Phnom Penh from the Politics of Ruin to the Possibilities of Return
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Phnom Penh from the Politics of Ruin to the Possibilities of Return

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Abstract

This article describes the various imaginaries and practices that underlie the contemporary building boom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. One such imaginary is of a city of absence. In part, this relates to a discourse of the city in ruin, the result of material-historical processes that destroyed Phnom Penh’s urban fabric and society in the 1970s. Yet idioms of ruin and absence have been markedly resilient in Phnom Penh; indeed, they were widely appropriated during the colonial and postcolonial eras to justify experiments in city-making and urban-planning interventions. The article thus aims to relate these older representations of absence to contemporary invocations of the city as tabula rasa — but an explicitly Asian one. Such representations, which organize perceptions of the city and govern the logics of its space, are key to current planning experiments that are seeking to remake it as the city of the future. With Phnom Penh an emerging space of circulation and a field of intervention, these efforts include a shift to building vertically, with highrise towers, in a town once acclaimed for its French provincial charm.

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