Saving Yangon's Precious Colonial Buildings

Although they stand as a daily reminder to a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, the legions of colonial-era buildings in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, have suffered from neglect and mismanagement for more than 50 years.

But last week the crumbling collection of architectural treasures, which represent the largest remaining stock of such buildings in Southeast Asia, were offered a glimpse of a possible salvation through the formation of an NGO aimed at preserving them – with the approval of President U Thein Sein.

The buildings have been frozen in time by five decades of the Burmese Way to Socialism, as the disastrous economic model was called after Ne Win became prime minister in 1958. Built by British colonial planners, they have never been torn down because private enterprise never got up the momentum to destroy them in favor of more modern structures. Now, like the center of Hanoi, the Bund in Shanghai and parts of the center of Singapore, they stand as architectural gems.

The Yangon Heritage Trust is headed by historian Dr Thant Myint-U and has the approval of the mayor of Yangon and the chief minister of Yangon Region as well as Thein Sein. The trust also includes business tycoons, architects -- both Myanmar and foreign - and other NGOs.

Dr Thant Myint-U told the local weekly newspaper The Myanmar Times last week that the trust plans to begin surveying the downtown area – the home of most of the colonial-era buildings – in late March, as part of efforts to prepare a preservation strategy that would be presented to the government in late April or May.

The newspaper also reported that a moratorium had been placed on the demolition of buildings more than 50 years old.

“There's every possibility that Yangon can become one of the most beautiful and most liveable cities in Asia. I strongly believe preserving its architectural heritage will be a big part of making that happen … but we have to use this small window that we have. In a year or so it will be too late,” said Thant Myint-U, who is also the author of The River of Lost Footsteps.

“The important thing is that any future strategy is based on as much consultation as possible with the people actually living in these neighborhoods, as well as government, business, and others,” he said. “We need to marry a new set of government regulations that are in the public interest, with a business plan, with a conservation strategy.”

And should the trust succeed, Yangon is blessed with glorious architecture featuring grandiose exteriors and high, elevated ceilings in which the buildings formerly hosted the pride of Britain’s commercial elite, what was then the Chartered Bank of England, Lloyds and the Bombay Burma Trading Company.

But the real gems are the former government and administrative offices. These include the Secretariat, the 120-year-old former seat of the government (and the place where independence hero General Aung San was assassinated in 1947), the Strand Hotel, Myanmar Port Authority, the High Court and others. However, the buildings are under threat: the end of 50 years of military rule is expected to herald an explosion of development in the country’s commercial capital.

Economic mismanagement stunted the development of Yangon’s transport infrastructure, leaving the city heavily reliant on poorly maintained roads. Where other major cities in the region have expanded outward by laying highways, subways and railways to allow people to travel greater distances in shorter times, Yangon has stagnated.

The result is extremely high land prices in prime areas, particularly the six downtown suburbs, which are home to most of the colonial-era buildings.

And while the ceilings on the buildings are high – regularly at least 10 feet per level – the structures rarely exceed four storeys, while newer neighbors are eight, 10 or 12 storeys. For developers, this represents an inefficient use of space best rectified with a wrecking ball.

Additionally, the British-era buildings might be lovely to look at but their outdated plumbing and electrical systems do not make them ideal homes. But perhaps the greatest threat to the buildings is a cultural one – Myanmese as a general rule don’t put great value in antiquity and given the choice of a restored older building and a modern development, most will choose the latter.

In 1996 the city’s municipal authority, the Yangon City Development Committee designated 189 heritage-listed buildings that cannot be demolished or altered without approval. Little has been done since the move to Naypyidaw in 2006 to maintain most of these buildings, although there have been some notable exceptions.

In early 2011, the YCDC’s Technical Committee for Maintaining Historic Buildings, which includes representatives from Myanmar Engineering Society, the Department of Archaeology, the Association of Myanmar Architects and several government departments, began restoring five sites.

These included the former Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise headquarters; the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism office; the Department of Immigration and Population’s headquarters; the Department of Border Trade; and the Secretariat, or Prime Minister’s office.

A major factor behind the drive to safeguard the buildings for the future appears to be the tourist dollar. Daw Chaw Kalyar, the joint secretary of the Association of Myanmar Architects, told the Myanmar Times in February 2011 that Yangon should be proud to have so many colonial-era buildings and should preserve the best ones for the future because they had the potential to attract tourists.

“The Strand Hotel is a landmark in Yangon and appeals to foreigners. I think Myanmar has a great opportunity to earn money from our colonial-era buildings from tourists,” she said.

However, the prolonged neglect of many of the buildings, particularly those used as residential apartments, has led to at least one fatal collapse, further eroding public confidence in the buildings.

In March 2011, a 15-year-old girl was killed when the building that she and her family were illegally squatting in in Pabedan township partly collapsed. The death prompted a storm of media activity and the YCDC, which had already designated hundreds of older buildings as unfit for habitation (including the one that collapsed), substantially increased the number of buildings on the list in the following months, including a great many colonial-era sites.

In most cases, the arrival of the “dangerous” notice – a red sign with white writing hammered to the building above the main entrances – is a death warrant for the site. Tenants are required to vacate the building as soon as possible, leaving them with little option but to negotiate with a developer to tear down the old block and replace it with a new building.

Amelie Chai, an American architect and Yangon resident, recently took part in a photo essay competition organized by Alliance Francaise. Her entry, “Lokanat,” was an essay detailing the daily life and activity around a colonial-era building that has been converted into a gallery. The essay was compiled over the course of two-and-a-half months and claimed third prize.

“I chose the Lokanat Gallery building because it felt like a world of its own, with different families and businesses occupying even the small areas under staircases. Even though the building is more than 100 years old, it is still very much alive,” she said. “As an architect who has lived in Yangon for more than seven years, I have always been fascinated by the historical buildings downtown.”

Ironically, she said, “these buildings have been able to survive because of the country’s relative isolation. I have been particularly interested in the way these buildings have continued to be occupied and to function through the years, sometimes in stark juxtaposition to newer buildings that are interspersed in the same urban fabric.”

“There is a sense of artlessness and authenticity to downtown Yangon that is special to this city in comparison to other Southeast Asian cities, which have quite limited and controlled ‘historical’ zones. It is the continuity of community as well as architecture, in a rather organic manner that makes the place so vibrant.”

Chai suggested that the first step in preserving the buildings should be to use them.

“The old ministry buildings that have continued to function as offices are in much better condition than those that have been vacated,” she said.

However, whether Yangon’s living colonial past can escape the wrecking ball of development might depend on whether a plan can be drafted, perhaps along the lines of the Hanoi Architectural Heritage Foundation, which saved many of that city’s older buildings from an undignified end.

But one thing is clear – any solution that will see at least a portion of the city’s colonial-era buildings preserved must involve a compromise. In mid-October last year, the chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Board sparked a controversy by suggesting that the Secretariat could be restored and turned into a hotel.