- A provincial elegance reminiscent of southern France, the most diverse architecture in Southeast Asia – how much has changed as Cambodian capital has developed
- Half the city’s historically significant buildings have been razed in 20 years, as Chinese money fuels a construction boom that defies rational explanation
Phnom Penh is not the only Southeast Asian city to have declared itself the "Pearl of the Orient" at one time or another. But for the century before a decline that began in 1970 and led to genocide and civil war, the Cambodian capital laid legitimate claim to the title.
It was, wrote American historian David Chandler, a resident in the 1960s, "a somnolent, handsome city … with wide, almost empty boulevards bordered with flame trees and bougainvillea. It had a sunstruck, provincial elegance that reminded some visitors of southern France."
Other accounts describe a city of sensual pleasures; of music, cinema and art; of cafes, bars and restaurants; and one with a wealth of architectural heritage, from temple spires and multi-tiered pitched roofs, to grand French buildings in ochre and whitewash, to the bold geometric forms of art deco.
The '60s were also the heyday of the so-called New Khmer school of architecture, a uniquely Cambodian style blending function with an angular, futuristic expression of postcolonial optimism.
"The 1960s were a golden age for Phnom Penh, with an established and prosperous middle class appreciative of the built environment," says Jean-Pierre Celotto, architect and design director at LBL International, who has worked in Cambodia for 20 years. "There is no question that Phnom Penh had the most diverse architecture of any Southeast Asian city."
The city's golden age ended when the war raging in neighbouring Vietnam spread to Cambodia in 1970. It was the start of a slow-motion tragedy that brought the Khmer Rouge to power, saw the capital emptied of people, the middle class exterminated, and the onset of a civil war that would not end until 1998.
The years of conflict kept property developers at bay and insulated the city from the East Asian economic boom that transformed Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta and Manila. I lived there in the 1990s, and recall a low-rise, dusty, potholed city, a place of mildew and flaking paint, intermittent power outages and regular flooding.
But 20 years of peace has robbed Phnom Penh of much of its charm. Amid a building boom that continues to drive land prices higher, and in the absence of town-planning or heritage protection laws, many of the city's finest buildings have been razed.
"I estimate the last two decades has seen about 50 per cent of historically significant architecture demolished," Celotto says. "And the pace of destruction is increasing."
It's just stupid. We have lost so many beautiful buildings to this irrational building boomHun Sokagna, architect and tour guide
By 2005, the elegance of 1960s Phnom Penh had begun returning. Its tree-lined streets had been freshly drained and resurfaced, and were flanked by newly renovated cafes, bars and trendy inner city apartments that took care to blend in.
The metalled roads checked the dust, and the city had a leafy sheen, the bougainvillea and flame trees again resplendent. The tallest building was perhaps 10 storeys; the first "skyscraper", the 30-storey OCIC Tower, was completed in 2009.
Today the city's boulevards are snarled with traffic, its broad pavements commandeered by parked cars. Over three dozen towers 80 metres high or more have sprung up, and everywhere you look cranes loom over the sites of condominium and office blocks that will rise even higher. Scores have been approved or are under construction. Dust from these building sites is everywhere.
The scale of this development defies rational explanation. Cambodia is Southeast Asia's second poorest country; average annual income per head is about US$1,500, and its population is just 16 million. With gross domestic product projected at US$26 billion this year, Cambodia's economy is only one-twentieth the size of neighbouring Thailand's.
"It's just stupid," says Hun Sokagna, a young architect and town planner who is also senior guide for Khmer Architecture Tours. "We have lost so many beautiful buildings to this irrational building boom."
"Sadly, most of us Cambodians don't care. It's all about money, and if you are rich you can do whatever you like," she says.
Land prices in central parts of the city have trebled to US$6,000 per square metre (US$560 per square foot) in the past eight years, with some being advertised for sale at US$9,000 per square metre.
Hun Sokagna says attempts to protect buildings as a valuable part of Phnom Penh's heritage have been thwarted because they are demolished before their heritage value can be assessed by bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
The World Bank says construction permits are granted on a "build first, license later" basis, and that with no land-use plan, high-rise developments often lack necessary infrastructure. This leads to traffic congestion, power supply problems, and difficulties in the management of sewage and solid waste.
Still the building boom rolls on, with developers competing to launch the most outlandish projects.
Examples of this exuberance include Chinese investor Guangzhou Yuetai Group's proposed Harbour Bay, a development of 24 high-rises towers on a bank of the Tonle Sap River; a 133-storey, US$2.7 billion twin-tower World Trade Centre, a joint venture between the Macau-based Sun Kian Ip and Cambodia's Thai Boon Roong Group, site preparation for which has already begun.
The local Royal Group has meanwhile proposed building a tower on the site of the historic Cambodiana Hotel, which, at 600 metres, would be Southeast Asia's tallest building.
According to the Ministry for Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, most of the money being poured into construction projects is local; Chinese companies account for the bulk of foreign investment. Most of the construction companies are also Chinese, with 226 registered compared to 61 from elsewhere in Asia. More than half of condominium buyers also come from China.
"The people buying city property are overwhelmingly Chinese, or from Hong Kong " on paper at least," says a Phnom Penh-based manager at an international real estate investment company who requests anonymity. "To a lesser extent we have buyers from Malaysia and Singapore.
"There are signs the market is being entered by an emerging Cambodian middle class, but more than 80 per cent are foreign buyers, and most of those are buying for investment purposes," he says.
Take a look at these buildings at night. None of the lights are onA Malaysian engineer
Celetto and Hun Sokagna hope that the widespread indifference to Phnom Penh's built heritage will change, and that at the very least the retrofitting of large historical structures and the incorporation of smaller buildings of value into new projects may save what remains.
For now, the city's remaining historic buildings are most likely to be spared by a property market correction. The World Bank has warned of the impending collapse of the high-rise real estate market, citing symptoms of a "classic bubble": oversupply, especially of high-end condominiums, and speculative pricing.
In 2008 Phnom Penh had just 2,300 square metres of office space, one shopping mall, and two condominium developments totalling around 170 units. By the third quarter of 2018, there was approximately 350,000 square metres of office space, 325,000 square metres of retail space, and 12,000 condominiums.
By the end of 2020 there will be an estimated 520,000 square metres of office space, and 550,000 square metres of retail stock. Oversupply is even more pronounced in the residential sector, with six delayed projects coming on stream in 2019.
The supply of condominiums is expected to grow by 120 per cent year on year, from 14,000 units to more than 31,000; the supply of high-end apartments is projected to grow more than 240 per cent.
According to research by international real estate group CBRE, prices of condominiums and offices have remained relatively flat for several years. Still, developers continue to boast of impressive returns on investment, and of occupancy rates as high as 80 per cent.
"That's b*******," said a Malaysian construction engineer who has worked in Phnom Penh for three years. "Occupancy rates on average are more like 20 per cent, 30 per cent tops," he says. "Take a look at these buildings at night. None of the lights are on."
The population of Phnom Penh has doubled to between 1.5 million and two million people since 2000, and is projected to near three million by 2030.
Celotto says it is inevitable that rapid growth puts pressure on a city's built heritage. But proper planning, and the creation of satellite suburbs connected by good transport infrastructure, takes the pressure off, and leaves heritage areas for renovation as upmarket accommodation, and as centres for entertainment and the arts.
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"I think it will take a very long time for attitudes in Cambodia to match those of places like Singapore, which has taken care to preserve architectural heritage and to incorporate it into new developments," he says.
"When the building bubble bursts here, at least it will buy Phnom Penh's remaining historical architecture some time."
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