SOUTHEAST ASIA’S finest and largest collection of buildings from the colonial era is found in downtown Yangon (Rangoon). Hundreds of palatial structures, elegant teak wood private residences and simple shop-houses over a century old nestle within the city’s central business core, sheltered by decades of political and economic isolation. Today these gems of architectural heritage are struggling to survive amidst the rapid pace of reform currently driving Myanmar (Burma) into a radically new future.
Beautiful old Yangon is known for its distinct skyline of towers, spires and domes. Intricate wrought iron balconies and elaborate balustrades, arches and columns cast dramatic shadows onto the streets. Outstanding late Victorian and early Edwardian structures combine with the local architecture to form a unique legacy. Together, they reveal stories of the shaping of the country’s extraordinary history.
Over the past century, these colonial buildings have endured wars and nature’s wrath – earthquakes, the disastrous 2008 Cyclone Nargis and the tropical monsoon climate with its intense humidity and voracious termites. Many were adapted into public offices when the country won independence in 1948 and particularly after the regime’s takeover in 1962. After decades of military dictatorship and self-imposed isolation, a gradual decline of the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ in the 1990s led to a rush of property development that began the demolition of Yangon’s old buildings. When government moved to the new capital Napidaw in 2005, most ministry buildings in Yangon were abandoned. Vacant and unmaintained, they sit damp and rusting, some on the verge of collapse.
The surprising wave of political change in Myanmar over the past year has created a boom and upped the very real threat to these remnants of the country’s colonial history. After November 2011’s national election, the first since the 1990 election annulment, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi took her long-awaited seat in Parliament. The military junta was officially dissolved in March and in May a new foreign investment law was passed. Through these moves, President Thein Sein’s government is seeking international legitimacy, the leadership of ASEAN and greater investment from the West. Suu Kyi has encouraged ‘cautious optimism’ and the US and the EU have responded swiftly, giving the green light and easing sanctions. Both the World Bank and IMF have opened new Myanmar offices and money is pouring into the country. Global economic power shifts to the East also place Myanmar in a delicate position as the region’s rising superpowers China and India invest capital vying for influence, access to trade routes and valuable energy resources. Myanmar is the link and contested ground.
Real estate prices and rents have rocketed in Yangon. Speculation is intense and strong demand for apartments, supermarkets and shopping centres is putting pressure on privately owned residences that occupy desirable land in the business district. High-rise buildings are signs of progress for some and a small teak house on a half-acre section of land could be the site of a 100-storey block. Built cheaply and quickly, apartment buildings now compromise views of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.
A sense of urgency to protect the old city prompted concerned heritage advocates, architects and historians to gather earlier this year, forming the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). In June, the inaugural conference ‘Towards a Conservation Strategy for Yangon in the 21st Century’ was held to discuss issues concerning the history, preservation, funding and future of heritage buildings in Myanmar. Coinciding with the conference was the publication of 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon: Inside the City that Captured Time, researched and written by Sarah Rooney, published by Serindia together with the Association of Myanmar Architects (AMA) in both English and Burmese. The book looks at the past, present and future of 30 key buildings and aims to ‘contribute to the collective conversation about the social and economic potential of Yangon’s colonial-era heritage in the hope that the city’s architectural past can become a vibrant and sustainable part of its future’.
Most of the buildings profiled in the book are abandoned state-owned offices in the inner city ‘heritage zone’ from Maha Badula Square (formerly Fytche Square) south to the Rangoon River and along Pansodan Street which intersects with Strand Road beside the river. Sarah Rooney reveals, ‘My favourite is probably the old Sofaer’s Building on Pansodan Road (now called the Lokanat Gallery building). It reminds us that old Rangoon was once an incredibly cosmopolitan city. Its architect and owner, a Baghdadi Jewish trader, filled its massive Italianate structure with shops from around the world – fine Egyptian cigars, the Reuters telegram company, a souvenir and postcard store run by the German photographer Philip Klier, and even a Filipino hairdresser who first came to Burma with a travelling menagerie of wild animals known as Harmston’s Circus’.
When the British took over Burma in the 1850s, Yangon was a small, swampy, scattered settlement. The colonists considered Rangoon, as they called it, a hardship posting and set about draining and dredging the sinking sandy land. A grid plan was laid out to form the city centre based around the Sule Pagoda and running from the river. Designed to capture and funnel the river breeze and provide necessary shade in streets, the grid has also been interpreted as an expression of the order and prosperity of colonial rule.
A strategic river port, Rangoon grew and thrived on the exports of rice, teak and oil. By the 1880s, it was a sophisticated city with gaslights and electric trams; a hub of global trade. Merchant houses, banks and insurance companies, many from Scotland and Glasgow in particular, established themselves and commissioned elegant Victorian buildings for their offices. Each building was a work of art. Consulting architect to the Government of India James Ransome and his successor John Begg from Edinburgh sought to combine modern British architectural approaches with traditional local aesthetics, though the order of the day was more conservative. The architects were asked to make Rangoon Renaissance, as Bombay was Gothic and Calcutta classic. The headquarters of shipping and insurance giant J&F Graham and Co, built in 1900, has since been restored and is now the British Embassy. The original office of successful rice millers Bulloch Brothers and Co, also from Glasgow, was constructed in 1908 and is the present Central Post Office.
This shaping of Rangoon in the late 1800s and early 1900s was undertaken just as modern urban planning came into fruition. Art was applied into cityscapes, beauty was emphasized and design was understood to have an educative role. In the language of architecture, a city was not just single structures but how the structures relate to each other. The complimentary relationship between solid and void was highlighted. Architects at this time aimed to create symmetrically-formed buildings, based on classical ideas of architecture; symmetry gives order, order gives harmony, harmony gives beauty. Buildings and forms of their distinct characteristics were repeated throughout the city. In this new modern space, local people first listened to music from around the world; writers, politicians, artists, scholars lived and worked in this space. Historian and YHT Founder Thant Myint-U explains, ‘Yangon is the place where the Myanmar people became modernised and part of the world’. Ian Morley, Urban History Assistant Professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests, ‘The irony is that now the change in Yangon is a drive to build a modern city – which was modern’.
People of many nationalities have played a part in Yangon’s development. In 1912, half of the city’s population of over 290,000 was Indians, Chinese and Europeans. The city’s shop-houses were largely built by Indian labour and inter-racial tension led to riots in 1880, 1920 and 1930. But in general, the city thrived on multiculturalism and was one of the most cosmopolitan in the British Empire. Lively and diverse neighbourhoods continue to define Yangon today. In one square mile of downtown, there are Shia and Sunni mosques, a Jewish synagogue, Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, and Parsi, Jain and Hindu temples.
Conservation efforts to date have been sporadic and limited. The first recording of heritage buildings of architectural significance undertaken by the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), City Hall in 2001 listed 189, mostly institutional structures, including one school, one hospital and one hotel. Religious buildings were omitted as they are considered under care of trustees and not in danger. In 2010, the Ministry of Culture added another 16 religious sites to the list and basic brief renovations were done on five buildings – the former Immigration Office, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanmar Export and Import Corporation, the former Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, and the Secretariat. Originally the administrative centre of colonial Burma and site of Aung San’s assassination in 1947, the imposing Gothic red and yellow brick Secretariat suffered severe flood damage in Cyclone Nagis. UK experts visited in August to begin preparing a conservation management plan for the complex.
Under the ‘Building Capacity to Safeguard Cultural Heritage in Myanmar’ project, the Italian government donated money to UNESCO Bangkok for the creation of spatial information systems. This appears to be concentrating on temple sites rather than the urban heritage of Yangon which is under much more immediate threat. Australia has offered to send experts, possibly providing vocational training in conservation work.
Enterprising entrepreneurs have successfully renovated some old buildings, such as the Governor’s Residence, the Savoy Hotel, 50th Street Bar & Grill, Monsoon Restaurant & Bar and Gallery 65. While a heritage atmosphere is good for the hospitality business, it is expensive to redo electrical wiring and water pipes, strengthen the structure and upgrade to meet health and safety standards. SPINE Architects are recognised for their work on the Myanmar Times office and the Acacia Tea Salon.
One triumph of restoration is the famous Strand Hotel, known for it high-tea elegance and luxury. Built by the Armenian Sarkies Brothers who also ran Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, the Strand opened in 1901 with billiards, caviar and (generator-driven) electric lighting. It carved a reputation as a ‘must-visit’ for well-heeled travellers from the East, including George Orwell, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Mick Jagger and David Rockefeller. The hotel continued to operate through WWII and was nationalized during military rule. It has been refurbished numerous times, including a major renovation in the 1990s undertaken jointly by Burmese government and Indonesian Adrian Zecha costing reportedly US$16 million.
Not so fortunate for the Pegu Club, one of the oldest British-built structures, constructed of teak wood in 1882, which today lies abandoned and rotting, overgrown with weeds. Researcher Sarah Rooney reflects, ‘I also love the Pegu Club – once the most prestigious club in colonial Burma, it is now derelict, surely haunted, and a poignant reminder that all regimes must, eventually, crumble’. Over cocktails and cards, the gossip of wealthy club members was known to influence government policy. After a night at the Pegu Club in 1899 en route from Calcutta to San Francisco, Rudyard Kipling wrote in From Sea to Sea how it was possible to ‘hear too much’ and ‘my head ringing with stories of battle, murder and sudden death’.
While the grander buildings may be protected, anything not on the YCDC’s list of 189, such as the Pegu Club, the residence of Myanmar’s first architect U Tha Tun and many private homes and small businesses are vulnerable to the bulldozers. Plenty of large plots of land are already gone. The YHT has compiled another list of 2,500 significant buildings in deteriorating condition that require protection. Meanwhile some corrupt construction companies are obtaining ‘Unsafe Building’ notices from YCDC so they can demolish and build new buildings, which are not much better. A lack of awareness of heritage and conservation values among contractors and developers is a challenge. Yangon locals seem to view the old buildings with affection. Rather than rejected as symbols of colonial domination, they are apparently appreciated as part of history, from which people can learn.
Important lessons must also be learnt from other Asian cities that have bulldozed most signs of their history and old-style urban forms in frenzies of image-building ‘development’. The old hearts of Taipei and Hong Kong have been ripped out; local residents can no longer afford to live Singapore or Lijiang; urban sprawl marks Bangkok and Beijing.
In Myanmar, changing lifestyles and economic patterns have led to increases in electricity shortages, pollution and traffic and parking problems. YHT advocates that shopping centres and towering apartments be built on the outskirts of the city, so Yangon’s downtown grid, which is 5% of the city, is fully protected. By encouraging growth and economic development in outlying areas, pressure on downtown areas could be relieved. Key to this success is an effective transport network.
Tourism is both an opportunity and a potential threat for conservation. Some heritage proponents are lobbying to make lower Pansodan Street pedestrians only. Possibilities exist here to reinvent the many old state-owned buildings into museums, hotels, shops and restaurants. Walking tours of Yangon with trained guides, supported by Alfred Birnbaum’s 2008 walking map, could support such ventures. However, caution warns against turning Yangon into a sanitized theme park with expensive brand names occupying the prime spaces, which would mean most local people would never set foot inside.
Consensus on a vision for Yangon, downtown and the old city, urgently needs to be reached.
While planning of a conservation strategy should identify which bits to save, where and how, it must fit into broader urban planning process. Maintaining the city’s multicultural environment is essential and a socioeconomic survey of inner city livelihoods and neighbourhoods would help understand how downtown Yangon is used, lived and loved today. The conservation plan should also include an investment strategy that demonstrates to the government that there is a way to do this – bring in money and in consultation with communities. Innovative funding sources, including revenue from the commercialisation of buildings, could be used for conservation. A key YHT recommendation to government is to support a go-slow on development and a complete moratorium on demolition in the central business district. Thant Myint-U urges that, ‘Conservation should not be at all about holding back development, but about modernising Yangon in a way that makes a link to its history and creates a livable city. We need to move towards a conservation strategy that will create jobs, help and not displace local communities, celebrate the city’s diversity, encourage tourism, invite international investment, and test new models of private-public partnerships. Yangon and the conservation of Yangon can be a key to Myanmar’s future’.
A comprehensive inventory of the former capital’s colonial architecture remains to be undertaken. The list of 189 heritage buildings needs to be expanded and backed by law and the President. Ownership issues include the identification of owners of vacant plots and a suitable disposal plan for the vacant government buildings, several of which have been put up for auction. Expert advice on conservation and renovation standards needs to be integrated into agreements made with the leasors, coupled with a system of incentives, to ensure the buildings are maintained and renovated. Further work to prepare guidelines and immediate control measures is urgently required. It is the government’s responsibility to preserve and protect, set regulations, grade buildings and define ways that are to be protected. The YHT leader explained, ‘It is not about individual structures of historical or architectural significance. The challenge is to maintain Yangon’s distinctive character and neighbourhoods and merge them with the infrastructure and amenities of a modern city; to marry a new set of government regulations that are in the public interests with a business plan, with a conservation strategy. There are economic opportunities and government people are willing to listen, but the time is now for political leadership’.
Ideally the architectural heritage movement is led by government, business and civil society and can come up with a realistic plan that is good for the economy and good for Yangon people. There is a small window – in a year or so it will be too late.
BY VIRGINIA HENDERSON
Thanks to Alfred Birnbaum for photographs.