Unlike the Wat Prayuvong area — explored in my previous post — the dilapidated 300 meter long, 3-story apartment building known as “The White Building” is well-documented via online writings and photographs (though not guide books). Designed by Cambodia’s answer to Le Corbusier, architect Vann Molyvann, the White Building was part of a minor burst of post-war building that helped usher in Cambodia’s short-lived Modernist dreams. Originally inhabited by middle and lower class tenants, it was completely depopulated during the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign. Once the KR were driven from power, and people started to drift back, Phnom Penh became a squatter’s heaven. The White Building was part of this trend but was also unique in that it became a budding artist’s community. The wheel always continues to turn and eventually most of the artists left the White Building as it became increasing crowded, run-down, and a haven for drug and sex sales. Late last year the building was condemned and slated to be demolished, but stand it still does (though seemingly just barely). Naomi, Nathan Horton‘s intrepid assistant, lead us through this grimy, gritty but lively warren of humanity.
(In most cities one would never approach, much less wander through, what we would call “the projects.” The White Building certainly seems to fit that post-modern appelative. However, with the exception of non-guard railed stair cases, a crumbling exterior, and the occasional ‘ripe’ corridor, never once did I feel threatened by anything worse than dirty hands and quivering nostrils.)
The ground floor of the White Building is filled with shops and beauty salons facing out to a street with children playing, fish and chicken being barbequed, and moto-scooters darting to and fro. These vendors and shopkeepers are residents as well of the building. Watching ladies getting nail jobs and their hair done-up, it is clear that some Cambodian women are as conscious of their looks as a Western woman might be. No surprise really. In another little bar-type outdoor venue some men play chess whilst others quietly observe. Could be Prague but for for the Angkor beers and humidity.
After walking on the ground level perhaps a third of the length of the building, Naomi leads us up a stairwell where laundry hangs drying, and in doing so offers a bit of bright and gay color to the otherwise once-white building facade. The underside of each flight of stairs are painted incongruously with sunny happy scenes. I am told that they represent the “ideal world.” The juxtaposition of them with the building’s grit is substantial.
Life is drawn to light and teems on those stairwells: kids running up and down, adults selling sodas, prepping vegetables for the pot, grannies just hanging out. Stretching away from the light are those long dark corridors. A bilious yellowish-green hue, ripe with the swirling and sometimes conflicting smells of cooking and living, the corridors are dim and grow long between the wings of the building. Walking the halls one sees the small apartments, many with open doors for cross-ventilation. Peaking but trying not to intrude, microcosms of life appear: someone cooking the noonday meal, a radio blaring, a baby being bounced, sandals in the entry way, a thin mattress on the floor. Halfway along I come across dead zone stairwells; dark, strewn with rubbish and barbed wire, they must have gone somewhere at sometime. Eventually, a door lets out onto the upper rooftop and back into the bright, fresh air we emerge.
The White Building would be considered a deathtrap in any Western society: stairwells without railings, a rooftop with sheer unprotected drop-offs, dim corridors, open flames, no exit signs, no fire extinguishers, overcrowded with poor ventilation. But here, it is somehow both iconic and emblematic. The promise of a third-world, post-war country, emerging from its long colonial slumber, roughed-up, battered and beaten, but still hanging on with an innocent, guile-free smile. This is Cambodia.