Project Gives Voice to ‘White Building’ Residents

The paint is peeling, water is leaking and, in some places, the building is literally crumbling, Tum Ratha laments.

The 62-year-old lives among some 600 families in the historic “White Building,” a deteriorating modernist apartment complex in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune.

Residents gather in a corridor of the White Building in Phnom Penh last year. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)
Residents gather in a corridor of the White Building in Phnom Penh last year. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)

The famous structure, completed in 1963 and designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and the Ukraine-born French engineer Vladimir Bodiansky, has attracted increased attention in recent months after municipal officials condemned the building for demolition in September. Following widespread outcry, City Hall backtracked on the decision within a week.

Voices of residents like Ms. Ratha—who is proud of her home but also fiercely critical of its decrepit state—are often lost in such discussions about the White Building. But now, someone is listening.

Architect Pen Sereypagna is leading the new Genealogy of Bassac project, which he launched in October with support from Sa Sa Art Projects and the Parsons New School of Design in New York. Its aim is to collect oral histories about the White Building and its neighborhood, documenting architectural changes in the Tonle Bassac area from the 1920s to the present.

The White Building is considered by many architects and historians to be an exemplar of the New Khmer Architecture style, which flourished in the 1960s. But in its current state of disrepair, its facade marred by makeshift additions precariously balanced on eroded balconies, many Phnom Penh dwellers may not see the building’s worth, Mr. Sereypagna says.

Mr. Sereypagna, 25, graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in 2012, before receiving a grant to audit courses at Parsons. He is currently completing a three-month residency at Sa Sa Art Projects, a local organization that gives artists grants to do projects in a space on the second floor of the White Building.

Assisted by six current and former RUFA students and three students from Parsons, Mr. Sereypagna has turned the space into Genealogy of Bassac’s headquarters. It is filled with maps, drawings, architectural models, handwritten notes from residents and colorful scribbles by children living in the building.

Using the White Building as its primary case study, the inquiry addresses three key components of architecture: the building’s structure, how the building has been used and how the building interacts with its environment.

That means producing 2-D and 3-D maps, as well as architectural drawings based on photographs and archival materials. The team is also filming nearby street junctions and sites inside the building to record how people navigate the space.

Looking Back

Mr. Sereypagna and his team began knocking on doors in the building about two months ago to start collecting oral histories.

“We go to interview people to know about their story and let them speak or let them show about what happened with the building, for example, in the 1990s or ’80s—let them construct the form of the structure of the White Building,” he said, adding that so far, the team has interviewed about 30 families.

Mr. Sereypagna talked to residents who moved into the building in 1979 just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, those who came during the 1990s, and even some who moved in a few months ago.

“Most of the time I ask them about their history: why they came here, what did they see when they came here for the first time and what is changing?” he explained.

But the residents are far from passive witnesses, he has found.

Through the conversations, Mr. Sereypagna and his team have tracked structural changes in the apartments: walls torn down or built, water pipes installed, roofs added.

By way of example, Mr. Sereypagna pointed to the roof above the porch he was sitting on.

“In the original design, [there was] no roof. And then, around the ’70s or ’80s, people just started to build the roofs,” he said.

“We’re sort of calling them ‘ad hoc architecture,’ what people have added on, all of the different methods of how people have made their individual apartment their own,” explains Catherine Sims, 26, one of the Parsons students who flew in to join the project for three weeks.

A girl walks a bicycle into an apartment at the White Building in Phnom Penh last year. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)
A girl walks a bicycle into an apartment at the White Building in Phnom Penh last year. (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)

Looking Forward

Though the genealogy project initially aimed to enrich historical knowledge of the Bassac area through conversations with the building’s inhabitants, the student assistants also came up with ideas for some possible renovations to the building.

While Mr. Sereypagna’s interviews with residents focused on the past, the students looked toward the future.

“We go in to interview the residents to…ask them what they want, what they want to improve and what they need,” said RUFA graduate Hann Vathanakun.

The most common suggestion? “They just want paint; they want it to look like new,” he said.

After taking in the residents’ ideas, the students came up with three main proposals: reinforcing staircases with bamboo, creating a rooftop garden and re-organizing the ground-level commerce area.

The students presented their ideas to residents on January 18. Some were excited about the ideas; others had reservations.

“It is good to install bamboo for the railings, but we cannot grow vegetables on the roof since we are afraid it would leak water to the floor and ruin the floor,” said village chief Hun Sarath, who lives in the building.

Another resident, Chhim Savoeun, said she thought implementing the students’ ideas could help make the White Building into a tourist attraction and contribute to its preservation.

“If we can install all these in our building, it will attract tourists to visit our building, since it is a legacy building, and the community might earn revenue to renovate the building,” she said.

The result is an ongoing conversation. Ms. Sarath said residents would continue to discuss the ideas among themselves and with their commune chief to see if they could be put into practice.

Though Mr. Sereypagna’s residency with Sa Sa Art Projects concludes at the end of this month, he expects the research to continue. The residents, at least, have no intention of ending the White Building’s 52-year history.

“Although the building is crumbling and the water is leaking, we still have to endure it,” Ms. Ratha said.

“We want to live here and we don’t want to go anywhere,” Ms. Savoeun added.

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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