Spirit houses are small ornate shrines that offer protection and shelter for a residences’ spirits who in return, watch over and project apartments and houses and often, open spaces. They are common throughout Southeast Asia. Many contain tiny carved deities, decorated vividly red and gold and contain votive candles. In Phnom Penh’s White Building, built on reclaimed river frontage in 1963 near the city centre, almost every apartment possessed a spirit house.
Cambodian Artist Vuth Lyno
Young Cambodian artist Vuth Lyno (b 1982, Phnom Penh) began collecting the White Building’s spirit houses in 2017, the year that the iconic but decaying, White Building was scheduled for demolition. The architecturally brutalist concrete structure had been part of King Sihanouk’s attempt to revitalise the city and to bring affordable housing to Phnom Penh’s rapidly expanding population.
The Cambodian state architect Vann Mollyvann, who had been a student of the European architect Le Corbusier, had oversight of the project and had absorbed his teacher’s ideas on architectural modernity and the utopian role public housing could play in a crowded city. Strung-out along a 450-metre spine, the White Building’s six multi-storey blocks were connected by open bridges; there were shops, cheap restaurants, and hawker stalls at ground level with 468 apartments of various sizes above.
Painted an eponymous white the building shouted its presence in the city and over the ensuing years attracted a varied and vibrant community of low-income families, artists and musicians.
The White Building in Cambodia and Spirit Houses
In 1975, the White Building was emptied by Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge troops and along with the rest of Phnom Penh sat empty until 1979, when the Khmer Rouge itself was defeated by an invading Vietnamese army. Former residents of the White building began to drift back, along with the artists and musicians, and a semblance of normality slowly returned. But the White building had suffered from a lack of maintenance and poor sanitation and began to assume the persona of building in decline, even though the building’s mixed community continued to flourish.
The once pristine white concrete had stained with age and the building began to attract prostitutes and drug dealers. Even so at street level it retained a vibrant buzz among the itinerant stalls and businesses. In 2014, following the appearance of cracks in the walls, the White Building was condemned as unsafe by the governor of Phnom Penh and private developers began to make plans for the site, while coercing and bribing residents to move out.
Some residents took what little money was offered to them and drifted away to the city fringes others clung on to their fragile veneer of respectability, struggling to keep things together on low-incomes, as they had for many years past. The payments being offered by the developers were often too small to buy apartments in a central location and families inevitably drifted to the city fringes. A community, that was once cohesive and strong, began to fragment.
More Than 2,000 People Lived in The White Building
At one time, more than 2,000 people lived in the White Building, but in the year before demolition that number dropped away through attrition as the residents faced off with the developers and government. The conflict had been brewing since the developers first identified the buildings’ central Phnom Penh location, as ripe for development.
Lyno, born in 1982, who had studied for his Master’s Degree at Melbourne University in Australia, became fascinated with the White Building after seeing a photographic project that documented the building’s residents. As a result he helped set up an artist-run space there dedicated to experimental and critical contemporary art practices. Sa Sa Art Projects functioned from an apartment within, what Lyno described, as the ‘vibrant apartment complex’, until the building was demolished in April 2017.
The art space was a central focus for art students and many of the building’s residents and Lyno began to develop a instinctively awareness that the social cohesion he was experiencing was unique for Phnom Penh and Cambodia generally, a country that had experienced in recent memory the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge that had slaughtered one quarter of the population, abolished money, closed schools and executed anyone remotely thought of as intellectual, and had set about destroying the country’s documented history in the process.
Spirit Houses in the White Building
Almost every apartment in the White Building possessed a spirit house that was specific to each apartment and non-transferable. Some were highly decorative, others simple bamboo structures representing regional styles and religious influences and a syncretic fusion of animist and Buddhist beliefs.
When Lyno began collecting the spirit houses he had no clear idea what he would do with them, but he knew they were culturally important. Through a series of sensitive negotiations with the apartment owners, he managed to bring together a collection of 119. ‘I was very aware (of) how people would feel. Throughout the process I was open and transparent when I asked people to donate their houses. Some families said no and I could not talk them into it, but many people were happy to donate them. I told them I am an artist and that I see (the spirit houses) as important and that I wanted to continue the history of them in an art form. They may not have fully understood what kind of art work I would do, and I didn’t myself at first, but they understood that I wanted to save the spirit houses from destruction,’ Lyno explained from Phnom Penh.
Apartments Had to be Vacated
When the day finally arrived for the residents to vacate their apartments, things moved swiftly. Over three days they piled their often meagre belongings, along with anything else they could scavenge at the last moment, such as gates and window screens, onto cars and trucks. ‘It was terribly emotional and extremely overwhelming. They took everything, people took what was valuable for them also, such as doors and window frames,’ Lyno said. But no one other than Lyno took the spirit houses. In those final few days he raced from apartment to apartment rescuing from destruction those he could. ‘At the end, the developers would come in quickly and block the doors so I also had to move quickly, to safe as many as possible,’ he recalled.
Asia Pacific Triennial and Vuth Lyno’s Spirit Houses
Within a very short time the White Building was razed to the ground, but from the ruins an extraordinary legacy took shape in the form of a four metre-high, towering installation made by Lyno from the spirit houses he had collected. House – Spirit 2018, as the installation is called, was shown at the recent Asia Pacific Triennial at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) and comprises over 80 of these spirit houses. With some prescience the gallery immediately snapped up the work for its permanent collection.
‘It is a unique and ambitious project, for a Cambodian artist, who had been struggling to find a sanctuary for (the houses) in Cambodia,’ commented Tarun Nagesh the gallery’s curator of Asian art.
Lyno’s work also demonstrates how young Cambodian artists are sensitive to history. For Lyno they embodied the collective memory of the White Building. ‘Cambodia is a country of young people where essentially the generation above them was lost to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Artists were one group that they targeted and today young artists feel the need to document things because there are so few archives left. Everything was destroyed. Spirit houses relate to this idea, being a memory of this building and its community,’ Nagesh said.
The Experiment with Social Housing in Phnom Penh
The experiment with social housing that had begun with the construction of the White Building in 1963 had failed. King Sihanouk’s vision of a Phnom Penh turned into a thriving metropolis with affordable housing for the rapidly expanding population, had been overtaken by a frenzy of commercial development predicated on profit and social exclusion. Great swathes of decaying real estate were swept aside in this headlong frenzy, along with the communities that occupied them, and commercial progress began to consume a city that had experienced so much sorrow in the past. ‘Development in Phnom Penh is going at a crazy pace. You will not recognise the city in five years,’ Lyno predicts.
In April this year, the Phnom Penh Times newspaper reported that a casino and several high-end apartment blocks were to be built on the land once occupied by the White Building. It seems a sad end to what was a once a story of lofty idealism.
BY MICHAEL YOUNG
For more information on the project, and the artist, visit the Queensland Art Gallery’s website