Prior to her death on Thursday last week, British architect Zaha Hadid was working to help Cambodia to rebuild after the tragedies of its history.
As was well known, she was designing a new institute in Phnom Penh to foster research and remembrance of the country’s darkest hours under the Khmer Rouge. However, it has emerged, she also had a more obscure aspiration: to provide an architectural masterplan for a redesign of the capital itself.
Born in Iraq, Zaha Hadid astonished the world with her signature designs characterized by the use of curves. In 2004, she became the first woman to win the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize.
Her achievements included the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, the and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, Rome’s MAXXI Art museum, the Guangzhou Opera House and the Aquatics Center for London’s 2012 Olympics.
In a measure of her ongoing commercial success, her company, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), lists on its website 950 ongoing projects in 44 countries.
In 2014, she unveiled the designs for the Sleuk Rith Institute in Phnom Penh at the behest of Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). But that project—the design for which is now finished—spawned a broader interest in Cambodia.
Although she never visited the country, Zaha Hadid had a vision of making Phnom Penh a better place for its inhabitants and a more healthy environment, according to Chhang. With that in mind, she decided voluntarily to work on plans for Phnom Penh’s development over the coming decades.
“She thought that the first thing to do was a specific masterplan that is usable rather than imaginative,” he told VOA Khmer.
She wanted to draw on the presence of the city’s converging Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to create a “balance”—preserving historic areas while accelerating development in the city, said Chhang, explaining the British designer’s vision.
A document entitled “Phnom Penh Vision 2050,” seen by VOA Khmer, sets out how ZHA works on projects. “With the assistance of our expert consultants we then begin to conceptualize what interventions may be needed, spatial restructuring, movement, landscape, infrastructure, etc. which can then begin to form the components that shape the future vision,” it says. “We aim to implement a similar process for Phnom Penh.”
“Due the lack of budget in the government, she worked on this voluntarily,” Chhang said, adding that Zaha Hadid wanted to submit the proposal regardless of whether the government was already working with another company. The municipality has reportedly taken on a masterplan for the city proposed by French designers.
“She just thought: it’s not too late for this project, which would last until 2050. She wanted to make [a plan to make] this city the best place possible, and then submit it to the government,” Chhang said.
But such an ambitious plan, naturally, would need the support of Cambodia’s government and ultimately Prime Minister Hun Sen. She therefore made an official request, and received permission in a letter from Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Hang Chuon Naron to engage with the Phnom Penh municipality.
Ros Salin, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, confirmed that a working group attached to Zaha Hadid’s company had been working with the Phnom Penh Municipality, as well as the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, but said he didn’t know what the progress of this work was.
Governor Pa Socheatevong said the cooperation had been limited. “Of course, they just only had a plan to study and assist in the field of urban planning,” he said. “There are just researchers who help organize our master plan. That’s all what we have discussed so far.”
Local urban campaigners said the city’s administration could do with help from an international design firm like ZHA. They paint a picture of a city—which has swelled to a population of 3 million people—at breaking point after years of poorly planned development.
The city’s expansion has made many made people worse off, said Ee Sarom, executive director of the group Sahmakum Teang Thnaut, which monitors development and advocates for habitat rights.
Particularly disastrous was the plan to build a high-end real estate development on the site of the former Boeng Kak lake by the ruling party-linked company Shukaku Inc. The lake itself was pumped full of sand, and the community was displaced in a mass eviction that has created the country’s most high-profile land dispute. Some of the 4,000 former residents who say they were not properly compensated have been protesting—enduring police beatings and repeated arrests—for years.
“We support a redesign, a better master plan, because we previously saw there were a lot of impacts. The buildings are tall at some places, while at other places they are short,” said Ee Sarom, referring to the government’s slapdash planning efforts. “Some places are filled with too much land, while the other places are flooded. It’s very complicated in Phnom Penh.”
Zaha Hadid’s death from a sudden heart attack at only 65 did not mean that her vision for a better Phnom Penh for all could not still be carried through, said DC-Cam’s Youk Chhang.
“[H]er team is still working on the master plan at her own cost and I am hoping to use it to convince the city governor and the government of Cambodia,” he wrote in an email.
“Zaha wanted Phnom Penh to belong to all Cambodians at all levels, but not the luxury vehicles!” he added, in reference to the elite’s penchant for gleaming SUVs.
But Cambodia had lost a rare and valuable ally, Chhang lamented.
“We lost good friend because Cambodia is a country she wholeheartedly helped,” he said.
“She never sought interest or profit from her work, like what she did for the Sleuk Rith Institute. She loved and had an obligation for humanity due to the fact that our country has experienced genocide and her motherland, Iraq, has also experienced crimes against humanity.”