While Phnom Penh’s older buildings are still relatively safe from the scythes of progress because of the city’s south-bound sprawl, the lack of reliable public transportation will eventually constrain the growth of the city’s perimeter.
As traffic worsens due to the growing number of cars on the city’s streets, one may begin to wonder if it is still possible to maximise the use of Phnom Penh’s existing inner city spaces and structures to improve the quality of life for residents without sacrificing the character of the city.
At first glance, it may seem like a futile fight, but an emerging wave of architects and entrepreneurs are leading a movement by setting an example of how the structures of the past can be adapted to meet the needs of modern Cambodia.
Among them is architect Yvon Chalm, who is overseeing the renovation of what was once an administrative building of a rubber trading company that was built in the early 1950s, on a quiet street off the bustling Sisowath Quay, just around the corner from the iconic Chinese House.
“When we first started, we had to stabilise the foundation of the building, but the building was in an otherwise good condition, despite having been abandoned,” said Chalm, who began working on the project in late in 2016.
“As such I see no reason to make any significant changes to the design of the building.”
Chalm’s approach is apparent as soon as one sees the facade of the building. It was clear that many of the original designs and fixtures were retained to maintain the original design of the building, but the decision to do so was not based solely on aesthetic purposes.
“These large panoramic windows do not only evoke the trend of the period, but also provide plenty of natural light to conserve energy, in addition to providing sweeping views of the river and Phnom Penh’s skyline,” he explained.
This very pragmatic, no-nonsense approach is evident throughout the building. If
Chalm’s work is analogous to a sentence with no adjectives. Function is the imperative, and every part of the design serves a dual function – nothing is created simply to please the eye. For example, the layered roof serves as a throwback to Oscar Niemeyer’s design aesthetic, but it also serves to insulate the building to help reduce the building’s energy consumption. The same windows that provide the natural light and the panoramic view also serve as cross vents that utilise the principles of physics to create a constant airflow within each unit.
All that said, all this attention to technical detail has not resulted in a grey column of concrete. Chalm – inspired by the brief, albeit extremely productive Googies period in the 1940s – juxtaposed natural curves and geometric patterns against the ‘harshness’ of concrete, glass and steel, creating an organic, living building.
As a mixed-use building that consists of office spaces and apartment units, it encourages interaction among tenants in the common area on the ground floor – reminiscent of the function of the lower storey of a traditional Khmer stilt house.
Much like Niemeyer’s attitude towards design, Chalm believes that by making the structure an integral part of the design, one can leave a lasting mark on the city’s face.
“If we design a structure that relies heavily on the interior design to set it apart from others, as time goes by characteristics of that structure will eventually fade as it passes on from one hand to another,” said Chalm.
“By making the structure an integral part of the design, no matter how many times the structure changes hands, the overall structure will remain the same.
“In a way, it is an architect’s way of leaving a lasting mark on the face of the city, without razing down the edifices that tells us the history of how Phnom Penh came to be.”
Architects are not the only ones making the effort to maximise the usage of Phnom Penh’s public spaces. Entrepreneurs like Frederic Bachelet, the man responsible for the resurrection of Phnom Penh’s DIB Club, are also making (literal) splashes in Phnom Penh’s inner-city areas.
“When I first started here, there wasn’t much to begin with,” said Bachelet. “The pool was there, but it was in a really sad state, so
I started working immediately and came up with a new concept – a beach club.”
“But given the location – admittedly Koh Pich isn’t the easiest place to get to, especially at night – I have to think outside the box to ensure that I can make a profit,” he said. “I have to be sensitive to the demands of local customers, as well as expatriates because after all this is a business.”
And to accommodate the demands of the various customers that frequent his premises, Fred decided to expand the concept beyond a mere pool club. His
vision is to turn his venue into a one-stop entertainment venue that encourages public interaction that extends beyond its weekly Friday night parties. “The pool is now open for the public, which can be used for free as long as the patron spends a minimum of $5 on food and beverages,” he said.
“This way, people who aren’t inclined to imbibe can enjoy the pool without the pressure of having to spend too much on drinks – essentially expanding the level of access to our premises to a wider audience.”
To encourage public interaction beyond the pool, DIB is now hosting a series of classes including capoeira classes, and the grounds of the premises can be booked for private functions.
“Admittedly it is a bit of a risk, but by thinking outside of the box, there are ways through which entrepreneurs can play a role in maximising the use of existing urban spaces for the benefit of all Phnom Penhers,” finished Bachelet.