s modern architectural heritage. For the thousands of city residents who come to the stadium for their daily morning exercise it provides one of the last open spaces in the city.

Phnom Penh has played the role of economic, political, and social center of Cambodia for almost 150 years. The city’s primacy was fostered by the French colonial administration starting in the 1860s. Originally a small riverside market center where the Mekong, Tonle Sap, and Tonle Bassac Rivers converge, by the 1920s Phnom Penh was described as the “Pearl of Asia.” The French colonial administration constructed the Royal Palace, museum, and other works promoting Cambodian culture. Extensive research and archeological projects revived the greatness of the Angkorian era, which the colonial administration offered as a national model to the Cambodian people. Following its independence from France in 1953 to the outbreak of civil war in 1970, under the direction of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia experienced a renaissance of architecture and the arts. In the 1960s, Cambodia was the only country in Southeast Asia to have modern, functional architecture, owed in large part to the genius of Vann Molyvann, by far Cambodia’s most prodigious architect and credited with being the father of the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. During this era, Vann Molyvann, leaving the French colonial edifices intact, designed iconic landmarks such as Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Council of Ministers, the State Palace (now the Cambodian Senate), and of course the Olympic Stadium. Through meticulous city planning, Vann wove environmental considerations into the urban fabric of Phnom Penh, making him stand out among modernists of his time.

From French colonization to Khmer independence, and from Maoist revolution to capitalist revival, Phnom Penh has always appeared to be a canvas on which its rulers have sought to remake their own history through surges of destruction and construction. The Vietnamese-backed government quickly made monuments out of the killing fields and S-21 interrogation center, a stark reminder to Cambodians and the international community of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot. Yet today, the embrace of the French colonial era and Sihanouk’s modernism appears to be less decisive. With foreign funding, the city has carried out rehabilitation projects including the Central Market (Phsar Tmei), and with private funding, rehabilitated several historic buildings in the old city center, including the Khan Daun Penh, for use as hotels, retail stores, and restaurants. The fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall, managed by the Ministry of Culture, still stands proudly near the Royal Palace. These are treasures of the city, and vivid reminders of Cambodia’s deep architectural heritage.

However, laissez faire city planning might be the greatest threat to the architectural heritage of Phnom Penh. After surviving American bombing, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese invasion, Vann Molyvann’s National Theatre and the Council of Ministers building were torn down in 2008. As no comprehensive record of these works exist, they have become ghosts of what has been called Cambodia’s “Golden Age.”

The sweet spot for architectural conservation is small and elusive. Finding a balance between individual political and economic interests and collective cultural and social interests is not easy. With an entire generation of intelligentsia wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, reviving collective cultural interests even among the rising middle class will undoubtedly take time and investment.

Fortunately, innovative inroads are being made. The soon-to-be-released film, The Man Who Built Cambodia, which received research and archival assistance from the Vann Molyvann Project and financial support from The Asia Foundation, will help tell the story of architectural icon Vann Molyvann. A crowdfunding campaign for the film offers those who donate $9 the opportunity to get a high-quality digital download of the film before anyone else gets it. It’s a perfect primer before you take a cyclo ride through central Phnom Penh on an excursion guided by Khmer Architecture Tours led by Cambodian architects and students of architecture. But more is needed obviously.

The Man Who Built Cambodia – Trailer from Haig Balian on Vimeo.

Reaping the full value of Phnom Penh’s heritage requires vision and investment. In the heart of the old city sits Post Office Square, lined by Chinese-style shop houses, restaurants, and a hotel forming an open plaza. From there, you can duck into Van’s Restaurant, converted from the old Indochina Bank building, or enjoy a lunch in the shade of its courtyard. One barely has to squint across the plaza to visualize a pedestrian walk or outdoor shopping street. The possibilities are tantalizingly close and yet, for the time being, AEON Mall, Cambodia’s first mega mall, seems to be capturing the popular imagination.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Good Governance, Inclusive Economic Growth
Related topics: Urban Services, Urbanization

1 Comment

  1. Awesome feature article, Silas! Now, I am even more excited to make my first trip to Cambodia and see the architecture in person.


    Anne Marie

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