Once filled with music, cooking smells, chatter, laughter and children playing, the hallways of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building are now being torn apart by bulldozers. One of the last examples of the modernist style epitomised by the bold New Khmer Architecture school in the 1960s, the White Building is making way for an upscale, 21-storey condominium block that will tower over homes and shops in the heart of the Cambodian capital.

Many of the former residents, such as 62-year-old Chhey Sophoan, did not want to leave the crumbling structure. The retired teacher was among the first wave of people who moved back into the building after the Khmer Rouge – which decimated the country during its nearly four-year reign – fell to Vietnamese-led forces, in 1979. And he was one of the last residents to leave, bunking down in his nephew’s poky flat even after his wife had moved to their modern, newly built home on the outskirts of the city.

“It’s hard to describe my feelings about moving out,” says Chhey Sophoan, speaking on the decrepit stairwell near his old apartment in mid-June. “I feel sad, because we made many friendships here.”

The demolition of the White Building – at various times a melting pot of civil servants, artists, families and drug users – marks a major step in the steady gentrification of central Phnom Penh. The sanitisation of the city centre, still ram­shackle and rubbish-strewn in parts, will undoubtedly take time to complete, but it is well under way.

The White Building was constructed at the peak of modern Cambodia’s “golden age”, an era of prosperity that came on the heels of independence from France, in 1953. Many look back on the period – which was marked by artistic and cultural accomplishments centred on Phnom Penh – with nostalgia.

When I stand and look up at the building where I used to live, I feel too emotional. My heart breaks when I see the building being demolished
Dy Sophannara, a former Culture Ministry official

Government officials, as well as the country’s “founding father”, King Norodom Sihanouk, were aware the city’s population was growing rapidly, as increasing numbers of people moved in from rural areas seeking work. An area of reclaimed land not far from the Bassac River was chosen as the location of the city’s first affordable housing project and, under the guidance of renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who is sometimes mistakenly credited with having designed the structure, French-Russian engineer Vladimir Bodiansky and local architect Lu Ban Hap oversaw its construction.

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In 1963, the building (in fact 468 apartments in six large, low-rise blocks set across 300 metres and joined by open staircases) was ready for its low-income residents.

“It was built by architects and city planners who believed that a building could be an apartment complex but be air-cooled to some extent. So it was originally raised up off the ground, and there were lots of airy interconnected stairways,” says art historian Darryl Collins, who co-authored the book Building Cambodia: ‘New Khmer Architecture’ 1953-1970 (2006). “It was a very functional building.”

What were then known as the Municipal Apartments were part of a group of structures that went up in the area throughout the 1960s. The sprawling Bassac Riverfront complex was also home to the Preah Suramarit National Theatre, which was badly damaged in a fire in 1994 and later demolished; an exhibition centre that no longer serves that purpose; and Vann Molyvann’s Grey Building, which now houses offices and an educational facility.

“There was going to be a whole public area there for the city people to move closer towards the river and have access to housing, food and cultural places,” says Collins.

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The mood in the city was upbeat and full of promise. Images from the 60s show a pristine White Building sur­rounded by trees and backing onto carefully manicured gardens. But civil war broke out in 1970, when General Lon Nol staged a coup d’état to oust King Sihanouk, sparking widespread fighting outside the capital. On April 17, 1975, Pol Pot and his communist cadres forcibly drove the entire population of the city into the countryside, where they were put to work planting rice and building dams.

For two decades, including the subsequent Vietnamese occupation, which lasted until 1989, the people of Cambodia suffered greatly. The upkeep of buildings was not a priority.

“Buildings age unless they are maintained,” says Collins, adding that the White Building was in a state of disrepair by the 80s. “When people came back to live in Phnom Penh in 1979, and more likely in the early 1980s, they had to accept what was there, and many people moved in and reoccupied the building. In many cases, the original owners possibly never returned. I don’t doubt that people did their best, but it was basically low-income people that reoccupied it and people from the arts.”

More than 50 years after it was opened, the White Building was exhibiting serious signs of neglect: no longer white, it was strewn with rubbish and had obvious cracks in its walls. Authorities officially condemned the structure in 2014, saying it was no longer safe for occupancy, despite having earlier entertained the idea of a major renovation.

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It emerged last October that Japanese property developer Arakawa would tear down the structure and replace it with a high-rise. Representatives for the company did not respond to requests for comment about the US$80 million project, but original plans showed that the firm had set aside five floors for existing residents – even offering homeowners a 10 per cent increase on their floor space – but the community was divided, according to Sia Phearum, director of local non-governmental organisation Housing Rights Task Force.

“The owner of Arakawa wanted to see the poor people who are residents of the White Building live together with the rich people, who will buy the condos after four years [of construction],” explains Sia Phearum, who was among those supporting the existing residents during negotiations. “But the people still don’t trust the government of Cambodia because of the bad experiences of the Borei Keila and Boeung Kak communities,” he says, referring to two recent high-profile and protracted land disputes in the city.

After less than nine months of talks, almost all the 493 White Building families (some apartments had been sub­divided) agreed to the company’s alternative offer, of compen­sation of US$1,400 per square metre. Yet not all of them were satisfied – it was less than the US$1,800 to US$2,300 they had sought at various stages of the discussions, and many didn’t want to leave at all.

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Among them was 70-year-old Dy Sophannara, a former Culture Ministry official who had lived there since 1979, but had no choice but to abandon her home once the majority of other residents acquiesced. She now rents a room nearby for US$100 a month. “When I stand and look up at the building where I used to live, I feel too emotional,” she says. “My heart breaks when I see the building being demolished.”

The govern­ment just cares about the rich, because they just build condos and expensive houses, so the poor have no chance. The government, they never keep the poorest in the middle [of town] – they always evict them far away or give them little compensation
Sia Phearum, Housing Rights Task Force

Collins says demolition of the building is a major loss of heritage, but not every item of architecture from that period, or indeed any other historical era, can be saved.

“In a city that’s changing, it’s sometimes extremely diffi­cult to protect buildings, especially when they are in private hands,” he says. “That building is particularly difficult because you have some 400 owners.”

Nevertheless, Sia Phearum hails the resettlement as a major win for residents, especially compared with some of the more rancorous land evictions in the city. He also praised the minister of land management, urban planning and construc­tion, Chea Sophara, who was involved in the negotiations and reportedly arranged additional payments for residents with smaller apartments, to encourage them to leave.

“At least this is the people’s choice, the people’s decision,” says Sia Phearum. “The people win, the company wins and the government wins. If others can follow this model, I think that’s the best way for peaceful development.”

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There are bound to be other cases. Phnom Penh has been dev­elop­ing at a manic pace; the period that followed the Khmer Rouge era – when cold-war politics saw Cambodia cut off from much of the world and largely reliant on Vietnam and the Soviet Union – is but a distant memory. The rates of eco­no­mic growth first recorded in the late 90s have continu­ed apace, with the country’s gross domestic product sustain­ing average annual growth of 7.6 per cent over two decades.

According to the World Bank, the construction sector is “a major engine of [that] growth”. Official government figures show that the value of approved construction projects soared above US$8.5 billion in 2016, compared with US$3.3 billion the previous year. Thousands of new develop­ments have been given the green light – there were 2,636 approvals in 2016 and more than 1,500 in the first half of 2017 – and the sector shows few signs of slowing.

Thida Ann, director of real-estate firm CBRE Cambodia, says Phnom Penh in particular has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past 10 years.

“At the start of that period, the city didn’t have any high-rise buildings [defined as buildings with more than 12 floors],” she says. “There were very few significant, purpose-built commercial office buildings and no condominiums.”

Thida Ann says she believes most residents are pleased with Phnom Penh’s development, which “brings more [foreign direct investment], greater chances to upskill, better employment opportunities, access to finance and steadily improving infrastructure. Although the city faces challenges, these aspects are generally warmly welcomed. In particular, this is evidenced by the presence of the emerging middle class, who will be a key to the country’s continued prosperity and social development.”

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However, Thida Ann acknowledges that the city – in which construction projects often appear to be haphazard, though an official land-use master plan does exist – was not always developing in a way that was beneficial to the majority: “Laws and regulations are not fully enforced by ministries [and] although the situation is improving, more needs to be done to ensure the city develops as a liveable space for the population.”

Others fear, however, that the city will be rendered unrecog­nisable in decades to come. It has already been transformed from the way it looked when the White Building was first conceived, when yellow-washed French colonial buildings were the city’s dominant structures and only the spires of pagodas punctured the skyline.

“[Phnom Penh is] going to keep changing,” says Kavich Neang, a 30-year-old filmmaker who grew up in the White Building and is working on a feature film set inside it. “I think it’s good that Cambodia is developing but [...] we need to be thinking about what’s good, what’s bad, and what are the consequences.”

A key consequence of the reshaping of the city centre is that few – if any – residents of the White Building could afford to buy a property near to their old home, despite the fact that many received payouts in excess of US$40,000. According to Thida Ann, the price of real estate in the area has doubled in the past 10 years, and whereas the White Building was created for low-income families, few such projects exist in Phnom Penh today.

Kavich Neang, whose family has moved about 25 minutes south by car, to Chak Angre Krom, says some of his neighbours took the payout from Arakawa and left for the countryside. “It’s difficult to live in the middle of the city, so we have all spread out,” he says.

It’s a refrain Sia Phearum has heard many times. “The govern­ment just cares about the rich, because they just build condos and expensive houses, so the poor have no chance,” he says. “The government, they never keep the poorest in the middle [of town] – they always evict them far away or give them little compensation, like in the Boeung Kak case [wherein the 17,500 or so people forcibly evicted since 2008 received just] US$8,500, even if they had a big plot of land.

“If the government and the private companies can work out together to build public housing, I think it’s a good oppor­tunity for the poor people to live in the middle of the city. But if the government has no clear plan for the future, in the next 20 or 50 years, the poor will [all] move out of the middle.”

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By mid-July, all of the White Building’s residents had packed up their possessions and done just that. For weeks they had trickled out of the doors.

Kavich Neang’s strongest memories of the only home he had ever known are visceral: “You would hear the sound of the music and maybe you could hear people watching boxing. Or the KTV [karaoke]. When one house had a party, I would stand by and listen to the old people singing, and maybe they would give me some food. When somebody was cooking, the smell would be in the whole corridor.

“For me, that’s what was unique about this building – how the community was very close to each other.”

Additional reporting by Hay Pisey