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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Cometh the hour, cometh the man with the wrecking ball (Feature)

By Robert Carmichael

Phnom Penh - A blue sheet-metal fence around an old building in Phnom Penh is a bad omen for those keen on Cambodia's dwindling stock of colonial architecture.

'The presence of these fences is a worrying sign,' says one architectural historian, 'because when these fences go up it normally means the buildings are going to come down.'

The historian, who has lived in Cambodia for 16 years but does not want his name used, says the pace of destruction has accelerated in recent years.

'It is speeding up, and it has almost gone past the point of no return,' he says. 'I would think that more than half of the buildings I can remember as being important have now gone in 16 years.'

The latest building to be screened off is the venerable Renakse Hotel adjacent to the Royal Palace near the riverfront. Earlier this year the Renakse was the focus of a squabble between the leaseholder and the country's ruling party, which owns the building. The case went to court; the party won.

Should the hotel be demolished, which seems likely, it will be the fourth colonial-era building of merit to be knocked down this year alone, says French architect Michel Verrot, who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years.

By his count, 40 per cent of the capital's several hundred colonial buildings has been swept away in two decades.

Verrot runs the French-funded Mission du Patrimonie that assesses what is left of Phnom Penh's architectural heritage.

It also helps with restoration efforts on some colonial buildings, the oldest of which were constructed between 1885 and 1892.

'They are the first places in Phnom Penh where the new architecture was built which became the colonial architecture in Phnom Penh,' says Verrot.

When it comes to architectural heritage, Cambodia is defined by Angkor Wat, the magnificent ancient temples around the town of Siem Reap in the north-west.

Verrot says the domination of Angkor Wat blinds the government to the value of other heritage buildings, whether of colonial architecture or the 1950s and 1960s designs of Vann Molyvann, the country's foremost living architect.

Regarding the capital, Verrot says the biggest problem is not preserving architectural heritage, substantial though it is.

He bemoans the lack of attention paid to its urban heritage: the concept of a town with well laid-out gardens, wide avenues and unobstructed views between iconic buildings.

'Now all the views are becoming very disturbed without any global idea of town development,' Verrot says of the mushrooming of tower blocks and glass skyscrapers. 'There is no vision.'

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts oversees the country's heritage, but secretary of state Samraing Kamsan says it has limited authority to preserve the buildings. A key challenge is that Cambodians prefer modern buildings.

'They do not understand or love the traditional and the old-style building,' he says. 'You need to teach them to understand the value.'

There are other difficulties too. Some old buildings have numerous poor families living in them. One chapel, for example, contains more than 20 families, but they are in no position to pay for repairs.

Samraing Kamsan says colonial buildings in provincial capitals are also in trouble - years of strife and poverty meant preservation was not a priority. And there is the rocketing value of land.

'I do believe this is a problem,' he says, before adding a lack of cash to the queue. 'If we have no money to preserve, we cannot stop the development of the modern building.'

Verrot says the government's desire to see Phnom Penh emulate Bangkok and Singapore is undoing what is left of the city's colonial architecture.

'(The government's view is that) the heritage is in Siem Reap, and tourism must be at the seaside and in Siem Reap, but not in Phnom Penh,' he says. 'It's wrong, it's clearly wrong, but it is (the view).'

The architectural historian cited earlier believes the government, which wants tourists to remain in-country longer than the usual three days spent seeing the temples, is missing a trick. After all, Phnom Penh is not going to compete with shopping cities such as Singapore.

'When you look at Phnom Penh, all the things tourists come to see are almost all architectural. There's not really anything else,' he says. 'How are they going to attract people to stay in Cambodia
- Phnom Penh in particular - if there isn't architecture to look at?'

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