‘Indochine’ Brings Artistic Detail to Historic Architecture

Watercolor series shows 67 renditions of French buildings erected in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

In his latest series of watercolors, David Richards has captured all the beauty and elegance that so often make people dream of a time long past when they see buildings from the French colonial era.

Mainly done in soft shades of golden brown and gray, architectural details in each work have been lovingly drawn to emphasize the care and artistry with which those homes and edifices were designed.

Opening Thursday at Chinese House, Mr Richards’ series “In­dochine” consists of 67 renditions of buildings—some of them a century old—that the French erected in Cambodia, Laos and Viet­nam when they were administering the three countries under the name of Indochina.

While the political squabbles of those times have long faded away, the beautiful buildings re­main, adding a European flavor to Cambodia and making its city­scape all the more distinctive, Mr Richards said.

With this added legacy, he said, “Cambodia is not strictly an Asian place. It’s a European-Asian place with a very distinct Euro­pean feel.” This is one of the country’s particularities that at­tracts visitors, Mr Richards said.

Demolishing buildings from the French era takes away city­scape elements that make Cam­bodia special, he said. “Some people think that making Phnom Penh like Shanghai with tall uninteresting buildings with no specific shape…is preferable to the beau­ty of buildings maybe only one or two stories high but with such incredible artistic design.

“To me, it’s heartbreaking to see many of these buildings de­stroyed,” Mr Richards said.

A few structures featured in the exhibition have already been de­molished, such as the Shell building in Takhmau City in Kandal province that Mr Richards had photo­graphed in the mid-1990s, he said.

Watercolors in the series, which took him one year to complete, are based on photos he shot when he visited Laos and Viet­nam and lived in Cambodia in the mid-1990s, plus those he shot this year as he toured the country in search of French-era buildings.

All done in light brush strokes and subtle colors that suggest structures quietly mellowing, some paintings focus on a portion of a building, such as the stairs and porch of Phnom Penh’s po­lice station on Street 174. Others show whole buildings, as in the case of the Opera House in Hanoi and a colonial residence in Kam-pot City.

Mr Richards discovered French architecture in New Or­leans, a city built by the French where he spent his childhood holidays among his mother’s relatives. “I’ve always been fascinated with the beauty of French architecture,” the 59-year-old artist said.

He grew up on an ancestral horse farm in the state of Ken­tucky, and his first trade in life was working as a “horse whisperer.” In the 1970s and 1980s in California, people would bring him traumatized or “problem” horses so that he could communicate with them and find a solution.

He studied art at university, spent a few years designing and building landscapes and gardens in northern California, and eventually relocated to the island of Maui in Hawaii. He has lived in Phnom Penh since 2007.

Mr Richards’ exhibition “In­dochine” runs through Nov 13.



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