Behind Phnom Penh’s Buildings

For the third consecutive year, Tilman Baumgaertel’s journalism class at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) has produced a magazine covering an aspect of Cambodian modern culture.

In 2010, his students focused on the country’s cinema industry during the 1960s, and last year they looked at popular music and singing legends. This time, their publication presents an overview of architectural periods and contrasting styles in today’s Phnom Penh.

Entitled “Sthapatyakam, The Architecture of Cambodia,” the 32-page magazine will be launched on Tuesday evening at Meta House by Mr. Baumgaertel and a class of students in their second year at RUPP’s Department of Media and Communication.

The publication starts with a brief history of Phnom Penh’s architecture prior to 1863 until today and comes with a warning that the publication is a student project and, therefore, not guaranteed as error free.

That said, Mr. Baumgaertel and his students have put together a fascinating overview of the city’s building styles richly illustrated with photos that were mainly taken by the students themselves.

The magazine reflects the fact that its authors are in their teens or 20s and are very much anchored in the 21th century.

For example, a story on whether to preserve buildings from the French Protectorate era-mainly built between the late 19th century and World War II- raises the whole issue of whether a country should erase chapters of its history or rather embrace its legacy.

Yam Sokly, an architect with the Heritage Mission project funded by France, comments in the story that some Cambodians don’t feel bound to preserve those buildings since “It is not a ‘Khmer’ achievement to them.”

One other reality of Phnom Penh’s addressed in the magazine is evictions.

Looking at the city as it stands today, one story describes how families looking for shelter made a home in the old church of the Sisters of Providence, and how the One Hundred Houses built by famed architect Vann Molyvann in the 1960s are designed so as to allow air flow, making fans or air conditioning unnecessary.

The issue of designing buildings with natural light and air circulation to save on the cost of electricity is also raised by architecture students interviewed in a story on contemporary architecture.

About half the magazine consists of mini profiles with photos on some of Phnom Penh’s most prominent buildings that reflect its architectural history and development, providing a perspective on how the city is being shaped.

Buildings featured range from traditional houses on stilts and the Angkorian monument Phnom Da on the outskirts of the city, to the 1920s Phnom Penh Train Station, the 1960s-era Olympic Stadium, the Peace Palace built as the office of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Vattanac Capital Tower, which, once completed, will be the city’s tallest building at 39 stories.

As well as having to deal with a lack of specialized camera equipment when shooting buildings, students also faced difficulties with finding books and documents on Cambodian architecture past and present, said Len Leng, one of the students on the project.

Although there are a few works such as “Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970” written by architect and urban planner Helen Grant Ross and art historian Darryl Collins, students had difficulty finding material on the country’s architecture throughout history, she said. That meant that the students themselves did independent research on a lot of information on the buildings featured in their publication.

Some of them, such as the remaining French colonial buildings around Phnom Penh, were a revelation to the students. “We fell in love with buildings,” Ms. Leng said.

Mr. Baumgaertel, who taught at the Royal University of Phnom Penh for three years as part of the German Academic Exchange Service, is leaving Cambodia this month to teach journalism in Berlin.

PDF: WEEKEND JULY 7-8 PRINTED

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