Phnom Penh’s French colonial buildings and architecture of the post-independence period attest to the city’s colorful and storied past, but preservationists warn that a lack of action to protect the capital’s historic buildings threatens the city’s identity and attractiveness for tourists.
There is no conservation plan for Phnom Penh’s historic buildings, some of which have survived more than a century but are falling victim to the wrecking-ball of urban development, a trend that has occurred in other Southeast Asian cities that are now scrambling to save the vestiges of their past which they now realize bring in significant tourist dollars.
The future of the 19th-century Renakse Hotel, an elegant Khmer-style building located in mature gardens directly in front of the Royal Palace, and which is scheduled to be flattened, is a case in point for conservationists, including Unesco.
But officials at the Ministry of Culture and Land Management say that Cambodia’s rich urban heritage is not a top priority, as most energy and legal effort at preservation is devoted to the country’s Angkorian temples, and other ancient stone works and land issues, respectively.
“It’s important, but we need to focus on the ancient temples first before we work on the old buildings,” said Heng Sophady, a researcher for the Ministry of Culture.
The ministry, he said, is slowly compiling a list of historic buildings in Phnom Penh, as is required by the 1996 law on cultural protection, but even the list won’t be finished for several years.
In the meantime, buildings that should be on such a list are quickly disappearing.
Last year, what remained of the once renowned Preah Suramarit National Theater was torn down opposite the new National Assembly building. In 2005, a majestic turn of the 19th century residence that housed the municipal tourism department on Sisowath Quay, was demolished without explanation, and ironically is to this day an empty plot of rumble-strewn land behind an blue metal fence in the heart of the city’s main visitor thoroughfare.
The old Council of Ministers building on Russian Boulevard, considered a masterpieces of the New Khmer Architecture movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was knocked down to make way for a pyramid-like, Chinese designed and funded structure that has apparently dismayed senior members of government because of it lack of any indigenous architectural features.
Other less prominent, but still historic buildings have not yet disappeared but are in such poor condition they are literally falling apart, or will soon give way to developers, as appears to be the case with the French period former Social Affairs Ministry building on Norodom Boulevard, and the former Ministry of Labor behind the Royal Palace.
“I am very pessimistic about preservation of these buildings in Phnom Penh. So many have been lost already,” said Vann Molyvann, the doyen of Cambodian architects, whose style is most associated with the post-independence architectural movements.
It is not a lack of laws on the protection of important buildings, but a lack of political will to enforce those laws, said Mr Molyvann, adding that the government is heavily influenced by financial concerns when it comes to urban conservation.
“It’s not enforced by the government. We have all the regulations. We have the necessary legal mechanisms to protect Phnom Penh but it has never been applied or enforced,” he said, attributing the increased in the value of land in Phnom Penh for the devaluing of the city’s historic buildings.
At least two laws passed in the mid-1990s both call for lists that would protect historic structures; the 1996 Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, and the 1994 Law on Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
The cultural heritage law calls for protection of manmade and natural heritage “whose protection is in the public interest.”
The urban planning law states the need for an inventory “for protecting and promoting the value of resort places or of any immobile objects which shall provide advantages in archeology, history, culture, beauty or technique.”
Mr Molyvann said he was skeptical of any governments’ attempts at preserving urban heritage noting the failures of enforcement in other, more important laws, including the land law and property rights, both necessary components to ensuring the protection of urban heritage.
“We need to select some buildings to keep as living objects. The point is to make list of buildings that should be preserved,” he said, adding that not all old buildings, but just important sites such as the Renakse, would make such list.
Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, Ministry of Land Management deputy general director, said his ministry has created a draft sub-decree that will order local authorities to create lists of buildings that need to be protected and preserved, but he did not know when the sub-decree might be submitted for consideration to the Council of Ministers.
Land issues such as landing titling, and land disputes are currently a greater priority than conserving urban heritage, Mr Khemro said.
According to the draft, which would implement parts of the 1994 urban planning law, committees would be established to divide historic buildings into five categories of importance—A through E—-and with different levels of protection. Buildings on the A list would need to be restored.
“For me, some of the most important architecture is from the French colonial time and also the part of the urban land between the palace and the river,” Mr Khemro said. “It should be kept by any means,” he said.
But time should be of the essence if there is going to be anything left in the city for such a sub-decree to preserve.
Darryl Collins, an architecture historian, questioned why the municipality isn’t more active in preserving historic buildings.
“What’s the rush to demolish built heritage? Is it an [un]conscious desire to wipe away the historical past, or simply a 21st century ethic for ‘everything new’? he wrote in an e-mail. “Phnom Penh’s historic palace and colonial precinct is small in scale and any loss is immeasurable.”
The area around the Royal Palace is of particular importance and, similar to many other Southeast Asia capitals, is a “city pillar” or sacred location marking the spiritual heart of the city and its inhabitants.
Prince Norodom Thomico said the area surrounding the palace should be preserved due to its historical and spiritual significance for the entire city.
“I cannot understand the willingness to destroy the Renakse Hotel. I would regret it because it belongs to the Khmer heritage, even though it was built by the French,” he said.
Romain Gagnot, a coordinator for the French-funded Heritage Mission project that is assisting the Culture Ministry compile a list of historic urban building, said so far the project has only inventoried 10 structures over the past four years.
“It takes time,” Mr Gagnot said, adding that creating such a list is just one of Heritage Mission’s goals. “We need to research each building in great detail.”
Phnom Penh’s French colonial building can be divided into two categories: the more classic styles of the late 19th century typified by the Renakse, and the more modern style of the 1930s. One building, he said that is considered to be unique and in serious danger, is the dilapidated colonial-era residence featuring a turret that overlooks the public gardens near Wat Phnom on St 106 and Norodom Boulevard.
In many cities around the world the owner of such a building could be forced to restore or sell the building to someone willing to restore it, Mr Gagnot said. But that’s not the case in Phnom Penh.
Manuel Garcia, operations manager of the Boddhi Tree boutique hotel located in a small lane where a cluster of restored colonial-era buildings nestle near the palace and Wat Botum, said that this area is one of the most visited by foreign tourists.
Destruction of the historic buildings that make the Daun Penh district area beautiful and unique will only make the city less of a destination for visitors and, in the long run, hurt the city’s international image and businesses, Mr Garcia said. A preservation plan is needed, he said.
“The soul of Phnom Penh is being destroyed. What is going to remain five to 10 years from now?”