Hun Chansan, design director for Re-Edge Design + Architect and architecture lecturer at Limkokwing University shares his thoughts on the future of construction and architecture in Cambodia.

The Phnom Penh Urban Planning Master Plan was unveiled last year to guide the city’s development until 2035. What are the positive and negative aspects you see in the plan and what would you like to see change in the capital? Is it too late to implement real change?

It’s hard to comment on the master plan without reading the full detail of it but a plan is better than no planning at all. A master plan for a city is not just a graphic guideline or a rule for development; it is a thorough study of socio and economic growth of the city, a city for all, the growing middle class, the growing family, the growing traffic and the growing pressure of city life etc. I want to see Phnom Penh as a smart city, efficient, and a place that balances life, work and family. I don’t think it is too late to change the city, as we are still at the beginning stage of construction, though I hope to see more better designed buildings and architecture.

The city is now rapidly expanding in all directions. In your opinion, which are the best directions for industrial parks, residential developments, commercial zones and tourism development?

In my opinion, the way the city expands relies on Cambodia’s neighbouring countries and the trading economy. Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole is in the centre of the ASEAN trading economy, which makes it the centre of business meeting points. Because of this, it makes sense for industrial zones to develop in all directions but I prefer them to be towards the south and west because there is more room to grow in the future.

For residential development, it depends on the individual master plan of development itself. Each residential development must consider its residents’ lifestyle, commute and overall traffic situation. Each residential development should be diverse, efficient and equipped with all the necessities of life so it can reduce the need to drive back and forth into the city centre.

Commercial activities should happen inside the city centre as well as at the surrounding points that connect the city to its suburbs. An inner-city commercial zone should cater to the needs of people living and working there and planning it with lifestyle businesses mixing banks, markets, offices, schools, museums, libraries, restaurants, cinemas and shopping malls together. Commercial activities on the outskirts will cater for its local population and people who use it as a transit point with businesses such as small branches of banks, lower grade office towers, markets, shopping malls, transit stations, parking stations, and wholesalers, etc.

I have always thought that Phnom Penh needs to develop more attractions for a variety of tourists. We already have a good amount of historical sites, buildings and history but we need more up-to-date variety such as a Contemporary Art Museum, Mekong Wildlife Museum, Phnom Penh Institute of Performing Arts, Modern Memorial Parks, Riverside Boardwalk, Post Office Square Walking Mall, etc… in my opinion they can look into inner city areas such as Chroy Changva and along the riverside area. The major intersection of St.271 and St.371 would be a good spot for an international-scale museum because of its presence to the street, the future growth inside Boeung Tumpun area and also the future construction of the Slerk Rith Institute by Zaha Hadid.

Is the shift to designing low-cost and lower-end properties for middle to lower class buyers a good move for the Cambodian property market?  Is the quality of construction and quality of life adequate in these designs?

It is a good move to build affordable housing because the majority of the population is middle to low income citizens. I cannot say much about the quality of the construction or living quality because it is too early to comment. However, pricing should not affect these two criteria because local authorities should regulate these issues to make sure it is safe, livable and is relatively built to relative standards.  

Is property development design in Cambodia becoming greener? What is more important to recommend to a client: low cost or sustainable design? 

It’s hard to identify something as low cost but not sustainable or not as good quality. I think future developments should be smart developments. What make them smarts is meeting the requirements of urban architecture, the art of living and global trends. Within an urban setting, a building plays a role with its surroundings, its market value, and its effect on the traffic or its presence on the street. A building must also meet the requirements of building regulations and the well-being of its residents. Future buildings should also be a part of the global trend whether or not sustainability is one of them. So if I could give any advice to potential clients, it would be that buildings designed by architects are intended for people to live inside them and that are set the standard for newer developments.       

Does Cambodia have enough architects, engineers, and designers serving the construction industry now? Are graduates capable enough to serve construction-related consultancies especially foreign companies? Are local engineers capable of building complex buildings?

I am not sure how much is enough but I know we do have our limitation and myself is one of them. This is a career that must come from your heart and with a passion. It is also a career that requires you to be creative and technical at the same time, sometimes creativity is what you are born with but technicality is about the experience that you have through time. Lots of people think architects know everything, architects are responsible for everything they draw on the paper but they don’t realize that it is a collaboration work between many other consultants who are there to cross-checking one another to come up with the ideal solution. Regarding are local engineers capable enough to build complex buildings? Why not? Engineering is similar to architecture, it is career that needs years of references, examples and experience. If the future of Cambodia’s development will move towards complex buildings we shall see the improvement in this area as well.    

As you are also an architecture lecturer, how different are local universities’ architecture  curriculums compared to neighbouring nations?

Yes, very different. If not the curriculums it’s the availability of lecturers or it’s the financial issue. There are many obstacles for operating a school likewise providing architectural education in Cambodia. In America where I studied, architecture is regarded as one of the most expensive and longest major to study in the university. Architecture requires a professional degree because it is career that protects the general interests and as a part of the well-being of the society at large, in other words, architects require professional education the same way as lawyers or doctors are

To improve the architecture education here, we need to have clear vision, mission and goal from the private as well as the public institution, the country must see architects as builders of its nation, the institution must be well equipped to teach, the curriculum must have regulated body, the diploma must be valuable, and the public must need architects.    

For students wishing to persue careers in the construction industry, what particular majors or subjects would you recommend them to consider? Why? 

It does depend, construction industry is a broad topic but I believe these are the most needed majors and subjects: feasibility study, architectural technology, construction management, construction technology, quantity surveyor and quality control. The reason is because these topics are not being explored or employed by project owners but will be needed in the near future when standards are being pushed.   

What is your outlook on Cambodia’s architecture sector? Will Cambodia lose its architectural identity? Is it good to have a purely foreign architectural style in the city? 

Architecture is a process of transformation just like us human being, we are a complex nature that continue to evolve, our requirements changes, our lifestyle develops and our mind continue to seek for something new. People decide the type of space and building they like but they are all different. Whether or not the architects are local or foreigners they should have a fair amount of understanding of the local and global context in order to make it happens at anywhere in the world not just Cambodia.

In term of architectural identity, I am not sure what makes us all Khmer, Thai, Egyptian, Singaporean, or even American? Does Khmer have to have Khmer roof? Do Khmer people have to wear Khmer clothes? For me, to maintain Cambodian’s architectural identity is more about understanding the local climate, the local materials, the local labor, the local culture, the people and everything else is a plus.

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