Wednesday, January 1, 2014

14. Architecture in Phnom Penh under the French Protectorate 1867-1949

A French city in Southeast Asia

The city plan of Phnom Penh is a product of French urban planning. Here are the well-organized city grids, known from French cities, such as Paris, varied in design, from circular to rectangular with interesting overlaps, and there are the generously sized round-abouts all over Phnom Penh. And there is the beautiful "Croisette"-style river promenade (Nice, Cannes, France). Even if all the remaining historic buildings of the French period would fall victim to the current real-estate gold-rush one can sense in this town, the urban design will forever be a reminder of French planning.

The French protectorate was established against the will of the Khmer, but King Norodom had not much choice in view of the French gun boats anchored at the Tonle Sap river in front of his palace. He was raised in a country which was in essence divided up between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, and France was just about to establish French Indochina, forcing Cambodia into a union with Laos and Vietnam.

The French organized the city in largely three sectors: 1. French quarter to the north, Chinese in what's called BKK, in the center, and Khmer in the outskirts. The goal was to be separate from the Khmer.

The Chinese influence in the city was always very strong, descendants of Chinese families ruled, and still rule, large segments of the economy. In historic times they also controlled the very lucrative opium trade. The French authorities tried to established an own opium monopoly to take influence away from ethic Chinese. The attempt was only partially successful. 

The increasing demand for rubber by the growing automotive sector in the West established and boosted an early French dominance in the automotive sector (MICHELIN). Large plantations were built in Cambodia, and rubber was one of the major exported goods.

The examples of French-designed buildings are impressive, however their preservation  seem to be low on the local authority's 'To-Do'-list. Some of them are in dire need of restoration or else they will be lost in the very near future (Police Commissariat). Here are some of the prominent examples.

Hotel Internationale, Street 13, (approx. 1895, Architect: Unknown).
The street is known as the "Protectorate street". Not much has changed visually.

Chinese-Khmer residence (c.1915)
Sothearos Boulevard, opposite National Museum, now houses UNESCO headquarters.

Chinese-Khmer residence

Chinese-Khmer residence, Detail parapet.

Unknown. Sothearos Boulevard.

National Sports Complex (Olympic Stadium) (1964)
architects: Vann Molyvann & multi-national team

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium, cantilevered concrete shell, span approx. 12 meters.

Olympic Stadium

Vann Molyvann's fabulous 1964 design of the Olympic Stadium is encroached by a real estate extravaganza of several tall residential and commercial towers currently under construction. The Korean developer managed to acquire large portions of the former Olympic park green space surrounding the stadium; when completed, the stadium itself will sit cramped, without the necessary space to breath, inside of this new complex. On a sign in front of the sales pavilion, the developer calls it: "Miracle of Phnom Penh." Well, maybe.

French residence, today office building (1960s, Architect unknown)

Tonle Sap river, at the junction with Mekhong river.

Tan Bunpha Chinese merchant residence, Sisowath Quai

Tan Bunpha residence.

Directorate of Rubber, Architect unknown.

Chaktomuk  Conference Hall, Architect: Vann Molyvann (1961)

Former "Manolis Hotel", once the only luxury hotel in Phnom Penh. Houses today some 30 families.
Former Postes et Telegraphes (French Central Post Office, 1895) Architect: Daniel Fabre. The square in front is unofficially known as the "Postal Square" and represents the heart of the French quarter.

Central Post Office

Central Post Office

Central Post Office

Central Post Office

Colonial Police Commissariat. Corner of Street 13 and 98, French Quarter. (1892)
"Hotel Belleville" in Matt Dillon's "City of Ghosts"

The building, which was built in 1892 and served as the colonial police force’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, has been mostly derelict for decades. The building is known for its role as the guesthouse run by Jacques Depardieu’s character in Matt Dillon’s 2002 crime drama City of Ghosts (PPP, Bennett Murray).

Colonial Police Commissariat

Colonial Police Commissariat

Colonial Police Commissariat

Maybe the 2002 movie "City of Ghosts" with Matt Dillon and Gerard Depardieu is not the greatest movie ever filmed but it is still worthwhile seeing (Matt Dillon should stay with acting, as a director he is pretty worthless, IMHO). I like it because of the sites and atmosphere of a gone-by era in Phnom Penh (one that I still remember), and because my friend Bernie plays a small role as an unscrupulous French expat villain.

Banque de l’Indochine (1890s/1930s)
5 Street 102, now houses Van’s Restaurant.

Tan Pa residence (1923)
Street 114, now houses Maybank Bank

Tan Pa residence (1923)

Tan Pa residence (1923)

1950s residence, Sihanouk Boulevard. Architect unknown.

Huynh Tho residence (1920s) , Corner Norodom Boulevard, Street 178. Formerly Embassy of japan, now private.
Architect: unknown

School, Sihanouk Boulevard.

Residence, Norodom Boulevard. Architect: Unknown.

The classic French concrete pavement tile, used all over the world where French administration ruled.

The Plantation Hotel, former French colonial administration building.  Restored in 2011 by ASMA Architects, Owner: Alexis de Surmain.

The Plantation Hotel

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