Every year in Cambodia, the Mekong River floods hundreds of hectares around Lake Tonlé Sap. In this poor and remote area, a project by architect Jonathan Chheng allies ecotourism, ecodesign and social good.
Each year during the rainy season in Cambodia, the Mekong River rises to the point of reversing the current of Lake Tonlé Sap, flooding the surrounding landscape. This is the case of a small island in the province of Kompong Chhnang, and in particular of one hectare of land, with its temporary chili field, fruit trees, three abandoned fish ponds and decrepit fishing shed resting on 4-meter-tall concrete stilts.
This piece of land is owned by the father of Jonathan Chheng, 30, a French architect of Cambodian heritage, who since June 2016 has been developing a plan to revitalize it. He was attracted by the challenge of “multiple layers of problems and issues related to climate change, especially the phenomenon of rising water levels, as well as defending social causes”.
From Himalayan glaciers to Cambodian floods
“This land is flooded every year, because of its situation surrounded by Lake Tonlé Sap,” he explains. “In October-November, the water can rise up to 7 meters above its lowest level, completely transforming the existing landscape. These fluctuations are destined to be increasingly irregular and hard to predict, due to climate change and the accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas. It’s not just the island that is threatened, but all the shores surrounding the lake, especially those that are occupied by farmland and houses. As this part of Cambodia is very poor and relatively neglected by the State, it doesn’t have much opportunity to develop, even though the region has incredible landscapes that remain more or less untouched.”
While remote, the island situated 91km from Phnom Penh is accessible via the national highway or the waterway that continues northwest toward Siem Reap and the historical site of Angkor. The region of Kompong Chhnang, known for its floating market and pottery villages (the name means “port of pottery” in Khmer), is not among Cambodia’s most touristic areas. It survives primarily from its rice paddies (nearly 90% of farmland), fruits and vegetables, and fishing. However, 10% of households do not own any farmland, half of the local population over the age of 15 is illiterate, and one of out six children on average does not live beyond the age of six.
Greenhouses above ground
Jonathan proposes an architectural solution that is threefold: organize the space around sustainable agriculture; develop ecotourism; build infrastructure for basic health and education. To counter rising water levels, the project will implement an irrigation and drainage system that uses holding tanks and canals. An artificial mound will protect the site from strong winds and offer arable land under greenhouses, reserved for cultivating fruits, vegetables and rare species. The three fish ponds will also be revitalized in order to repopulate endangered species in Lake Tonlé Sap.
To develop tourism, the fishing shed will be converted into a hotel with eight rooms, lobby, library, restaurant, as well as a space to host a seasonal farmer’s market, in addition to pottery and weaving workshops. For the local community, another building will provide basic educational facilities for young children, such as a classroom, nap room, indoor and outdoor recreation spaces, nursing and nutrition.
Gangways above floodwaters
These distinct thematic spaces will be connected by an elevated walkway, as well as shared and crossover activities. From the walkway above the floodwaters, ecotourists can “watch the farmers at work in the greenhouses, but also participate in the harvest. In exchange, the local farmers have the opportunity to meet new people and share knowledge, which isn’t always possible in this remote area of Cambodia,” says Jonathan.
Meanwhile, he continues, “The families who occupy these spaces, parents and children, can remain in proximity to each other, while working in good conditions. During violent storms, this open and accessible gathering space for the micro-society of the island community that surrounds it will become a temporary relief area, where residents can take shelter inside the greenhouses.”
Tadao Ando’s influence
Jonathan admits that this integrated, site-specific architecture is very much inspired by Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s “open” structures, which “take into account the environment and the climate within the spaces, while giving the original site a new personality.”
Clay, bamboo and recycled PVC
Similarly, many of the materials used for construction will be reclaimed directly from local industries. “Clay, both existing on site and sourced from nearby regions, will be used to consolidate the artificial mound. Bamboo, extracted from bamboo plantations such as those in Ta Khmau, will be applied structurally to the walkways. The hydroponic farming system will rely primarily on PVC tubing—industrial waste from local factories that is usually used for domestic plumbing. We’re also researching how recycled plastic can be used for the walkways and hotel rooms.”
When it comes to powering the entire park, the architect puts his trust in the sun: “Solar power is the most appropriate solution for this isolated area. The region is exposed to unobstructed sunlight almost all year round, in both dry and rainy seasons. Furthermore, providers of this technology are increasingly present in Cambodia.”
Jonathan is currently working on the architectural design between Paris and Phnom Penh, with the assistance of a small Cambodian team, which helps to gather information and research local companies. Funding will come in part from members of the Chheng family, and partly from interested institutions and NGOs dedicated to ecology, the environment, local populations and cultures. Once the project is funded, Jonathan estimates “two or three months to gather all the necessary materials, finalize the technical plans and hire the contractors.” Construction itself is estimated at one year.
This eco-architectural project is also in line with Jonathan Chheng’s personal history: “My grandfather participated in the construction of some buildings in the city of Kompong Chhnang. Now I’m here doing this project about a hundred years later, even though the city and the province have completely changed!”
For more information, contact the architect Jonathan Chheng