The last days of Phnom Penh's iconic White Building

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image sourceOmar Havana
image captionPhnom Penh is among Asia's fastest growing cities and that means much of its old architecture has to go, with residents being evicted and paid off so big investors can move in. The city's most iconic example of the 1960s so-called New Khmer Architecture is the White Building and in a matter of weeks the structure will be gone. Photographer Omar Havana was there to document these moments.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionOver the past months, residents one by one reluctantly agreed to leave, packing up their few belongings to settle elsewhere. Davy, 47, had lived here since 1988 with her mother who had moved in after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. "I would have kept this building, instead of demolishing it. It's a symbol of what this city used to be," she said.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionBuilt in 1963, the apartment building was the first attempt to offer modern urban accommodation to lower and middle class Cambodians. But a lack of investment has seen the building's condition worsen significantly over the past decades.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionDespite its bad reputation for being a centre of drug abuse, prostitution, poverty and poor sanitation, the White Building was a vibrant and diverse community, home to dancers, musicians, civil servants, craftsmen, business owners and teachers.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionAlmost 500 families had been living in the White Building. In the end, they accepted the final offer for compensation and began moving out.
image sourceOmar Havana
image caption"A significant piece of Phnom Penh's modernist heritage is being demolished here," says local architect Virak Ellis-Roeun, a heritage preservation campaigner. "This creative modernist building influenced by Cambodia's vernacular living style will be lost forever." The iconic landmark will be replaced by a 21-storey building complete with parking lots, commercial space and private apartments.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionThe units were also home to many shops drawing their customers from the estimated 2,500 residents. Vuthy ,41, says. "The White Building is not just our home, but it’s a community where everything we need is available. There are doctors that can help us, there are grocery stores, everything we could need, we had it."
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionFor many residents, the White Building provided more than just a small apartment. "My heart is destroyed today," one of the residents said upon moving out. "I am not just leaving my house, my building, but a community that has been my family for all of my life. We will be far from each other starting from today, but we will be friends forever."
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionBuilt by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and French engineer Vladimir Bodiansky, the White Building took some inspiration from French architect Le Corbusier. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 it was - like most of Phnom Penh - abandoned.
image sourceOmar Havana
image captionOver the past decade, many old buildings in Phnom Penh have been transformed or destroyed as part of the recent rush to develop the city and more than 700,000 people have been evicted country-wide.
image sourceOmar Havana
image caption"For me, the White Building is like Angkor Wat," one of the residents said upon leaving. "This place is a museum and as a museum it should be preserved and used to showcase the work of the artists that have been living here for so many years." There had been many failed attempts over recent years to demolish the building but only now the residents agreed to leave - and it's time for a final goodbye.

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