The White Building, a Compromised Idealisation for the Civic
Within the period of Phnom Penh’s rapid urbanization and development, key architect Vann Molyvann initiated his first ever large-scale public housing plan, the Bassac Riverfront Cultural Complex. This arose as a reactionary step to the sudden growth of population after acquiring independence from the French. Despite the global trend of modernist aesthetics, Molyvann’s strides in the New Khmer Architecture Movement still emphasized the local Cambodian cultural values. From an overview, the city plan demonstrated Molyvann’s conceptualisation of traditional Cambodian village life within the context of the newly birthed Phnom Penh.
Overseeing the design of the public housing was Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian architect Vladimir Bodiansky in 1963. The 468 apartment buildings provided multi-storey urban housing for the lower and middle, the first government social housing initiative. During its time, this move for the people also influenced the infrastructural growth, soon developing government ministries, universities, and other public facilities. In that sense, the White Building succeeded wonderfully as an architectural platform that helped establish a unique Phnom Penh civic identity, expressed passionately through cultural mediums like film, music, and dance.
Unfortunately, with the emergence of the 1970 civil war Khmer Rouge regime, habitants fled the housing facilities to avoid the erupting genocide. Not only were the buildings now desolate, the cultural identity of Phnom Penh was decimated with the death of many intellectuals and artists in Cambodia. With the end of the revolt, the government attempted in bringing about a cultural renewal, permitting artists to live there rent free and work at the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture. However, coupled with the poor economic performance, socio-political instability, the economic status of these artists continued to worsen. In that sense, the population of habitants living at the White Building began to collectively fall lower in the social class. Overtime due to the lack of maintenance and improper renovations of the exterior, the White Building withered into dilapidated conditions. What was once considered the modern idealisation of Cambodian culture, the White Building transitioned into a squatter community associated with poverty and crime, entrapped in economic burden within the architecture.
Ironically, now seen as a detested infrastructure of the city, the government has gone through multiple efforts in evicting many of the communities there, forcibly bulldozing the houses and transported to the outskirts of the city with no access to any public facilities. These lower class members who reside there discernibly lack the economic means to afford housing, and with the trend of the lower class’ continuous economic downfall, as does the increase of dependency on the White Building. The enforced evictions along with the Hun Sen Government’s refusal of any reparation applications regarding it, has placed the White Building on a pedestal of disdain – a slum community. Completely undermining what this architecture originally symbolized, the White Building has become, contrarily, the malignant past of Phnom Penh that the government wishes to remove.
- Davavuth, Ly. Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Fine Arts and Culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Phnom Penh: Reyum, 2001, 83-107.
- Ross, Helen Grant, and Darryl Leon Collins. Building Cambodia: “new Khmer Architecture” 1953-1970. Bangkok: Key Publ., 2006, 120-145.
- Potter, Martin, and Louth, Jonathon. Saving the White Building: storytelling and the production of space. Adelaide, 2015, 1-8