Ornate, concrete walls ringing empty lots along a dirt road. A small patch of greenery in the middle of a paved roundabout surrounded by vacant land. A gravel road crossing fields barren of structure or vegetation.
These are scenes taken in and around Phnom Penh by Belgian photographer John Vink exhibited at Meta House, on Street 264, as part of three evenings of images, films and discussion on the city’s urbanscape and development.
Launched on Tuesday, the program is meant as an opportunity for architects of all ages and nationalities to discuss with the public the direction Phnom Penh is taking, said Stefanie Irmer of Khmer Architecture Tours who helped Meta House organize the program.
Issues raised will include whether and how people view Phnom Penh’s urban heritage and identity, she said. Her hometown of Berlin, Irmer said, has changed drastically—its buildings destroyed and rebuilt over decades of war and political upheaval. Endless debates precede the demolition of any landmark as Berliners attempt to define their city, she said.
Phnom Penh also has changed a great deal.
Now that stability has returned, Irmer said, “buildings are getting destroyed very silently,” she said.
Tonight’s program of film and discussions will be about architecture and urban planning in other cities around the world. On Thursday, talks will focus on Phnom Penh and include young Cambodian architects explaining their approach to tropical and Cambodian architecture, Irmer said.
For Vink, his series of photos on vacant lots—or “Absence of Architecture” as he calls them—illustrate how the market economy and land speculation is affecting the city.
“There is no dream at those sites, no imagination…. Those lots are bought and sold over and over again, but without any [development] project intended,” said Vink, a photographer with the international agency Magnum Photos who first visited Phnom Penh in 1989 and has been based in Cambodia since 2000.
“At City Hall there are people aware of this and doing what they can to improve the situation for the future. But I’m afraid it will be an extremely hard battle to go against the market economy which is all powerful here,” he said.
The exhibition, which runs until Oct 4, also includes China ink drawings of French colonial-style buildings dating from Cambodia’s Indochina years. They were done by art students of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang both to teach them perspective and to document those historical buildings—mostly villas in Phnom Penh and housing rows in Siem Reap and Battambang towns—since they may one day disappear, said Srey Bandol, the NGO’s art school director.
Also on exhibition are information panels on urban planning and Cambodian architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, which gave Phnom Penh some of its greatest landmarks. Urbanist and architect Helen Grant Ross, who co-wrote an encyclopedic work on New Khmer Architecture, created the panels.