Saturday, February 07, 2009

ARCHITECTURE TO DIE FOR

Kampot, southern Cambodia. You've got to love a town where one of the major activities listed in the guide book is "going for a stroll". Because not only am i proud of my bipeduality, but i am also an unabashed fan of decaying French colonialist architecture. So evenings here spent strolling the bars peppered around the river and the old bridge are, for me, evenings well spent.

The vaulting art nouveau, art deco and modernist architecture here took a hiding in the civil war of the 1970s, but even when burnt, blackened by tropical fungus, in a state of semi-collapse and riddled with bullet holes, these buildings still retain their charm. I would argue that, like the patina of strife on a piece of antique furniture, this aesthetic of decay has improved most of these works. Part of the magnetic appeal of these two- and three-storey buildings - at least, of those left standing - is in their movement, like a shell on the back of a hermit crab, into a postcolonial, subversive space within our eclectic twenty-first century.

A riverfront apartment is home to a Sri Lankan restaurant or cocktail bar, a former sprawling market houses an improvised indoor volleyball court. Regular 1960s row houses, in the street where i am staying, are brightly redecorated with Khmer shrines and Chinese feng shui. Ministries of Economics are turned to massage schools, and former palaces have become squats.

I hire a three dollar scooter - welcome to the cheap seats - and ride down to nearby Kep, the seaside town which became known as "The City of Ghosts" after the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed most of its beautiful, sprawling homes and murdered the occupants. They were fierce Maoists, intent on destroying the bougeoisie and their elitist, rich lifestyles. Ironically, their egalitarian motives are being usurped by those connected with the current government and other rich Khmer elites who are returning in droves to Kep. In Cambodia, prime real estate is everywhere being snapped up by those with ties to Hun Sen's ruling party or those willing to pay them their ubiquitous kickbacks. No longer so ruthlessly equitable, it seems the people's party has traded its Maoist caps for baseball caps and is embracing a corrupt version of the free market. And is there any other version?

The shells of many of these former palatial residences still exhibit architecture to die for - quite literally. After exploring a ruin on a beach lined with coconut trees, i ride the rest of the way into Kep, stopping outside a grand set of wrought-iron gates, broken and held together by barbed wire. The remains of a manicured garden stretches from these rusting gates to a bombed-out palace. A squatter is sitting in one of the glassless windows on the ground floor, smoking. He motions me in.

It takes a hefty shove to creak the gates open. Chickens peck at scraps and smoke from a cooking fire wafts across the grounds. There is laundry hung across the foyer and a ragged blue tarpaulin is stretched across the high-ceilinged verandah. Inside, most of the beautifully painted ceramic floor tiles have been chipped away, and charcoal and wood is stacked by a handrail-less, wide stone spiral staircase that leads to the floor above.

Like many of the Khmer, the man appears to know only two words of English. "One dollar," he says. Everything here is one dollar. A short ride on the back of a moto: one dollar. A bottle of water: one dollar. The opportunity to photograph a squatter in front of a palace in the City of Ghosts: one dollar. I peel off some US currency and ask him to pose for the Rolleiflex in front of his beautifully decaying home. His arms crossed.

I climb the spiral stair and wander the eerie, empty rooms, faded walls covered with graffiti, messages carefully painted in Khmer script, and, on the fa├žade that looks out over the ocean, bullet holes.

When i return downstairs, the squatters are nowhere to be seen. The front gates are closed again, and a tour bus is driving by. Tourists openly gawpe at me, standing at the front of the palatial residence. I'm glad it's only tourists, and not the Cambodian police or military. I might have had some explaining to do - some of the properties have 'no trespassing' signs on them, and probably not always in English.

Back in Kampot, i sit writing in my notebook at the Honey Bar, a couple of blocks from the mish-mash reconstruction of the old bridge. The town is described in tourist guides as 'soporific' - and it does have the languid feel of the riverside town. Less of the pummel and froth of the seaside town of Sihanouk Ville. It is laid back and cosmopolitan. And, speaking of cosmopolitan, the cocktails here are two dollars. The honey trap of the travelling alcoholic ...

Faded yellows and blues against the blackened stone, orange lichen, tropical foliage and broken pavements and streets. Everywhere the tuktuk, scooter and bullock. Why am i so drawn to this aesthetic of ruin?

I take another draught of the white rum. The answer is self evident.

8 comments:

miCheLLeBLOG said...

Hey you 'aesthetic ruin', great story as usual. Can't wait to see the pics.

David Thompson said...

Great story. I enjoyed it a lot.

the limerant object said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
melinda said...

Very poetic, informative account Ad, I almost feel like I can see where you are...
Ms Mayhem x

Anonymous said...

Stunning stuff, AD.

Anonymous said...

Say, AD - a cracking little yarn on Mediawatch last night. You'd have loved it. No doubt it's online.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff mate, thought your blog was becoming a little stale for a while, but fuck was I wrong. Your recent posts are fantastic.

jules

Mark Roy said...

thanks Jules - i was becoming a bit stale in Albany i think!

Anonymous - yes, i saw media watch, there may be a blog post in that one!