BATTAMBANG CITY – When an old building formerly owned by the state was demolished on the outskirts of Battambang City in February, for some, it was the last straw.
The giant, freestanding colonial-era mansion with the round windows, the blue shutters and the cracking yellow paint had become one of the city’s most photographed buildings, according to locals, who remember it like a lost love.
Anne Lemaistre, the country head of Unesco, which works to preserve culture and tradition and has recently floated the prospect of submitting Battambang City for listing as a World Heritage City, heard the locals’ cries.
“I received a lot of emails from the people of Battambang who were distressed that the building had been destroyed,” Ms. Lemaistre said.
Ms. Lemaistre had already engaged with the local government over ways to preserve the decaying heritage of Battambang City, which survived the wars of the ’70s and ’80s relatively unscathed.
Now, she had a rallying cry.
And with a new governor in the province—former Siem Reap provincial official Chan Sophal was moved to Battambang in a post-election reshuffle that took effect early this year—Ms. Lemaistre suddenly had a powerful ally.
“As we have witnessed the demolition of some heritage houses the last few months, I think it is time to act,” Ms. Lemaistre said.
“I have been impressed with the governor’s enthusiasm and commitment [to preserving Battambang’s heritage buildings],” she added. “At our first meeting [in late March] I was really impressed with his understanding of what is heritage.”
In a bid to preserve the thousands of colonial and pre-colonial buildings that remain in the city, Ms. Lemaistre has laid all the options on the table for Mr. Sophal. Battambang City could apply to become a World Heritage Site, a process that takes years, or seek the more easily acquired status of World Heritage City or Unesco Creative City.
Any such listing would potentially give the owners of protected buildings access to funds to renovate and repair the structures.
“This is the hardest part of the process—getting the owners to participate.” Ms. Lemaistre said.
In a similar project in Luang Prabang, Laos—a World Heritage Site since 1995—Unesco set up a heritage house in the city center, where architects and basic building materials were provided free of charge to homeowners, on the proviso that all repairs and renovations maintained the original styling of the buildings.
Ms. Lemaistre said this could be a blueprint for Battambang City, and Mr. Sophal thinks he has the sway to get locals to buy in.
“I really want to make Battambang a World Heritage City…because we must take care of our Cambodian heritage and show the quality of the architecture in Cambodia,” Mr. Sophal said.
“I am convinced that the owners of the buildings have heard my message and understand the value of these buildings.”
With the support of the municipality, the German development agency GIZ has also identified and inventoried more than 800 buildings in a central area of the city, which they have classified as a Heritage Protection Area. A small number of those buildings remain from the 1800s, when the province was under Siamese control, with the remainder being Sangkum- and colonial-era structures.
The 800 buildings are not protected by law, but deputy governor Nguon Ratanak insists that the owners must apply to the municipality for permission to alter the exteriors.
“Anyone can own the buildings—it is a free market—but if they want to renovate the buildings, they must respect our local policy,” Mr. Ratanak said. “We don’t want to destroy Battambang’s heritage.”
Tor Pisith, a 51-year-old living in a French-designed home in Battambang City, hasn’t heard of Mr. Sophal’s preservation vision, but needs no convincing.
“My relatives ask why I don’t live in a modern home and many of the people who own these old houses change or destroy them,” Mr. Pisith said.
“I have kept my house in its original condition because the colonial style is really attractive and I don’t want to destroy our heritage.”
Ms. Lemaistre says now that she has presented the options, Mr. Sophal’s commitment to selling the idea to locals must guide the protection of Battambang’s built heritage.
But with some buildings crumbling and others being demolished, and only the city center having been appraised and inventoried by GIZ, action should be swift, she said.
“Authenticity is very quickly lost. And once it is lost, it is lost,” Ms. Lemaistre said. “Phnom Penh has already become a major victim of urbanization.”
“If they continue to demolish colonial houses [in Battambang], nothing will be there to show and the attractiveness of the city will decrease. So now they have to act on a long-term plan.”