City Hall Backtracks Amid White Building Outcry

With momentum gathering behind a movement to renovate rather than raze Phnom Penh’s famous White Building, City Hall on Thursday backtracked on its assertion earlier this week that the building was destined for demolition.

On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong said the iconic apartment block had been condemned and that “the time has come to knock it down.”

Mr. Socheatvong explained that he was in talks with the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC) to provide alternative housing on the city’s fringes for the White Building’s residents, who he said are no longer safe in their homes.

But on Thursday, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said his boss had been misunderstood.

“The objective of the city governor is not to [demolish the building],” Mr. Dimanche said.

“The city governor merely explained that OCIC has a satellite project at Chroy Changva [district] where there are proper homes for living in. All the apartments [in the White Building] are corrupted and could collapse.”

Although Mr. Dimanche said Thursday the municipal department of land management and urban planning had carried out a recent inspection of the building, deeming it unsafe, multiple officials inside the department were unable to provide details of the assessment.

Residents, including a village chief, said they were unaware of an inspection and that none of them had been consulted about City Hall’s plans to destroy the homes of the roughly 600 families living in the building.

A group of nine civil-society organizations on Thursday released a statement titled “Stop Destroying Our City,” asking authorities to include residents in their discussions about the building’s fate and provide evidence of an official inspection.

The organizations, including the Cambodian Legal Education Center and the Housing Rights Task Force, called for “a full independent building safety audit assessment, with results to be made available to the affected families and civil society.”

“The government has an obligation to consult with both residents and civil society on development of its city,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in the statement.

Chuch Phoeun, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said Thursday that technical officials were ready to conduct an inspection of the historic building, if requested to do so by City Hall.

“If no technical official inspects [the building], it would be a shame to see the building demolished,” he said.

The White Building, an exemplar of the New Khmer Architecture movement led by celebrated architect Vann Molyvann, was completed in 1963.

Its architects, Cambodian Lu Ban Hap and Russian Vladimir Bodiansky, were mentored by Mr. Molyvann, who has designed some of Phnom Penh’s most iconic structures, including Central Market, Chaktomuk Conference Hall and Olympic Stadium.

Pen Sereypagna, an architect who has been part of the Vann Molyvann project—a collective of artists, architects and historians who are cataloging his work—since its inception in 2009, said that destroying the White Building would be destroying history, and potentially the inspiration for a new generation of Cambodian draftsmen.

“It discourages architecture students in Cambodia because there is no footprint or blueprint for young people to study their own history,” Mr. Sereypagna said of the continuing destruction of historic buildings.

“It’s a loss of history. It’s not just about the White Building; it’s about all modern Khmer architecture. And it’s not just for Cambodians, it’s for all people from all over the world.”

(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)

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