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View From Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh’s recent burst of development brings opportunities and perils for the city’s rich hybridity, product of South East Asian traditions and French colonisation

As Cambodia re-establishes itself after colonialism and a brutal war, it has become the focus of investment from Asian property developers. Phnom Penh, once planned around French notions of an Indo-Chinese city, finds itself in a quandary over its future form and character. Phnom Penh has twice had the honour of being the capital of Cambodia. The first time was in the 15th century, when Angkor became unsuitable and the royal court moved south to the banks of the Mekong; then again in the mid 19th century when Cambodia, located between its more populous neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, voluntarily became a French protectorate.

Of the first city, built in timber on a flood plain, nothing remains. But the planning of modern Phnom Penh was fundamentally the result of Western and particularly French ideas. Even after the cordial granting of independence in 1953, masterplans developed by French designers were the basis of city growth through to the Khmer Rouge period in the late 1970s. Now with a growing economy but still revenue-poor, Cambodia is moving into a new phase, combining aid from China and the West with commercial investment predominantly from Asia. The impact of this on city planning is becoming evident in terms of public urban space and the establishment of edge-cities.

The role of public space was recognised in the masterplan for Phnom Penh produced by the Municipality assisted by French urbanists − an example of aid provided as technical support. The 2007 plan has yet to be ratified by the government and may forever remain only a guideline. This is perhaps because, in the drive to re-establish Phnom Penh as a respected Asian capital, a traditional European framework is no longer very appealing. What are attractive are high-impact, externally funded developments such as high-rise satellite suburbs and city-centre projects.

At 39 storeys, the Vattanac Capital building is nearing completion. Incorporating the Cambodian stock exchange and designed by TFP Farrells with Arup, it is shaped to represent a dragon, a symbol of good fortune. It sits next to another new office tower and across a square from the renovated 1930s concrete railway station. The city’s Central Market, a rather extraordinary French colonial Art Deco homage, and once the largest market in Asia, has also been refurbished. However the construction of the Korean-funded ‘Gold Tower 42’, about a kilometre away has stalled at 31 storeys, and it’s currently unclear whether it will reach the full 42.

A number of satellite projects are either proposed or under construction. Conceived and planned by their Asian backers, they are intended to create independent centres. The 2007 masterplan envisages Phnom Penh as a multi-polar city, but the avenues and public spaces it proposes should connect and integrate these nodes − which require initiative and investment from the authorities − are absent.

Existing public space is also under pressure of development. The 1964 Olympic Stadium, one of a number of important public buildings by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann is used daily by hundreds of locals. Protection of heritage structures generally is discussed but lacks legislation. Lakes are regularly filled in for development, putting stress on the drainage system, and local communities are relocated. The lack of a ratified masterplan and zoning strategy can result in unexpected juxtapositions, requiring guesswork by architects about what may happen on the site next door. But these are the growing pains of a fascinating city which is rearticulating its identity.

More Cambodian architects and planners are graduating and there are visionary individuals at city and government level. The heart of Phnom Penh, the envy of Singapore in the 1960s, still has its early 20th-century charm. Ultimately, whether the city retains its distinctive mix of European and Asian influences depends on its residents.

Fact File

Geoff Pyle is based in two capital cities: Phnom Penh and London. He runs Pyle Architects and is interested in the 20th-century urban heritage of Cambodia and organised a national conference on the issue for UNESCO.

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