In an article published in The Cambodia Daily on September 3, Phnom Penh City Hall called for the demolition of the White Building. Destroying the White Building would translate into a tremendous loss for Cambodia, as it would destroy a significant site of urban heritage and one of the most vibrant communities of continuous artistic production.
The White Building, originally known as the Municipal Apartments, was built in the 1960s as Cambodia’s first public housing model to offer modern affordable homes to artists and civil servants, as well as other low- and middle-income families. It was part of a larger project by acclaimed architect Vann Molyvann, called the Bassac River Front project and supported by the late King Norodom Sihanouk. Other structures around the White Building included the Olympic Village Apartments (now the Phnom Penh Center), Preah Suramarit National Theater (now destroyed), several Exhibition Halls (the main hall and one wing are now the Peace Book Center) and the National Bank Apartments (now the Russian Embassy).
Today, the White Building is one of the last original buildings to stand in the Bassac area, as most were privatized, destroyed or converted into unrecognizable structures for the sake of “development.” The building is now home to more than 2,500 residents, including dancers, musicians, circus performers, painters, visual artists, filmmakers and community educators, as well as civil servants and street vendors. While the White Building appears dilapidated, with some serious repairs certainly needed, renovation and restoration is possible. The building is structurally sound.
The White Building houses one of the most self-reliant and creative communities in Phnom Penh. For example, there are regular cleaning campaigns; English, art and computer classes, and cultural events, such as the Bonn Phum (Village Festival), which took place in January, with at least 50 individuals from the White Building showcasing their dance, music, photography, films and performances to an audience of more than 1,000 people.
The government and private developers have an opportunity to create a sensible urban development, one that values its famous Khmer architectural heritage, one that supports decent welfare for Cambodian citizens and one that embraces its rich, creative human capital. The White Building is not only an example of Khmer modernism during the golden post-independence era, but also the site of continuous artistic production and home to a strong and self-reliant urban community. Saving the White Building can be part of a smart urban development plan, and it is possible.
Vuth Lyno is the artistic director of Sa Sa Art Projects, a community and experimental art initiative based in the White Building.