PHNOM PENH: The cries of snack sellers mix with the cacophony of lingering tuk-tuk drivers, skipping and shouting dirty-faced children and construction workers sitting at street side drink stalls, seemingly inches from Phnom Penh’s constant traffic snarl.
Overhead lies an icon of this fast changing city – a building that has stood through revolution, armed struggle and social upheaval: The most turbulent times this nation has ever faced.
Everyone in Phnom Penh knows about the White Building. It is notorious in fact.
Once the crown architectural jewel of King Sihanouk’s vision to transform Cambodia’s capital into an urban metropolis and provide modern housing for a fast expanding population, the sprawling apartment complex is now beaten and tired, but still home to thousands.
The White Building in its early days in the 1960s (Photo: White Building Archival Images)
It is nothing like white anymore. Rather its walls, splintered in parts, carry the hue of decay, a visual symbol of a building in decline in a city on the move. Its occupants are a vibrant community, once artists and performers but now just as likely to be civil servants or tradespeople. A reputation for prostitution services and drug deals still rings strong.
The corridors within the White Building are long and dark, but provide residents pathways between blocks.
Families have been raised here. Generations have walked these same stairs, now without the sheen of Cambodia’s near forgotten “golden era” of the 1960s, before the devastation of the Khmer Rouge rule and later political struggles that saw tanks roll through the city streets.
A city has grown rapidly around the foundations of the project. It is indeed a rare site in Phnom Penh now, one of the few survivors from that era still standing around its modern successors - casinos, glass and steel.
Through the small window of Savuth Sem’s top level apartment conspicuously stands a tower wrapped in green mesh topped with a moving crane. It is incomplete but rising by the day, just like the city’s skyline where construction of contemporary structures is occurring at a rapid rate, often on land once occupied by Phnom Penh’s poorest residents.
The 47-year-old moved here with his family back in 1982. He remembers that time fondly. “The building was very beautiful. There were roads on both side, many trees, and there was also a park,” he said, while sitting in a small, leaden living room.
A partially constructed tower through the window of Vuth Sem's apartment is one of dozens forming part of Phnom Penh's skyline.
A faint breeze sweeps through the space, hardly enough for much respite from Cambodia’s sticky monsoon season, yet Sem is comfortable and protective of his home and community.
“I have many friends living in this building. In the morning we normally drink coffee and chat together. In the evening we often go to eat together and drink some beers. The building has a nickname – ‘Beijing’ – because there’s always something going on,” he said.
While the design – long dark corridors connecting six blocks over 450 metres – is not necessarily conducive to socialising, the sense of community has remained strong, and on the open concrete staircases in between buildings, residents gather to sit and chat in the afternoons.
Often the project’s uncertain plight is top of mind. Amid the White Building’s gradual decline, the calls to knock down and redevelop this prime land have grown only louder.
Long-time resident Savuth Sem cares for his elderly mother outside his top-level apartment.
Fears about the building being condemned and demolished first emerged in September 2014 when Phnom Penh’s governor Pa Socheatvong was quoted saying “the time has come to knock it down”.
While authorities backed down from evicting resident, doubts and fears have lingered ever since. Residents ignored requests to vacate the area temporarily over safety concerns in 2015, fearing they would be blocked from returning. Earlier this year, authorities took groups to view alternative land to be offered as compensation in the event of an eviction notice.
Meantime government rhetoric has hardly encouraged residents that their homes will be protected into the future.
“We are concerned by this old building. Firstly, with safety, because this building is condemned, and the second thing is that the beauty of this building does not fit with the age of rising developments in Phnom Penh, as well as our country that is thriving strongly with beautiful and luxury buildings,” a construction ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by local media this month.
It has prompted numerous campaigns from groups pushing to save the city icon.
Local non-government organisation, the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) has acted to empower and inform residents for years. It has a target of ending forced evictions, which have been rife in Phnom Penh in recent times, and has the White Building firmly under its watch.
Community officers regularly work on the premise, going from “home to home” to understand the nature and needs of communities.
“The main problem is income generation, jobs and business at home,” said HRTF’s secretariat director Sia Phearum. “I met some people who live on the ground floor, they don’t want to go because their business can earn US$50 or US$100 a day. How can they sustain their business?”
A motorcyclist rides past the White Building, one of Phnom Penh's most iconic but badly maintained apartment complexes.
HRTF provides training for the “brave” – community members willing and ready to stand up to the authorities – giving them the chance to practise public speaking and acting in role plays designed to help with stronger negotiations.
“From now on, the people need to be strong and have solidarity, work together and stand up together. If they don’t then the government or the company will pick them off one by one, like eating corn,” Phearum said.
Most recently, Ministry of Land officials toured the project with Japanese officials and requested Tokyo’s help to develop the building. What that could mean for residents, none of whom have legal land titles, is unclear, but there is hope among them that foreign help could lead to a better outcome without the need for demolition.
“We don’t want the government to exchange the land or house for us because it will not be enough,” said resident Manny, 70. “We would be very happy if the White Building is simply repaired and repainted.”
While countless other bids to save valuable land from being seized have resulted in loss and displacement, if history is any indicator, the White Building may just hold on.
Once white exterior walls are now far removed from their original state.
Architect and urban housing expert Pen Sereypagna describes the building and its community as true survivors. Both hold a special place for Sereypagna, who lived there for three months as part of an immersive art residency programme in which he delved into its past, present, shadows and secrets.
“You can see the building and community itself changing through time, through many different ruptures. It has adapted itself through the movements; if they don’t change, they will fall,” he said.
“When you live inside you feel a sense of closeness. It was a remarkable experience.”
He came to know the residents beyond their reputations and their outward fears and understand the value of the White Building as something more than a now unsightly set of apartment blocks.
“To preserve the building, you need to preserve the community first because the community will support the building. If you don’t preserve the community, it’s useless. I know the building has historical value but the community is the story: It’s alive.”
Standing in front of a framed family photos from the 1980s, including his now deceased parents and older siblings, resident Savuth Sem reiterates the point.
“I think living here is very special for me as well as for other people. I don’t want to move out from here,” he said.
“If I could stay here for the rest of my life, I would be very happy.”
Makeshift clothes lines hang above a dumping area for thousands of plastic waste from the apartments. Poor sanitation is one premise for authorities to condemn the building.