The White Building, in the downtown of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Built as public housing on the orders of King Norodom Sihanouk in 1963, it is a model of the so-called “New Khmer” style of modernist architecture that still dots this city. The block-long housing complex has long been home to a thriving artistic and professional community, but now it is falling apart.
Late last year, the Cambodian government announced its approval of an $80 million reconstruction of the White Building site by Arakawa, a Japanese construction company, who will build a 21-story luxury condominium on this prized location. Now, the approximately 500 families who call the White Building their home risk displacement to make room for the new project.
Over the past decade, residents of Phnom Penh have been faced with a rash of evictions and land seizures as densely packed urban communities have been forced out of their homes to make room for new development. While Cambodia’s economy is growing at an impressive 7 percent a year, giving rise to a new middle class, the poor are often at the bad end of the bargain — local housing rights activists estimate that at least 10 percent of the city’s population have been affected.
But Chea Sophara, the newly appointed Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, has said he would work to support housing rights for Phnom Penh residents and declared the White Building a major test case of his commitment to issuing ownership certificates to qualified residents. These documents should entitle families to choose between a one-time cash payment to leave the White Building for good, or to obtain a new apartment in the complex when it is finished in four years.
The families say they know their days in the old White Building are numbered, and while some are optimistic the deal will benefit them, others are not so sure. Either way, this fascinating and decades-old microcosm, a city within a city, will cease to exist within a few months.
Step inside the White Building in its final days in this 360 video project.
For more on the impact of development on Cambodia’s residents, watch the PBS NewsHour Weekend tonight. This video was produced by GlobalBeat, NYU Journalism’s international field reporting class. Tara Yarlagadda reported this story. Rebeca Corleto, Ben Dalton, Mathieu Faure, Ashley Lyles, Ayesha Shakya and Olga Slobodchikova produced the story, with field reporting support from Reach Champaradh and Kuch Naren.