I was interviewed for the weekend edition of the Phnom Penh Post about the Cambodian capital and how the city inspired me to start writing Imaginary Cities as well as several unpublished works. The full unedited interview is included below (with photos of some of the architecture discussed); my thanks and gratitude to Audrey Wilson for great questions. P.S. I took the photograph above on a motorbike whilst being overtaken by a bad-tempered Buddhist monk.
You’ve attributed some of your initial inspiration for this project to a conversation you had over an evening drink here in Phnom Penh. Where were you, and what about the city provoked you to consider the intersection between imagination and urban physical reality, that cities aren’t “fixed places”?
I’ve been interested in architecture as long as I can remember. As a result of growing up in the north of Ireland during the Troubles, with its checkpoints and watchtowers and so on, I’ve been fascinated by how power manifests in space but equally I’ve wanted to escape all that to the more fantastical reaches of architecture – Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, Catalan Modernisme. One evening I was on the roof of the Foreign Correspondents Club drinking and talking to a Finnish architect. It was rainy season and as we spoke these huge thunderclouds were rolling towards the city and the sun was setting and the whole city just seemed suddenly surreal to me. It struck me that if I tried to write about the place and the history that surrounded us, it would seem barely believable. Facts are stranger than fiction sometimes. From that moment on, I’ve been writing about the connections and the constantly-shifting border between the two.
Phnom Penh has had so many different incarnations; it was an ancient royal capital before falling into obscure ‘dark ages’, a French colonial city then the cosmopolitan ‘Pearl of Asia’, a desecrated ghost town under the Khmer Rouge followed by the transitioning city of today. It’s an extraordinary example but it opens your eyes to the fact that cities are ever-changing things and that they are, for good and ill, largely dreamt up in people’s imaginations. I started to follow that thread and realised it applied to virtually every city. It opens up all sorts of questions; the most pressing being, why do we let our cities be dictated to us by the powerful? When did the citizen become dislocated from the city?
When, and for how long were you living here? What were you doing in Phnom Penh?
My friend Chris Kelly has been in Cambodia for years making a documentary The Cause of Progress about land-grabbing and protests, focusing primarily on Boeung Kak Lake. I moved to Phnom Penh in 2012, helped out a bit on the film, taught kindergarten in Toul Kouk but mainly wrote and explored the city and the country, from Ratanakiri to Kampot to Siem Reap. We went into the Cardamom Mountains when Chut Wutty was killed and were on the outskirts of Broma village when the authorities sealed it off and shot dead a 14 year old girl by the name of Heng Chantha. 3:AM Press published an excerpt of the journal I kept as the chapbook A Hubristic Flea; hopefully the full book will come out someday. The country made a huge impression on me in my brief time there. I’ll have memories of it until my dying day.
When did you begin work on the book? And how did you go from that initial seed of thought to the ambitious work of creative non-fiction that you published?
I began writing it in Phnom Penh, on the balcony of our house on street 300, under colossal downpours, watching lightning hit cranes in the near distance. I also wrote quite a bit in The Terrace on Street 95 then when I left different chapters in Paris, Vienna, Edinburgh and my hometown Derry. It started as an article originally for 3:AM Magazine but it soon spiralled out of control. The first draft ended up being 1700 pages long. You could carry it around in a suitcase. Since it came out I’ve been doing spin-off talks and articles on related themes from video game cities to comic book utopias to unbuilt architectural plans. It’s like an endless Pandora’s Box I’ve opened, which can never be shut, even if I wanted to.
What role does Phnom Penh play in the final version of the book?
I refer to it several times but I think it’s implicitly there all the way through. I think every city you spend significant time in changes your way of seeing things. With Phnom Penh, there were the huge historical, social and political issues but just as much there were profound changes to how you approach space; how you completely change your way of driving around because the flow of traffic is so at odds with the Western approach or how temples are used as points of orientation or how wedding parties absorb entire streets or how the language barrier changes so many interactions etc etc. You start seeing things in a different way and you start questioning how natural the environment you grew up in actually was. I think it’s healthy to be an outsider, certainly as a writer, at home as much as abroad.
You’ve mentioned power residing in a city’s “tallest towers”. In Phnom Penh’s case, some of those towers are empty. What do you see as Phnom Penh’s “zones of exclusion” and “zones of inclusion”?
Power, and its relative absence, are written into the very fabric of the streets. It’s the same everywhere but I think it’s more obvious in Phnom Penh as the disparity in wealth isn’t quite as hidden as in other places. No one in the city needs to be told this but just walk down any street and notice the amount of gated housing and Lexus drivers right next to homeless children or people sifting through garbage for a living. I remember noticing for the first time huge fashion and jewellery billboards having just come from an area where people were being forced to pay rent to live on squalid rubbish dumps. A very literal and symbolic example is to stand on what was once Boeung Kak Lake and take a look towards the government buildings (the so-called Peace Palace on the Russian Boulevard for example) and the bank towers on the skyline. Hun Sen has been a very canny operator, largely dealing with individuals but he’s walking a pretty unsteady tightrope between Western corporate capital and the Chinese state. These things are much more amorphous and slippery (hence the empty buildings). No-one is saying the city can’t advance into the 21st century, it’s already doing that, but it’s crucial that it brings all of its inhabitants along with it.
And beyond those power dynamics, what do you see as some of the most interesting places or buildings here?
There are some extraordinary buildings, despite the devastations of the past and the commercial philistinism of the present. It’s a miracle any of it survived frankly but there are some remarkable examples, and last bastions, of Modernism that should be much more recognised in international architecture circles. I love Central Market; I used to wander around it, watching tiny little birds darting around above the heads of shoppers. Then there’s Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the Institute of Foreign Languages, the Royal University; it’s amazing how they combined architectural styles like Expressionism and proto-Brutalism with Khmer architecture. It’s a spirit that wholeheartedly needs resurrected.
I loved the graffiti that Seth did around the city, and seeing the art of Sera and others in exhibitions. I can’t deny that the Vattanac Capital Tower and the Canadia Tower are impressive at night as much as they are exposed as vacuous by day. I’m cautious of the allure of poverty porn and the voyeurism associated with the White Building but I’d love to see it renovated for its inhabitants. There are lots of crumbling French Colonial buildings (32 Sothearos Boulevard for example) that would be a crime to lose and it’d be great to see the Olympic Stadium sympathetically developed. All are highly unlikely sadly. Mainly, I’m excited and curious to see what directions Khmer architecture will explore in the future. That tradition offers something that the glittering skyscrapers pale next to.
In a recent piece in The Guardian, you posit that we may have already lost the battle against global warning, and that we should plan backwards according to “negative thinking”. How does this play out in a country like Cambodia, which has proven both especially susceptible to climate change and lacking the political willpower and funding to plan accordingly?
Sadly Cambodia will be one of the first countries to reap what the rest of the world has sown, and not for the first time. Geographically, it’s in a perilous position. Travelling across the plains, I was continually awestruck by the beauty but there was always a voice in my head saying this is wide open to the sea. Considering the catastrophes Kissinger and co wrought on the country, assistance in facing such threats is the least the international community can offer. The issue also reflects the sorry state of politics internally. Without the get-out clause excuse of electoral cycles, the CPP and its backers have had decades to enact real change in Cambodia. Unfortunately the kleptocrats and the mantra of ‘stability at all costs’ have prevented this. Saying that, I dearly hope I’m wrong. If there are architects and engineers confronting the reality of a dramatic rise in sea level, they need to treat Cambodia as one of the frontlines. The time for talking is over; thinking and doing are now imperative.
How do you think history — and especially a harrowing one like that of Phnom Penh — shapes a place, and how much of that can be changed — or physically destroyed?
It matters hugely but it’s not inescapable, not for the living at least. We tend to think in symbols. One place I’ve been fascinated by is Bokor Hill Station, which was fought over in numerous battles in the Dâmrei Mountains. For a long time, it held out as a Khmer Rouge stronghold and then it became this strange ghost town, especially around its abandoned hotel. It seemed almost totemic of the history of the nation and it had echoes of Angkor Wat, abandoned and forgotten about for many years. We can go too far into the whole ‘fighting for the soul of Kampuchea’ but it is notable that most of the country’s political forces have appropriated the silhouette of Angkor Wat on their flags and insignia. All of them want to claim a lineage to this lost civilisation. Yet none of them, or any of us, entirely know what Angkor Wat was actually like; was it a place of wonders or horrors or both? So much is projected and so much is manipulated in terms of history.
The simple lessons I suppose are psychological ones and are easier said than done; don’t deny the past but don’t be trapped within it. I count Angkor as easily one of the wonders of the world. Bayon is the only place aside from Venice that left me speechless when I first went there. Yet the contemporary cities of Cambodia are infinitely more important than the glorious ruins of the past. The bittersweet truth that Bokor Hill Station reminds us is that wonders sadly don’t last forever but neither reassuringly do tyrannies.
You mentioned night walks in cities you’ve visited in another interview. It certainly is the best — maybe only — time to be a pedestrian here. Where did you like to take night walks around Phnom Penh?
The obvious places were Riverside, Norodom Boulevard and the likes but they’re not really going to reveal many surprises about the city. To escape that, I’d just pick a direction and walk until I got lost or came to somewhere that felt like the edge and often it would take me hours to get back home or I’d eventually give up and hop on a motorbike. All cities transform when the sun goes down and you see their other faces, some of them horrific, some sublime, sometimes a mix of the two. In Phnom Penh, I saw things that genuinely reminded me of David Lynch films, things I couldn’t rationally explain (a dead body, for example, one night on a street corner next to a burning holdall, on the way to meet the photographer Tim Page) and depending what state I arrived back home in, I’d write down notes to remember. I’ve always loved the writings of Christopher Isherwood and his line in Goodbye to Berlin, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”. It’s impossible of course but rewarding to try. I think a lot of people make the terrible mistake of going to South-East Asia, or anywhere for that matter, to find themselves. The complete opposite should be their aim.
Night-walking around some European capitals, you get the feeling they are inert, pristine corpses. You never get that sense with Phnom Penh. For all its sins, it is brimming with possibilities, not all of them necessarily good, but wildly alive nonetheless.