Sep 9, 2008

Phnom Penh: Paris of the East

Central Phnom Penh: Apartment buildings built in the 1960’s

When Phnom Penh became a player on the international stage around 1950 it was commonly referred to as the “Paris of the East”. This should not be interpreted, I think, as a reference to Cambodia’s French Colonial past or the architecture which represents it. It is palpable still in the design of the city itself. Paris is felt in the wide boulevards on axis with major monuments, smaller scale narrow streets bordered by three to four story shop-houses, apartment blocks with interior courtyards, and heroic buildings at intersections often marking the corner with a curving façade.

In the architecture one sees the white bones of the city’s former glory. The better examples of the French Colonial style are beautiful. The later fabric of buildings built from the 30s to the 60s, from Style Moderne to Bauhaus Modern is solid and still imposing if also frayed at the edges. These buildings are defined by deep balconies, horizontal and vertical brise soleil, sculptural concrete roof pergolas and unglazed screens made up of geometrically interlocking patterns of concrete or brick tiles.

Unlike Paris, Phnom Penh in its current state is not at all a pedestrian friendly city. While the streets teem with activity, there are few traffic lights at intersections and where there are they are barely used. The patterned terra cotta sidewalks are fair game for parking, cooking, eating, sleeping, painting, smelting, welding, and selling, which makes things challenging if you happen to be walking. Whether on foot, on bicycle, or on moto, the only way to get around is to hurl yourself into the barely controlled chaos.

The residents of Phnom Penh live their lives on its streets; in the ground level shops, on the sidewalks and on their balconies. This is an energized public realm which belies the Khmer individual’s laid-back persona, and chaotic as it is, it works. Until the streets flood with nearly knee-high water but I’ll have to get into that later.

1 comment:

yang said...

sorry for put on a chinese website,but it is a little bit interesting which is about 'the most modernest buidling' in cambodia is gas station and others kinda of modern architecture relating to the hundreds of colony time by france. I do not know whether so-called modern architecture in cambodia was getting the blood and relation from french buidling and technique. And also in term of the building technique and culture, whatever form which is set up in cambodia, it must be a branch which generated from most of tropical asian country,such as thailand and laos, also the religion should be an key and effective element for architecture and modern art.