Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Liminal landscapes: Configuring dualities of ruralism and urbanism to retain cultural values in Cambodia's urban center

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posted on 2022-07-28, 04:33 authored by Chhim, Chao Son Anthony

With the rise of urbanization and more job opportunities in the city, there is a common trend of the younger rural demographic migrating to the urban center seeking work to provide for their family. With modern cities growing at such a fast pace, the urban fabric is more so designed to express one’s cities visual dominance. From this, cities are in a battle of who can build the biggest, more technical top of the line buildings. This leads to the neglection of traditional and cultural significance within the design of the buildings of such country. This is the current issue in the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. The current urban population of Cambodia is 22% as of 2019, which is a radical shift from 1975, when only 4.5% lived in the urban center due to the genocide that had Cambodia population relocated to the countryside to work on rice fields as a Utopian vision seen by the leader of Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot. In present days, Cambodia’s rural population are making their way back into the urban center. Cambodia has been in the post-war rebuild stage for the last decade, and construction has been growing at an accelerated pace in the past few years. The majority of the buildings being constructed are foreign designed, mainly luxury condos or apartments and high risers, which in most cases lack ‘Khmer style’. With this being the future of Cambodia’s built environment, the country is moving in the direction of losing its cultural identity and values. For rural migrants coming into the city for the first time, acclimating to this new condition will be challenging. Lifestyle, rituals, traditions of their everyday life will be lost.

This thesis looks at an island situated in the heart of Phnom Penh, Koh Pich, which translates as Diamond Island. With humble beginnings of farmland and marsh, the folklore of how Koh Pich became an island was that about 50 years ago, a ship sank right where the island is now. This proceeded to build up of silt, creating the 700m wide island. By 1979, after the war, fishing families occupied the island and used the rich soil to grow rice. The island is the epitome of liminal as it is forever transforming and is transformative. As of 2004, Koh Pich is in high demand for luxury high rise apartments and mansions and is undergoing major construction. An island made for the wealthy, it sits where three rivers meet: the Bassac River, Mekong River, and Tonlé Sap River. Cambodia has a very strong water culture, and this island has been developed to help mitigate the floods to maximize occupation on the site, whereas traditional Cambodia has always learnt and adapted to being amphibious and lived as one with the water.

This thesis proposes a speculative design focusing on the liminal condition for rural migrants coming into the city for the first time. It argues that traditional rural migrants can also live within a contemporary city while maintaining their values. This thesis sets three main objectives to achieve this: to dive deep into the knowledge of traditional aspects of life in a rural sense that tradition arrived from as a form of recognition within the urban; to reintroduce the liminal of Koh Pich to engage the littoral zone to embrace the water’s edge as a way that provides; and to be able to live off the land as they once did by enabling one to grow their own food to encourage a sustainable lifestyle in an urban condition.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Architecture (Professional)

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

950502 Understanding Asia's Past

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Brown, Daniel