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Journal of Design Strategies
Designing W/
The Integral City
New York, Phnom Pehn. Phnom Pehn, New York.
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New York, Phnom Pehn.

genealogy of urban form

pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath
As part of Brian McGrath's Theory of Urban Form studio, I set out to understand the new urban forms rapidly being constructed in Phnom Penh relative to its historical urban patrimony. Rather than illustrate a chronological history of growth, the project seeks to present the form of the city as produced by historical ruptures. My research began with the collection of available historical maps and views. Additionally, by tracing 2014 Google Earth satellite imagery, I updated the most recent municipal-based map of Phnom Penh from 1997. Following are six figure-ground maps from selected time frames that represent the historical ruptures identified in my archival research. Each map can be seen as representing a different city of different urban form built by different city actors with different political, economic, and cultural goals. Through this analysis, the urban form of the most recent time period 1972-2014 can be evaluated in relation to the legacy of Phnom Penh’s past.

Found in 1372 AD, Phnom Penh did not become the permanent capital of Cambodia until in 1865. The majority of the population in Phnom Penh lived along the west bank of the Tonlé Sap and Bassac Rivers in bamboo and wood structures with hatched roofs. Established in 1863, the French protectorate constructed the new capital for Cambodia in attempt to modernize the city’s appearance. Historically, the colonial urban form of Phnom Penh was forged through two primary planning efforts that unfolded during the 1890s and the 1920s. The population of Phnom Penh grew from 350,000 in 1865 to around 2.3 million today (approximately 15% of Cambodia’s 14.8 million inhabitants in 2013). Phnom Penh has grown to be the national center of politics, economics, culture, diplomacy, and trade.

Around 1867, the first long northbound road was built to support residential and municipal development along the Tonlé Sap River. This road also connects Phnom Penh to the older cities of Cambodia such as Sambor Prei Kuk and Angkor Wat. Some smaller street openings also started to form big blocks irregularly from the area of the Royal Palace to the area of Wat Phnom, providing the foundations for the new colonial capital. At this time, Phnom Penh did not have urban planning. Rather its urban ordering system was based on the Royal Palace and surrounding cultures as well as the legend of Wat Phnom—the only man-made hill in the region. Under French planning, the Royal Palace was demolished. In 1870, its original wooden structure was rebuilt in concrete. 01


phnom penh figure-ground 1867. pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath, 2014.

In 1886, the first map of Phnom Penh was formally designed. It revealed road openings on the north and south of the city and regular grids that formed many small blocks. Numerous new residents in this area settled in bamboo and wooden houses. The waterway provided the easiest transportation to Phnom Penh from other cities. The French had a strong foundation in Saigon before they came to Cambodia. They used the waterway to deliver produce from Phnom Penh to Saigon and their military from Saigon to Phnom Penh. The map illustrates how the streets north of the Royal Palace formed big blocks where public buildings—such as markets, storage, and the port—were constructed. 02


phnom penh figure-ground 1868-1886. pen sereypagna and brian mcgrath, 2014.

In the 1890s, the French started to build a street grid in the swampy area to the south that followed ethnic group lines. There was a French Quarter for administration, a Chinese Quarter for business, and a Khmer Quarter for local residents along the Mekong River. Phnom Penh's administrative center was established as a place to rule over the entire city and, therefore, re-center it.
The King's property was the property of the State. A real estate market was established to allow the purchase and transfer of urban property. As a result, Phnom Penh experienced a construction boom.

Tax stations, post offices, the Treasury, and other key institutions were built in the French quarter. Around Wat Phnom, a military base and canal were constructed for trade and defense. 03


phnom penh figure-ground 1887-192. pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath, 2014.

In the early twentieth century, the main institutions of Cambodian culture were built in the Khmer quarter—including the Pali School, the School of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Cambodia, and the Royal Library. There was a long boulevard to the west of the city that was used for traveling to the coast of Cambodia. It seems that the French had started to find a new way for doing trade besides using the Mekong River. Other new infrastructures began to appear along this road—such as the horse racing field and the beginnings of a city dike. A long road to Takhmao was built to connect the city to the South. Apart from these changes in the Khmer Quarter, the majority of urban transformation occurred in the French and Chinese Quarters.

From 1922 to 1950, urban planning in Phnom Penh focused on the Chinese Quarter, the Khmer Quarter, and road development to surrounding cities. The railway station was built in1927 to transport goods to the city. The railroad cut the city into two parts, the south and the north. French architect, Ernest Hébrard, created a new town extension, including a central roundabout, in the northern part of Phenom Pehn. There were many ports along the riverbank in the Chinese Quarter. Concrete houses replaced wooden homes. The canal was filled in and transformed into prominent boulevards. In the 1940s, the greater southern expanse of the city was created through the completion of the city dike. Street grids were built between the dike and the river in two areas. Both new street grids followed the boulevards and consider the New Market, a monumental building, their center. In 1932, Monivong Bridge was built over the Bassac River to facilitate trade between Phenom Pehn, Chbar Ampou, and Saigon. 04


phnom penh figure-ground 1922-1950. pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath, 2014.

Cambodia gained independence in 1953, ushering in the 'Golden Age'— also known as the second splendid period after the Angkor period. Under the leadership of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Phnom Penh focused on national infrastructure projects such as the National Sport Complex and Village Apartments as well as the Roy- al University Campus. From 1958 to 1968, Phnom Penh doubled in size. The cosmopolitanism and the visual order of Phnom Penh in the 1960s allowed the city to gain a reputation as the ‘Garden City in Southeast Asia.’ Urban planning followed boulevards and monuments—traces left by the colonial regime—as anchoring devices to establish a system of urban order. Expansion of the city to the west was facilitated by the construction of dikes which extended from colonial planning and formed a series of concentric arcs for the city’s major boulevards.

During the rainy season, water must be either pumped out toward the river, or directed inwards, toward the natural reservoirs called boeung (lakes). New residents built wooden houses on stilts around these lakes because they were inside the dike and this protected them from flooding. In addition the lake provided a resource for food, supported a micro-economy, and there was a lack of available housing elsewhere in the city.

The construction of Chroy Changvar Bridge over the Tonlé Sap River connected Phenom Pehn to northern Cambodia and Vietnam. Most of the urban changes to the west of Phnom Penh were public projects such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh and One Hundred Houses—the National Bank of Cambodia’s staff housing. Additional changes included commercial infilling along Russia Boulevard—a major connection to the airport. Throughout the 1960s in the east, The Bassac Development Project began filling twenty-four hectares of swamp along the Bassac River allowing for developments including The National Theater, Olympic Housing, and the White building. This project not only created an area for more national-led development but also established Diamond Island as a future site for development. 05


phnom penh figure-ground 1951-1971. pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath, 2014.

After the civil war, throughout them 1980s, many people came to Phnom Penh to find a place to live. Yet the city lacked the capacity to provide housing. People were forced to take shelter in any empty house they could find. Phnom Penh still lacks a plan to provide adequate public housing. Large portions of the population have fashioned their own homes and neighborhoods, albeit without services or rights. Periodically, people are forcibly moved to the suburbs. New mega-developments, designed as satellite cities were being built on the water systems such as lakes or ponds. Together these water bodies form a chain that follows the Mekong River from north to south and function as an important infrastructure for water management. On a smaller scale, water channels have been replaced by many small paths in the center of the city. Diamond Island is an important mega-development project. The gate to the island is a bridge across a narrow channel of water. It is held in place by new riverfront promenades that transform the sediments of the Bassac Delta hydro system into a scenic environment for a variety of activities, from wedding celebrations to casino gambling.

One consistent trend is the migration of people from the countryside to Phnom Penh to find better lives—jobs, education, etc. Today, people typically head to the western side of the city where they can find low cost land and a house or build whatever they prefer. At the same time, the mega-housing developments previously mentioned as well as the industries linked to the airport and port continue to expand. There is also a trend of creating developable land by filling in rice paddies and floating gardens with sand, dredged from the river. This unsupervised and heterogeneous urban change is visible as patches of new development, which are separated from each other by small farm parcels, and pond commons. 06


phnom penh figure-ground 1972-2014. pen sereypagna & brian mcgrath, 2014.

Public Realms
In the past, Phnom Penh was ruled by a King. Life was governed according to the laws of religion and nature. The River was revered as a natural phenomena that provided food for people. Most people’s lives depended on fishing, which meant many settled along the river. The Khmer believed that religion created everything on Earth.

They lived around the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom to accompany the King and religion, Buddhism. In short, The Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and the River were the fundamental elements that created the genealogy of Phnom Penh.

The French introduced a new political form to Phnom Penh. During the colonial period, they separated the city into three quarters of governance: French, Chinese, and Khmer. Each quarter had a unique urban form, function, size, and building typology in the colonial system. Boulevards and geometric grid systems were implemented to build the city. Dikes protected the city from flooding and formed boulevards. Considering the diversity of building form and size, this organization served as a good way to guarantee urban homogeneity. The port and railroad were constructed for trading inside and outside the country.

Following the end of French colonial period, Phnom Penh entered post-independent urbanism, associating nation-building with city-building. The urban form of the city was an extension of the urban grid of France. Modernization of Phnom Penh was catalyzed by the development of various infrastructures including the Independence Monument, the National Sports Complex, and the Bassac Riverfront development.

During the post-war period, Phnom Penh began to grow again. In 2000, the economy was propelled by an extraordinary boom in construction, which privatized many public buildings and land. This speculative city filled lakes and added islands in the river for housing. The primary focus was globalization and the develop- ment of private enclaves, rather than the public realm.

By investigating the movement of genealogy through time and space, these six figure-ground maps illustrate the differences in quality and quantity of urbanism in Phnom Penh. The present city is a combination of all past urbanisms. The Phnom Penh of the future needs to understand these differences in order to move forward.
economy of shape
mikaela kvan


economy of shape
mikaela kvan
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