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Touring the White Building

By: Sophie Mensdorff Posted: March-17-2014 in
White Building
Sophie Mensdorff

Almost every Phnom Penh expat knows the White Building, the sub-standard apartment building (some call it a slum) on Sothearos Boulevard, opposite Meta House. Most people have walked past; some might even have taken pictures

of the building, built by Cambodia’s famous architect Vann Molyvann. However, very few actually go inside. The reasons are obvious: it is run down and doesn’t look safe. The building is said to house prostitution and drugs, and at night it’s a meeting place for gangs.

Tharo, a 19 year old IT student, has been living in the White Building with his family for 14 years: “The two first blocks on the left are the ones most people associate with the White Building. This part really isn’t safe, many people who live there are unemployed, take drugs and there is prostitution. Block three to six are where mostly artists and families live. People have jobs and lead a ‘normal’ life. They tend to stay in the part they live in and know, and grandparents tell their children not to go strolling around other parts of the building, because it is not safe.”

The “good side” of the White Building accommodates Aziza School, where students can take free English and computer classes, funded by EYC (Empowering Youth Cambodia). It is also the location of Sa Sa Art Projects, which offers free video classes for the community members on weekends and occasionally artists-in-residence programs. Tharo plays in a band, and many of his friends who live in the White Building are also artists. Some of them are dancers and perform at Plae Pakaa, the traditional dance shows at the National Museum. Cambodian Living Arts, the NGO behind Plae Pakaa, also holds a class of traditional Pinpeat music in a small classroom in the White Building.

Tharo says a lot of people think of the White Building as a bad and dangerous place, even Cambodians. He recalls how once a friend offered to take him home on his motorbike, but after he heard where Tharo lived, he refused. Taking a tour with Tharo shows that even though some residents of the White Building live in very poor conditions, there is also a colorful community of coffee and snack vendors, small shop owners, hairdressers, children watched by their grandparents and some elderly ladies gambling. The bustle of people is accompanied by the recurring sounds of traditional Cambodian instruments.

History of the White Building

It did not always look like this. When it was constructed in the early 1960s the White Building was a model building for King Norodom Sihanouk’s plan for the development of a modern Phnom Penh. Cambodia had just become independent from France in 1953, and it was a period of dynamic cultural and political ambition, resulting in an extensive program of building. A far-reaching cultural and social vision for Cambodia was reflected in the new architecture of the time, which focused on integrating an international style with local tradition, materials and climate. The resulting style has been called “New Khmer Architecture”.

New Khmer Architecture

At the time, King Sihanouk was very involved in designing the city, and saw a need for low-cost housing. In 1961, he addressed the Governor of Phnom Penh regarding the need for an urban housing solution: “Our capital must deal with the problem of the urban population, i.e. the modernization of housing…I do not think it is necessary to remind you of the social and hygiene problems, the fire risk, the infrastructure and transport problems...We must begin the construction of low-cost apartment buildings that can be rented or sold to average and small income families. This will no doubt take some time and requires progressive planning and investment.“

Following the King's orders, an international team of city planners was gathered to assist Mr. Lu Ban Hap, Director of the Municipal Town Planning and Housing Department and Mr. Vann Molyvann, Architect and Head of the Urban Planning and Housing Department of the Ministry of Public Works. On twenty-four hectares along the Bassac River, the team realized an ambitious urban planning scheme including multi-level, low cost housing and public buildings such as the Exhibition Hall and the National Theatre.

The Municipal Apartments (the White Building’s original name) were inaugurated in 1963 and consisted of 468 apartments for municipal staff, teachers and other public servants. A lot of artists, who worked in the nearby National Theatre, lived there. It employed about 400 artists. It survived the war, but was destroyed by a fire in 1994 and the ruins were demolished in 2008.

Structure of the White Building

The White Building is more than 300 meters long and includes six different blocks that are joined by open staircases. The plans were designed with the tropical climate in mind. It is very open, with open kitchens and bathrooms, to let in the breeze. The concept was new. Previously Cambodians had used the model of the Chinese shophouse, where every family had a small house, with the shop downstairs and the family living upstairs.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and as people moved back to the abandoned capital, surviving artists were invited to gather and reside in the White Building. Over three decades, the residing community has continued to expand to accommodate a mostly low-income urban population. Due to poor maintenance and repeated fires, the building is unfortunately in rather poor condition. Today, the fading facade and dilapidated infrastructure belies a vibrant community of a few thousand residents including artists, musicians, and everyday city dwellers.

Visiting the White Building

Tharo likes to practice his English and is thinking of starting a tour agency in the future. In the meantime, he cooperates with expat2cambodia, a boutique relocation company in Phnom Penh that helps expats “become local experts” by organizing various non-touristic tours around town. Visit expat2cambodia’s blog for more info on tours.

Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970 
Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins, 2006, ISBN: 974934121X (out of print)

Sophie Mensdorff is Co-managing Director of expat2cambodia, a boutique relocation company fully operated by expats.
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