Photographer Captures Layers of History at City’s Corners

Photographer Prum Ero came across the subject for his latest exhibition more or less by accident, or, more specifically, by looking around as he traveled Phnom Penh’s streets.

“As I was walking on the street at Kandal Market…I noticed the building at streets 154 and 13 and I thought wow, this is a cool building,” he said on Friday.

A building at the corner of streets 111 and 182 in Phnom Penh (Prum Ero)
A building at the corner of streets 111 and 182 in Phnom Penh (Prum Ero)

“Then I walked north and saw the next one that was even more cool.”

What resulted from this realization is the exhibit “Phnom Penh’s Corner Architecture,” now showing at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh.

The photos on display show multistory buildings at intersections around the city, the face of each structure bending around the corner and fanning out along the adjacent streets.

What may come as a revelation in the exhibit’s 54 photographs is how many of these unusual buildings exist in the city, each with its own distinct features. Not only do they vary in the way they were built, but also in how they have been transformed over the decades, Mr. Ero said.

For example, a building housing a government office on the corner of streets 110 and 15 has barely been modified since it was built in the 1960s. But a building on the corner of streets 118 and 13 is something of a layer cake, with one set of styles and colors at street level, a completely different look for the next three stories and another level added at the top with no pretense of harmonizing with the rest of the structure.

And then there is a white building at the intersection of streets 139 and 166, which has retained its elegance despite decades of modifications.

As he began locating and photographing more and more of these buildings, Mr. Ero also conducted research at the National Archives and the Bophana Center.

This architecture of rounded corners was part of the postwar modernist movement, said Darryl Collins, an art historian and specialist in Cambodia’s architecture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The style was brought to Cambodia from France after World War II and adapted through the 1960s, he said.

“The idea was to build four to five stories with access from the street through narrow corridors and flights of stairs,” he said. “There were shop houses at the street level and apartments on the upper floors. They were made functional and adapted to city living.”

Today, their locations make them ideal for businesses, Mr. Ero said.

“The corner is very important …because it gives a store or office two- or three-way access. People can see it well when they pass—see the big door.”

For this series of photos, Mr. Ero focused on buildings located at or near five markets: Phsar Thmei, or Central Market; Phsar Chas, or Old Market; Kandal Market, O’Russei Market and Olympic Market. Maps at the exhibition show where each building is located.

Born in Phnom Penh in 1989, Mr. Ero is completing a master’s degree in business management. He serves as operation manager for the Sa Sa Bassac art gallery in the capital.

His exhibition at the Bophana Center runs through October.

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