Sep 17, 2008

Empty Development

In 1953 following independence from France, Prince Norodom Sihanouk initialized a program of building that would result in over one thousand public buildings and infrastructure projects produced before 1970. It was an unprecedented period of optimism for the country; with the goal that Phnom Penh rival the major capitals of Asia, and Cambodia become a respected actor on the world stage. Starting in the last few years the nation is seeing another huge boom in investment, with virtually all of its major cities undergoing significant expansions.

I was interested in contrasting these two boom periods; who is doing the building now, how have the goals changed, and what is the paradigm that is driving these new plans? What I have found is that the two periods couldn’t possibly be more different. Prince Sihanouk’s plan was to both spur and structure further development through investment in the public realm. Today, Hun Sen believes his government’s role is to sell off big pieces of the country to private investors hailing mostly from China and Korea. It is illegal for a foreigner to own property in Cambodia, a law which has provided the government ample opportunities to profit from these transactions. So land speculation and prices around Phnom Penh are booming, but building is not. Or at least not as much as one would think given the amount of investment.

The most notable physical markers of this speculation are the walls that were built to contain these large swaths of purchased property. They are present particularly outside of Phnom Penh, where the planned developments reach out from the city like spider’s legs following the major roadways. The walls are often significant constructions, about 12 feet in height, going on seemingly forever, following the contours of the land. It isn’t always clear if these containers mark where buildings once were or if they have only ever contained empty land. But the emptiness serves as sharp contrast to the period of building that birthed the New Khmer style.

Judging from the few renderings I have seen posted, the walls will contain residential subdivisions that could be anywhere, and likely won’t have buyers for years. Others will likely be factories as there are quite a few textile manufacturers here, outsourced from China. There are a few notable exceptions to this sprawl, including a much criticized and unattractive 45 story tower going up in the city center. Most of what is built now speaks the anonymous and non-contextual language of global commerce, while Phnom Penh looses the character that defined it since the French colonial period.

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