Monday, 7 June 2010

Cambodia's colonial architecture faces modern threat

Hotel Le Royal, a landmark French colonial building in central Phnom Penh that was beautifully restored by the Raffles hotel group. [Robert Carmichael]

The remains of the Ecole Professionale in Phnom Penh, a former warehouse and then training school built in 1908. It is rumoured to be replaced with a shopping centre and a hotel. [Robert Carmichael]

via CAAI News Media

Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh

Experts are warning not enough is being done to protect what remains of Cambodia's French architectural heritage.

Much of the French colonial architecture in Phnom Penh and some provincial capitals has been destroyed, with some experts reckoning that 40 per cent of perhaps three hundred colonial era buildings have been demolished in the past 20 years.

Michel Verrot, the head of the French-funded Mission du Patrimonie, which works to assess and sometimes helps to restore the capital's shrinking pool of colonial buildings, says the government is keen to preserve buildings in the tourist town of Siem Reap.

But he says interest does not extend to Phnom Penh, which is seen as the business and economic hub of the country, and not a tourist zone.

"Phnom Penh must be a very modern town, an economical town," he said.

"And the heritage is in Siem Reap, and the tourism must be on the sea and in Siem Reap. But not in Phnom Penh. It's wrong. It's clearly wrong, but it is [how it is]."

Samraing Kimsan, a deputy minister at the Cambodian Ministry of Culture, says a lack of funding is one of the major problems in protecting the country's older buildings.

"This is the problem - I do believe this is the problem," he said.

"It depends on the plan - how to preserve the building, how to get money to preserve. But if we have no money to preserve, so we cannot stop the development of the modern building."

But Michel Verrot says demolishing an existing building and putting up something new actually costs more, because modern buildings use more imported materials and make less use of Cambodia's cheap labour.

He also says the demolition of colonial buildings is costing Cambodia tourism dollars.

But Samraing Kimsan says there is also the attitude of many Cambodians towards old buildings - in a land where modern and new are desired, old has limited appeal.

"They do not understand or do not love the traditional and old style of building," he said.

"They do not understand."

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