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Cambodian Capital's Colonial Architecture Disappearing

  • Robert Carmichael
  • VOA

Cambodia's capital city Phnom Penh is relatively young and most of its buildings only two or three stories tall. But that is changing. Much of the city's century-old French colonial architecture is being demolished, to make way for modern high-rises.

Over the past decade, Cambodia has seen dramatic economic growth. While that has created jobs and brought new infrastructure to one of Asia's poorest countries, it also means that the capital's old French colonial architecture is being rapidly replaced with modern high-rises.

As a result this city of 1.4 million people now has a rapidly changing skyline, as 10- and 20-story office blocks and apartments spring up.

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.

Michel Verrot is a French architect who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years. He heads the Heritage Mission, a French-funded project trying to preserve what remains of the architecture from the French colonial period, which began almost 150 years ago.

Verrot explains that during France's rule, Phnom Penh was designed as a city of gardens, avenues and pleasing views. But that is being lost in the rush to modernity.

"Now 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. 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."

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.

Samraing Kimsan is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for historical preservation.

He says the ministry's ability to act is limited, and adds that the task is made more complicated by the attitude of many Cambodians.

"They do not understand or do not love the traditional and old style of building. They do not understand."

Samraing Kimsan says the ministry struggles to educate people to value old buildings. But there is little money to preserve old buildings. 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. 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, 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, and 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.

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