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One building, many voices

The White Building on Sothearos Boulevard was designed by the 1960s architect Lu Ban Hap.
The White Building on Sothearos Boulevard was designed by the 1960s architect Lu Ban Hap. Charlotte Pert

One building, many voices

This weekend, some of the biggest players in Cambodian architecture, art and activism meet to discuss the future of the White Building

A two-day symposium on the White Building this weekend has brought together individuals and organisations working in and around one of Cambodia’s most striking modernist creations. Post Weekend spoke to five of the event’s scheduled speakers, who together give a sense of the multiplicity of voices invested in the future of the endangered space.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Pen Sereypagna
Architect and urbanist undertaking a residency in the White Building

I’ve been involved in the White Building project since 2007, when I was doing an internship as an English teacher in the Bassac area. For three months I was teaching young people around the White Building. In the year 1960, the government built the Bassac riverfront project to be a modern, peaceful place in the city. Now my project is to investigate how the situation is changing along the river. We are working to investigate the demography of the area – I did a lot of surveys and interviews with the White Building residents about the history of the building during the year 1960 and after the Khmer Rouge. I hope that the workshop will raise awareness and show people about the historical structure [of the building] and how it was designed. My hope for the symposium is to invite more people from the community in order to share and spread information about the White Building and to raise awareness to help it.

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Vuth Lyno
Artist, curator and director of SA SA Art Projects and the White Building Archive

Since 2010, we have been working in the White Building with a focus on arts and community. There are three different parts [to our work]. Firstly, we provide a free space for artists to stay in order to do research. Secondly, we have created a visual arts workshop with students – most participants live inside the White Building. Thirdly, we have created collaborative projects with local and international artists in the Sa Sa Art Projects. For example, we joined together to play and dance with traditional, modern and contemporary musical instruments on the rooftop. We decided to make a space inside the building because some people said that this place was an unsafe place [that attracted] bad people like sex workers, thieves and other criminals. To me, art is creative expression that people can present to the public. We have prepared many events in the White Building. This symposium is important to bring different knowledge together and to showcase the value of this community. It demonstrates the power of the building, and it shows the government the need to know about its importance before they destroy [the building] or move [the residents]. They need to research more about what is inside the building.

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Hang Vong
Technical manager at urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut

Our organisation has worked on technical projects to maintain the White Building. We have worked to redesign and rebuild the stairs and the roof, and we continue to educate people about how to preserve and protect the building, which belongs to them. We heard that the Phnom Penh Municipality wanted to move the people who live here to another place. After we heard this news, there were many NGOs who started to help and care more [about the building and its residents], whereas before not many NGOs came to take action in this area. This is a good sign for the people who are living here. We have trained people to understand about residency laws, and other basic laws that they should know – the people living here don’t have official land titles because this place was offered by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The government thought that the building was so old that people needed to move out. But after having been involved in maintaining it, I can see that it is still stable for people to live in. We are continuing this work to help bring solidarity from the community to participate in these protection efforts. I want to see the White Building residents work on the preservation of their own space – their participation is very important.

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Bill Greaves
Canadian architect and director of the Vann Molyvann Project, which documents Cambodia’s modern architectural heritage

I started my documentation work with the very specific goal of going to measure the [New Khmer Architecture] buildings and draw them up. I didn’t think that it made sense for me as a foreigner to go and advocate for the preservation of these buildings. It seemed like there was an intermediate step: to create a record and get people interested, excited and knowledgeable about these buildings. I’m delighted to say I think that’s actually happening. I saw the change.org petition that Sokly Yam started [“Save our White Building, save our heritage”] and I was very moved by the comments that people were posting: “stop destroying my city” or “stop destroying my heritage”. In the past when these demolitions or relocations have happened, they have been, rightly so, about the specific human cost. With the White Building there is still that, but there’s also this issue of heritage. And I don’t think that’s happened before in the way it’s happening now. My hope for the future of the White Building is that whatever happens to it is influenced by multiple voices. If that building is torn down and replaced, there is a danger of Phnom Penh becoming a very boring city from an architectural point of view, and also from a social point of view if all the poor people are kicked out of the city. Those aren’t contradictory arguments – the whole point is that they go together. It’s what makes great cities great.

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Catherine Carter Sims
Final-year student on Parsons The New School for Design’s architecture and lighting design program

Before I came to Phnom Penh, I’d seen the original design intent for the White Building and I’d seen photos, but I didn’t realise until I got inside that the hallways are very long and very dark. The way the building is set up means that in the morning, there’s almost no daylight. The afternoon seems to be prioritised in terms of daylight – when it’s coming through the middle hallways – but because the materials are so dark, it’s getting lost very quickly. I think that the original intent was that people would leave their doors open for natural ventilation to go through the building, but you obviously have no control over that as an architect. Everyone adds on to their apartment – every single one is different. Some of them have taken bricks and closed up the window space. One thing we’re going to be looking at is potential proposals to introduce daylight – specifically in the morning, potentially in the afternoon as well. The idea of the seminar is to address the experience of people living in the building. We should start from that rather than design being the lead.


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