Some view it as iconic, others a deprecit building that has seen better days. However you want to put it, there is no disputing that the White Building, established during King Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, is unlike any other building in Phnom Penh. As Post Property found out, the impending demolition of the structure has left the community feeling both sad yet optimistic for the future. Built as an experiment in low-cost social housing for the capital, the White Building has been sitting in the heart of Phnom Penh since the 1960s.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its dilapidated appearance, it has developed a reputation as an iconic sight in the city, and was home to businesses, an art gallery as well as hundreds of families.
Yon Davy, a classical and contemporary dance performer who lived in the fourth floor of the building said the White Building would always hold a special place in her heart.
“The White Building was my place of birth. I have many fond memories there and it is a place where I lived with happiness.”
After living in the White Building her whole life, Davy said moving to a new home in the Dangkor District had its difficulties.
“When I first moved in to my new place after the White Building I felt I had lost everything, like my neighbours who I had good friendships with and also the environment we shared together.”
Although the White Building’s aesthetic verges on the decrepit, Davy said its foundations remained solid, expressing sadness that it was being demolished.
“Even though I have left this building, I cannot open my eyes to see the demolition of this building because I will cry out loud,” she said.
In the context of the White Building, Davy expressed disappointment at historic buildings across Phnom Penh being torn down to make way for modern buildings, mostly high-rises.
“If we keep getting rid of old buildings, it seems like the younger generation won’t have a good understanding about Cambodia’s history so we should preserve old buildings.”
Sambo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Pannasastra University, said the White Building will long be considered an iconic building for Cambodia going forward.
Discussing the history of the structure, Manara said many parts of the building were destroyed when the Khmer Rouge took control of the Kingdom. While maintenance was later undertaken in an effort to repair damaged areas, Manara didn’t believe the entire White Building remained safe for residents. Even the government had its doubts. Back in 2014, the former municipal governor Pa Socheatvong declared the building unsafe.
“Unfortunately, wars and other issues have made people uninterested in taking care of the building,” Manara said.
While sad at the White Buildings looming disappearance, the professor said he understood the government’s desire to have an aesthetically pleasing city to show off to tourists, and even though the White Building is iconic, he said the beauty of the structure had not been preserved.
“We need to value the development of the new generation and the modern era,” he added.
Sorn Seap, the CEO of Key Real Estate, told Post Property that once the White Building is torn down and replaced with a new 21-storey building to be built by Japanese firm Arakawa Co, the property and land value within the Tonle Bassac area will likely rise, which will have beneficial flow-on affects for development.
Land within Tonle Bassac is already incredibly expensive, with Seap predicting prices per square metre currently range from $1,500 to $3,500
“The price of land usually only increases here, say between five to ten percent a year,” Seap added.
A representative from Arakawa Co, who didn’t want to reveal his name, told Post Property the demolition of the White Building will be ongoing for the next few months.
“The demolition of the building will take three to four months before construction of the new building starts,” he said.
The 493 families living in the crumbling White Building recently moved out after agreeing to accept $1,400 per square metre from the Land Management Ministry for their apartments. The White Building is now being bordered off for safety purposes ahead of its imminent demolition.