Most backpackers in Phnom Penh overlook the White Building, but for me, it is one of the most fascinating structures in the city. Quite large and smack in the middle of the busy riverfront area called Front du Bassac, it should deserve more than a quick glance, especially now that the government made plans to demolish it, and with it a piece of the city’s culture and history.
The White Building is a social housing project – one of the first, or maybe the first – in Phnom Penh by architect and visionary Vann Molyvann in the 1960s. Molyvann is the Gaudí, Sinan or Plečnik of Cambodia. The White Building project got abandonend during the civil war and Khmer Rouge regime but soon after, people needed housing and house squatters took over the building. As the country was pretty much destroyed everywhere, almost everyone was squatting.
Today’s Phnom Penh: the White Building, covered in dirt, dust and grease stands out from the other nicer buildings in the area. Large family units live in small cubicles. Cage-like structures inside the windows are supposed to prevent thieves and laundry hangs on the rooftop to dry. The railing is long gone and some windows are blackened out. The rooms are run-down and some are filthy, but almost all present a personalized entity and a home. Piles of garbage take up one side of the building. A market next to the White Building is a place for residents to gather, to buy and sell items and to act as a community. They are not rich, but they live in the city center and participate in city life. Their kids go to local schools.
What will happen after the demolishment? Another hotel or a chain of restaurants emerging from the grounds? Some speculate that the people will have to relocate to an area 30km from the city. They will literally be on the outskirts of society, with less possibilities of good education and fewer job opportunities.
I see young Cambodians in modern cafés, enjoying frappuccinos for around $3. Some people can afford to participate in the new consumerism that seems to be the dream of many young Cambodians, but I doubt it’s the majority. After all, many people make $50-100 a month. Less living space due to foreign investment in restaurants, hotels and bars to acommodate travellers (who bring more money) and rising living cost are just a few of the social problems. And the discrepancy grows…
What will happen to the little girl, the Queen of the White Building? She does not have much but her smile lights up the whole rooftop and conveys pride and pure joy.
The White Building, not the prettiest place but oddly aesthetic and endlessly fascinating to me. I try to do it justice with my photographs. As it will be destroyed in a few years, I hope this piece of culture will be conserved within those pictures, and maybe you have the opportunity to see it before it vanishes.
April 23rd 2017