Under King Sihanouk’s leadership, Phnom Penh underwent a tremendous transformation at an unprecedented pace during late 1950s and 60s.  The city’s population grew to over 1,000,000 while housing options were very limited.

Among the response was the White Building project (originally known as the Municipal Apartments), which was part of the ambitious Bassac River Front cultural complex that lay on reclaimed land along the Bassac River. Designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian architect Vladimir Bodiansky, and inaugurated in 1963, the White Building comprised of 468 apartments, and was the first attempt to offer multi-story modern urban lifestyle to lower- and middle-class Cambodians.

After forced evacuation during the 1975-79 regime, some of the former residents including survived artists returned to the neighbourhood and the community grew again as a community of artists. However, in the past 35 years, the white building has deteriorated to the point where much of it is dilapidated and crime infested.

The complex is made of four buildings which are connected via staircases that provide some light to the very dark and in some cases scary long corridors. Walking through, one encounters drug edicts, prostitutes, gamblers and more.  I have been warned by more than a few about the rather danger of photographing the complex’ residents, but my curiosity was greater than my fear.  I have returned to the White Building several times only to realize that many of its 2,500 or residents are hardworking low income Cambodians who call it a Home and wish to raise their families quietly and safely.

Much of the communal activities are happening on the connecting staircases where people congregate in the light and some fresh air is available. One can find women play poker (which is illegal as they live on Government funds), women knitting or embroidering.  Little convenient stores are located at the entrances to these long dark halls and kids play with their friends in these light-wells. What is so amazing is that when you stand and look out, you can see the new high-rise buildings which are in such contrast to what yours eyes observe in the immediate environment.

After returning to the building on more than few occasions I began forming some relationships with the young generation, learning about their difficulties and hopes of integrating into society at large.  Many wish to join NGOs so that they could have an impact on the lives of their family, friends and neighbours.  And if I thought they would like to flee to a better housing solution, I now know that it is a wish mixed with a determination of making the White Building a better place.

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