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The White Building

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Sadly, the White Building was demolished in 2017. We leave this here as a reminder of the beautiful heritage architecture that is fast disappearing from Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building was opened in 1963, providing 468 apartments to house some of the Cambodian capital’s quickly growing population. The building formed part of an ambitious and rather fantastic, socially centred city development plan spearheaded by then King Norodom Sihanouk. Today, with money calling the shots more than thoughts of community, the building faces the threat of demolition by developers keen to cash in on its prime location.


On approach to the White Building.

The building, designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian architect Vladimir Bodiansky, was part of the Vann Molyvann-designed Bassac River Front cultural complex, which sprawled along reclaimed land skirting the Bassac River. Thanks to the Khmer Rouge rise to power in 1975, the overall complex was never completed, but the apartments were filled.

Three storeys of history and lives.

Three storeys of history and lives.

After the Khmer Rouge downfall, residents returned, some old, some new. Under Cambodian law, if you can prove residence for a certain period, you are entitled to ownership, so the people living here now are the owners, and legally entitled to be here.

Rundown, but functioning.

Rundown, but functioning.

And today the apartment complex is packed to the rafters with life. Shops line the ground floor, and families are packed into the modestly sized apartments.


Not always as white as it was…

While anyone can just stroll by the building for a look, you can head inside to see an apartment in near-original condition if you make an appointment with the White Building Art Archive and Library. The archive is an ongoing project by young Cambodians aimed at recording the histories of the residents here.

A signature style of the New Khmer Architecture school.

A signature style of the New Khmer Architecture school.

As the project notes:

“For many in Phnom Penh, the White Building is perceived as an irregular community, cloaked in stigma associated with poverty, drugs, sex work, petty crime, dangerous construction and poor sanitation. However, the White Building is one of the city’s most vibrant communities, housing more than 2,500 residents, including classical dancers, master musicians, skilled craftspeople, cultural workers, civil servants, and street vendors.”

The residents are an interesting mix of Cambodia’s embattled artisans.

No shortage of interesting angles to observe the building.

No shortage of interesting angles to observe the building.

We visited the archive/apartment as part of a Khmer Architecture Tour, a highly recommended way of tapping into some of the fascinating urban history of Phnom Penh.


A new city rises: Will it eat the old?

Alternatively, you can contact the archivists and make an appointment to visit their office, which is in one of the apartments. It’s interesting to see the apartment, plus a modest photographic display explains the history of the building.

Indeed, today the building brims with colourful life and the brilliant design of the building for the tropics is evident. The electrical wire-festooned corridors might be dark, but they are cool; grandmas snooze on bamboo daybeds, babies play and families come and go.


Inside the archive.

The apartments are functional and efficient: Just one or two rooms, plus a semi-outdoor kitchen and bathroom area was allocated to each family originally, though today many more make use of the space.

Bathroom and kitchen to the right. Open-air flows keep it all cool.

Bathroom and kitchen to the right. Open-air flows keep it all cool.

Despite its iconic status, the building is under serious threat. Authorities have repeatedly issued eviction notices — they say it is unsafe, though residents insist it remains structurally sound, and they have a legal right to be here.

Life bubbles along on the ground floor of the building.

Life bubbles along on the ground floor of the building.

Whether you check out the building on a tour or just amble past, it’s worth taking a peek to appreciate the unusual architecture and to get a sense of the grandiose plans that were once afoot for Phnom Penh and her residents — back in a time when people rather than money were put first.


The White Building
Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh
T: (010) 545 269 (archive project)

Location map for The White Building

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