Every once and again you stumble upon buildings which do not fit any category in your catalogue. The central market, or Psar Thmey, in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is one such building. As a grand gesture, it lies in the center of the city, with a giant dome connected to four elongated halls, streching out diagonally to form a cross-shaped floor plan.
The building is designed by the otherwise unknown French architect Jean Dubois, and was completed in 1937 during the French colonial rule of Cambodia. It sits on the Western fringe of what was then the city of Phnom Penh, in a previously swampy area which was drained in order to build the market. Today it marks the center of the city, which has long outgrown its boundaries of the colonial era.
Whether it was a special characteristic of French colonial architects to be more experimental and unorthodox than their colleagues working in France, I don’t know, but I can’t help comparing it with the former catholic cathedral of Casablanca, Morocco, which I have described in a previous post. Its expressive formal language is a form of art deco, yet the detailing is unlike anything else I have seen.
The building design is adapted to the local climate – hot and humid – with its very high ceilings and filigree fenestration, which allows for ventilation without letting in too much sunlight. Originally the open space between the four halls was landscaped as it can be seen in these historical aerial views from the 1960s, but now this space has grown a web of market stalls which significantly blurs the experience of how the building sits on its site.
Concrete buildings tend to become quite worn in wet, tropical climates, with black stripes from rainwater run-off building on the facades. The central market in Phnom Penh was no exception, until it was thoroughly renovated a couple of years ago. Heavy renovation of old buildings is a complicated thing, though, as the patina speaks of the age of the buildings. Now, in its renovated state, the building appears a bit too purified in its glaring eggnog color.
Also, the renovation seems to have triggered an upscaling of the goods offered inside the market. Clean and tidy gold and jewelry stalls take up the entire space of the vaulted dome, stripping the market off of that messy everyday atmosphere which characterizes traditional urban markets all over the world. More everyday items are sold in the stalls outside the market. Nonetheless, the building is fascinating in its architectural uniqueness.