In Cheam Phanin’s vision, Phnom Penh is a “Tropical Garden-City”—a place where skyscrapers coexist with tree-lined pathways, a place where green space gracefully punctuates urban concrete.
His design, a set of sketches and maps, was announced Tuesday night as the winner of “Utopias: Dreams or Realities?”—a competition sponsored by the French Cultural Center. The 20-year-old architecture student won a trip to France for his efforts.
To the panel of French and Cambodian judges who officiated over the contest, Cheam Phanin’s idea was beautiful not because it was visually striking but because it was subtle and detailed.
“It is not very spectacular, but if you imagine Phnom Penh like this, it is fantastic,” said Michel Bourdeau, a French architect who came to Phnom Penh to serve on the contest’s jury.
As its title encapsulates, Bourdeau said, Cheam Phanin’s project is an attempt to take the 19th-century Western concept of the “garden city”—a harmonious combination of urban and rural—and apply it to a tropical context.
Rather than trying to create a whole new city, the project retains Phnom Penh’s basic form but adds “many small interventions.”
For example, at Boeung Salang in Tuol Kok district, currently a large squatter camp, Cheam Phanin envisions a serene park where terraced swaths of grass slope down to a stream, while modern office buildings dot the background, creating an effect Bourdeau called “very calm and controlled.”
Cheam Phanin himself is modest about his prize-winning idea, which he sees as practical. “I formerly worked part-time at the municipality of Phnom Penh, so I know that Phnom Penh city has no space along the roads,” he said. “I think the city needs more green space.”
The design’s philosophy owes some of its inspiration to former governor Chea Sophara’s passion for city beautification, and Cheam Phanin said he hopes the municipal government will take notice and possibly even implement some of his proposals.To the casual observer, Cheam Phanin’s project was possibly the plainest of the eight competing works , which will be on exhibit at the center until April 15. “It is in the details, when you examine them, that it is really clever,” Bourdeau said.
By contrast, the second-place winner, Chhim Sothy’s “The City of Phnom Penh in the Year 3000 Seen From a Space Capsule” is as flamboyant as its title suggests.
Two square canvases feature expressionistic circles of color surrounded by blackness, as if “We are flying over Cambodia. I am looking through the window from far away and observing the city of Phnom Penh,” as the artist’s description of his work explains.
The city looks like “a fantastic spiderweb along the branches of the Mekong” from such a distance. The second painting is a close-up of the same dreamy spectacle of “the luminous city.”
Practical, maybe not; but definitely creative and visually compelling. The judges were clearly looking for originality, as evidenced as much by what they didn’t pick as by what they did.
For example, Sath Rithy Vuth’s “The Capital’s Beauty in 2020” is a well-executed painting. It centers on a highway overpass surrounded by undistinguished office buildings and a scattering of cars and people.
Everything is clean and neat and successful—an utterly conventional vision of capitalistic progress. The sole distinguishing feature is an Eiffel Tower-like structure, topped by apsaras, that surmounts the overpass. The artist’s description of his work explains that this structure is intended to attract tourists.
Third prize was taken by “Cambodia’s Leap Into New Development,” a large drawing by Leav Kim Chhuoth. Like “The Capital’s Beauty,” it is preoccupied with practical issues and focuses on a fancifully swirling highway, but the judges said they liked it because it was the only project to take housing issues into account.