After a first-floor section of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport collapsed last month, some 100 colonial-era buildings in Phnom Penh are now under consideration for renovation or complete replacement, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.
“Some buildings are overused and they need to be renovated or torn down and rebuilt,” he said. “The only way to protect people is to tell building owners to take care of it themselves.”
The collapse in the approximately 70-year-old Ministry of Public Works and Transport building dropped masonry, timber and office furniture onto at least five people.
Concerned over the strength of the city’s many colonial-era structures, city construction officials are now inspecting the buildings to determine which need renovation and which should be replaced, Chea Sophara said.
None of the buildings should be torn down unless they can be replaced with a replica of the original, a measure meant to retain the colonial-era atmosphere of Phnom Penh, he added.
Other officials agree, since many of the city’s colonial-era buildings are protected by the French government, which has them listed among French national heritage sites. Cambodia was a French protectorate for about 90 years until gaining independence in 1953.
“We have to rebuild or renovate some of the buildings, but let’s keep them in the original style,” said Yos Chhom Narady, the city’s deputy director of the Department of Urbanization and Construction.
Many of the city’s grandest buildings were constructed between 1860 and 1900 and require careful renovation work, said Chhay Rithy Sen, the bureau chief for the city’s Urbanization and Construction Department. Renovations should be done only by qualified architects and engineer, he added.
Seang Lon, deputy director of the Department of Urbanization and Construction, noted some buildings near Psar Thmei and Psar Chash, and some structures along Sadegol Street and Monivong Boulevard are not safe.
“I think the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Urbanization and Construction and the Phnom Penh Municipality must take serious actions to help people survive,” he said.
Some of the renovations may be too costly, and lead building owners to the cheaper solution of just tearing the building down, city officials said.
“We are worried that people are tearing down historic buildings without the permission of the government,” said Keat Toby, an architect at the municipality.
The municipality also has little money to pay for any of the renovations or replacements. You Se Thy, an architect at the Urbanization and Construction Department, said two projects underway need funding to be completed.
A current project to repair water damage on the roof of the Central Market requires funds; a second project to develop the buildings near the post office began just last week.
Teruo Jinnai, the cultural program specialist at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said his office is available to offer technical assistance, but not funding, for the renovation or replacement of city buildings.
“UNESCO is not a bank,” he said.
The UNESCO building, itself a classic colonial structure opposite the Royal Palace, needs repainting every two years.
Besides funding, another problem came up when attempts to study the integrity of buildings were sometimes refused by the landlords, Seang Lon said
“The survey was not proper, because private owners did not always allow us to check inside,” he said. “As experts we are scared [about some of the buildings], but the people who live inside seem not to be scared.”
To avoid problems in the future, the Urbanization and Construction Department has listed the construction date and the expected date of demolition for all currently built structures. The grading system ranges from first class, built to last 100 years; to second class, to last for 70 years; to third class, less than 60 years.