Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the French structural engineer and world-famous architect primarily known for his work in designing the Eiffel Tower in Paris, is deeply embedded inside Europe’s industrial and architectural history.
But Eiffel’s presence can also be felt here in Phnom Penh, far beyond the bustling crowds that incessantly gather around his Parisian centerpiece.
In fact, according to historians and officials, Eiffel built a number of structures across Cambodia.
Fabyene Mansencal, first secretary at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the two giant water towers owned by the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority in Russei Keo district’s Chroy Changvar commune were designed by Eiffel.
“They will nearly be 120 years old, but they still work,” she said in a recent e-mail.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Darryl Collins, an architectural historian based in Cambodia, explained how both Eiffel and L’Etablissement Eiffe—later known as Societe des Constructions de Levallois-Perret—the overarching engineering and architectural firm founded by Eiffel in 1867, had constructed three bridges; six floating metal docks on Sisowath Quay, some of which are still extant; four large markets; five generators and a number of distilleries throughout Cambodia.
Mr Collins said that Eiffel’s heightened presence in Cambodia coincided with the period between 1880 and 1890 “when the French colonial power in the protectorate and Indochina generally would have reached its peak.”
“It was a period when most of the town planning made its apex,” he said.
Mr Collins said that one of the bridges Eiffel was responsible for was later destroyed in 1960 and is now the location of the Monivong Bridge in Phnom Penh. Another was constructed in 1893 and acted as an iron footbridge over a canal route near the National Museum. It was known as Pont George V, or Spean Peam Phlong in Khmer. The final bridge, which was known as Pont Nicolas II, or Petroleum Bridge, also crossed one of Phnom Penh’s former canal routes near the railway station.
Despite the prolific amount of work carried out by Eiffel and his construction company in Cambodia, those who live amongst his structures are often completely unaware of their cultural and historical significance.
Ek Sonn Chan, director of the Phnom Penh Water Authority, said that many in Cambodia are oblivious to the fact that one of the world’s most prolific engineering minds was behind a part of the country’s architectural landscape.
“I don’t know exactly who designed the two towers,” he said, referring to the two water towers in the Russei Keo district. “But we do know that they were finished being built in 1893.
Mr Collins said that the water towers were part of the original water works in Phnom Penh before the network was later modernized by the Japanese.
“The tanks were probably common to Indochina,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar tanks in Vietnam.”
Indeed, Gustave Eiffel was a dominant presence in Indochina, particularly toward the end of the nineteenth century.
He designed Saigon’s central post office and also completed a series of iron structures in Vietnam, Laos and here.
In a recent post on his official website, Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris, says Eiffel’s works of art have all “contributed to write and draw the technical history of the modern world. Portugal, Hungry, Romania, Egypt, Mexico, America, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all carry his stamp.”
But according to Karen Plumley, an author specializing on the history of the Eiffel Tower, he “was all but unknown outside of engineering circles during his lifetime.”
Eiffel clearly knew something about his future legacy while attending the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris when he said: “I ought to be jealous of the [Eiffel] tower; it is much more famous than I am.”