Another Icon of Modern Architecture To Disappear in Phnom Penh

The White Building complex on a 1962 aerial view.

Years of fighting from local communities and artists have been pointless. On July 17, the “White Building”, an avant-garde structure from the sixties will be demolished to make way to another tower in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen never made a secret of his disgust for the Sihanouk years and its legacy. Although Sihanouk political legacy can sometimes be questionable, there was at least unanimity among historians and intellectuals over one element: New Khmer Architecture.

In the late fifties, the then Prince Sihanouk wanted to show the modernity of the tiny Indochinese Kingdom and the enlightening of his “Sangkum Reastr Niyum”,  literally the “community of common people”, a political movement which now symbolizes the 15-year of Sihanouk as Cambodia head of state.

The New Khmer Architecture movement was born spearhead at that time by young Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. New Khmer Style was inspired in many aspects by Le Corbusier and all the architectural masters of the rational movement. However, Cambodian architectures under Molyvann blended this minimalist style with elements of traditional Khmer architecture details, also reinterpreted in a modernist way.

The fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall is probably the best example of New Khmer Architecture, which even got praise over its avant-garde look from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew when he visited Cambodia in the early sixties.

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the now demolished Queen Suramarit national theater in the early 1960s.

Piece by piece, architectural masterpieces of the Sangkum era have been demolished, probably to eradicate for ever a time that many older Cambodians remember as a Golden Age. Many of Molyvann famous structures are already gone, such as the National Theatre Preah Suramarit, destroyed in a fire but also the Council of Ministers, the Grey Building and most recently the Olympic Stadium.

Although the name is still there, the structure has been transformed by a private investor to the point of being totally unrecognisable. It is now surrounded by a huge complex of offices, shopping mall and condominiums. When opened in 1963, the National Sports Complex (the former name of the Olympic Stadium) was considered as the most impressive and largest sport facility in Southeast Asia.

Early this week Cambodia Ministry of Land Management announced the demolition of the White Building, officially built by Molyvann architectural colleague, Lu Ban Hap. The structure was a modernist housing estate along the Tonle Bassac River, the only housing ownership scheme for civil servants at that time. Decades of no maintenance have left the entire structure in ruins with crumbling facades. The complex will make way for a new 21-storey structure that will be constructed by Japanese firm Arakawa Co, for an estimated cost of $70 million.

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The White Building in Phnom Penh in a 2010 picture by Photographer Kelly Anthony (http://www.kellyanthony.com/2010/09/the-white-building/)

The Phnom Penh Post reported that five floors of the new building had been set aside for residents of the White Building. Many of the residents have chosen to take the $1,400-per-square-metre payout, with most of the 493 families having vacated the building at the end of last week.

With the vanishing of the White Building, Phnom Penh is losing a bit more of its identity as many Cambodians see Molyvann masterpieces a truly heritage legacy for the capital. But in Phnom Penh -like in many other places around the world- greed is stronger than memories.