The White Building – The End of an Era

The White Building

What could be better than an abandoned building? A building that looks like it should be abandoned but is actually home to twenty-five hundred people. This is The White Building.

It was three years ago during a photography tour that I first saw the White Building in Phnom Penh. Once I laid eyes on it I knew I had to go back, explore and photograph it. It is the kind of building that almost has hands that come out and grab you. At least it does if you are a person like me that is intrigued by urban decay and have the tiniest bit of adventure in you.

The White Building, originally known as the Municipal Apartments, was inaugurated back in 1963. Designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian architect Vladimir Bodiansky the White Building had 468 apartments and was a fledgling attempt by Phnom Penh to offer low cost housing to low and middle class Cambodians. This multi-story structure gem was the talk of the town.

During the period of 1975 to 1979 the building stood empty after the entire city of Phnom Penh was forced into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge. Most artists, teachers, doctors and educated people were killed by the Khmer Rouge but some of those who survived returned to the White Building after the fall of the repressive regime. The building became home to an eclectic group of people from all walks of life.

Although looking at the building can bring thoughts of crime, prostitution, drugs, poverty and poor sanitation surprisingly the building was home to twenty-five hundred residents including families, vendors, artists, performers, musicians, skilled craftspeople. This was a community in and of itself. It was a place called home by so many people.

A view of Aeon Mall from the roof of The White Building.

The years have not been good to the White Building. Many people would take one look then look away. How could they know the real truth of what lay inside? Without an inquisitive mind most people would never set foot in the building. Even the street below could be described as sketch. A person who took a wrong turn would likely roll up their windows and lock the doors of their car. A scene with Chevy Chase fro the original ‘Vacation’ movie comes to mind.

Each time I visited Phnom Penh I would make a point to make it to the White Building. Each time I ventured through the hallways I was greeted by smiles and welcoming people. I was not one of a few foreigners that would explore the building. The intrigue was something that not only effected me. The pull of The White Building was shared by many.

Phnom Penh went through many changes after the Khmer Rouge. Once considered one of the gems of southeast Asia the city had a lot of catching up to do. The world grew up and changed in the area but the transformations could not grasp The White Building. The Russian Embassy, a university and a government building surround the White Building on three sides. The modern multi-story Aeon Mall is just down the street.

The surrounding area changed but the White Building remained the little building that could. The people found no need to alter their lives as the decades-long decline led to the inevitable demolition. People did not want to leave their homes. The White Building became a desirable place to live. This was something that would have been difficult to understand for many – but not those who lived there or those that truly felt The White Building. People were turned away or waited years to get an apartment there.

As with many things the norm changes as time moves forward. Money talks. A foreign developer wanted to take over the building, demolish it and put in its place a modern, larger apartment building. Years in the making the offers to the residents were increased over time. They were given the choice of a one-time payout or an apartment in the lower floors of the new building once finished. People stood strong. Eventually most of the people accepted one of the two offers. The exodus began.

When I last visited about ninety percent of the people had left the building. There were still some vendors left along the street but the hallways of the White Building were forever changed.

Apartments lay empty. The doors removed and the openings blocked off by wooden pallets allowing me to see little remnants of the lives that once were. Left over personal items were strewn about the floor. Families scuttled up and down the stairs taking their lives with them. Workers removed the electric boxes as the families left. People scavenged for useful leftovers

Although little oral communication was needed the sadness of the process hung heavy in the darkened caverns that once held playing children, family gatherings and the everyday activities found in any community.

Family time in The White Building

The final holdouts will have to leave the building in the next few weeks. Demolition is set to begin and at this point there is nothing to stop the inevitable. The White Building will be gone. A shiny new structure will take its place. (As I write this the demolition has begun. Yesterday (17 July, 2017) the heavy equipment arrived and the walls were coming down.)

Families will talk about the White Building for years to come. The younger generation may know it existed but they will never really know what the White Building was. The sadness experienced as people moved out will be taken over by new joys, new homes and new neighbors. They will talk about what was once their homes. They will share memories. Over time the talk and memories will diminish. Life moves on and we are caught up in the changes of the world. I for one am glad that I was introduced to The White Building. My images will assure me that I will not forget nor will I forget as I pass the location which once held the past as I drive to the future.

3 Comments on “The White Building – The End of an Era

  1. I caught a glimpse of this building when I was in Phnom Penh in August 2016, and even then, just as you say, it reached out for me, grabbed at my imagination. It’d be nice to think they’d replace it with more updated and structurally sound low-income housing, but I feel that is unlikely to happen.

  2. I visited the White Building as part of the Angkor Workshop with Karl Grobl / Jim Cline Photo Tours. I talked with a resident for quite a long time. He said he was an engineer. He told me that they building was structurally sound. The government had refused to do any repairs on it because they wanted to sell it. They kept pressuring people to move out. It’s sad to hear that the building is being demolished but I’m glad to hear that the people got something for their move. The most amazing thing is seeing the Cambodian spirit in these photos. To see smiles in the face of adversity.

    • It would have been interesting to see how much longer the building would have lasted without the push for a replacement building.

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