Phnom Penh is bidding farewell to its iconic White Building


PHNOM PENH — Pok Chun Nath peers through the wooden boards sealing off the entrance to the three-room apartment he called home for almost 40 years in Phnom Penh’s White Building.

Just over a week ago, the building was filled with tenants but almost all, like Pork Chun Nath and his wife, cleared out well ahead of the July 15 move-out deadline.

All that is left of the 400-family community is rubbish along the external staircase and some small businesses on the street level, that have yet to pack up shop.

The emptiness reminds him of 1980, he says, the year he moved in with other surviving artists from the Khmer Rouge regime. Most had been targeted alongside former elites for extermination, but some like Chun Nath, a sculptor, managed to survive.

“(The Vietnamese-backed government) wanted to gather all the artists remaining from the Pol Pot regime to work for them and because we didn’t have any housing, they offered us housing to live together,” he said.

“The first time we moved in, the building was empty. There were no doors or windows. So when we left, it was the same thing.”

As Chun Nath married and raised four children in the building, he was also witness to the rise and fall of its fortunes, which inspired the work of his filmmaker son Neang Kavich.

“For me it’s quite emotional and also sad to leave this building,” says Kavich. He filmed the process for a future project which he hopes to release with his production company.

The structure that will be torn down, however, bears little resemblance to what it was in 1963 when it was built by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian engineer Vladimir Bodiansky.

It was one of Southeast Asia’s first experiments in public housing and was long considered an achievement in New Khmer Architecture, the modernist-Cambodian architectural revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

“The White Building is a concrete example and legacy of remarkable intersecting histories of modern Cambodia,” says Vuth Lyno, co-founder and artistic director of Sa Sa Art Projects, a non-profit art space in Phnom Penh that has many projects focusing on the building.

“The 1960s experimental social housing apartment complex was part of a larger project, Bassac River Front, which was a public and cultural neighborhood built on reclaimed land,” he explains.

“(The) Bassac area was a vision of connecting art and the public translated into a physical space.”

The building emptied out with the rest of the capital after the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and remained vacant until Vietnamese and Cambodian forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

In the intervening years, over 2 million people had died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion or were targeted for execution as members of the elite, intelligentsia or former regime.

The 1980s, however, were a second heyday for the White Building as it became a centre of the Cambodian art community. The structure, now twenty years old, was maintained each weekend by residential work units, according to Chun Nath.