Yangon was once the capital of Myanmar and remains its largest city. But now its unique heritage is under threat as developers race to cash in on the country’s rapid pace of change. Andrea Vance reports.
In a city where pavements are cracked and riddled with potholes, power blackouts are common, and streets flood shin-deep after a monsoon rain storm, you could forgive residents for an ambivalence to preserving Yangon’s century-old heritage.
Infrastructure crumbled during decades of isolation wrought by military rule. When the junta abandoned Yangon in 2005, to establish a new capital in Naypyidaw, it slipped deeper into decay.
But as city-dwellers negotiate – and grumble about – the perils of swamped roads and broken traffic lights, a group of architects has recognised the value in preserving Yangon’s imperial architecture. It remains the country’s largest city, with a population of about four million.
Once a cosmopolitan trading post, its river-banks are a time-capsule, boasting Asia's most spectacular urban landscape. Grand colonial-era buildings survived two world wars but were casualties of 2008's Cyclone Nargis. As bureaucrats decamped to Naypyidaw, they were left derelict or half-empty.
Hawkers congregate in the marble doorways of these moss-covered edifices. Roofs leak, walls are mouldy, and weeds are threatening to consume pastel walls. Squatters made homes in abandoned blocks. Formerly elegant facades are obscured by gaudy signs.
Ruinous economic policies allowed the structures to survive – no-one could afford demolition. But as the country opens up to foreign investment, in the wake of recent democratic reforms, architectural treasures are vulnerable. A lack of regulatory protection, coupled with soaring land prices, puts them in danger of falling under bulldozers.
Last year the Yangon Heritage Trust formed, to ensure Yangon does not become a metropolis of hastily constructed sky-scrapers, another of Asia's mega-cities.'
Rather than embark on costly conservation projects, the trust hopes to shape urban planning policy and attract investors to restore old properties to former glory for commercial use.
Director Moe Moe Lwin works from the renovated first floor of a 1930s building. Its enormous, windowless balconies afford a view of some of the city’s most precious architecture.
"Visitors think [it] is beautiful and quite unique, but the ones living here, they don’t see it," she says. "They think it is run-down and it’s safer to live in newer buildings...So we try to make people see the value."
The organisation is working with central and local government to draft the city’s first urban development plan. A heritage conservation law and listing private buildings are under consideration.
Almost 200 significant public and religious buildings are listed, but Moe Moe Lwin says it does not guarantee protection in law, and many have been lost.
"If it is privately-owned, the government can’t do much. If they are knocked down, well..."
Most are in a saveable condition. However, local developers are"quick and dirty," only interested in making a quick buck, she says."But not all are careless." Some entrepreneurs, with one eye on a blossoming tourism industry, are sympathetic.
SPA Myanmar aims to restore the listed former Myanma Railways headquarters, although the design will see the finished five-star hotel development dwarfed by office blocks.
Director Cyrus Pun says a lack of planning guidelines makes it difficult to "dictate" to architects. "In the modern world architecture is so globalised. There is no definitive architectural culture ... certainly when it comes to high rises.’’
A balance must be struck between conservation and progress, he argues. Yangon will soon grapple with housing shortages as rural migrants flood in looking for work. ‘‘It is quite obvious this country has suffered from a lack of investment. There is a big shortage of property stock [that] drives up the prices.’’
Aung Tun Thet of the government-run Myanmar Investment Commission says height limits will preserve views of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, a jewel in the city scape.
"We don't care about return on investments. We care about our culture and heritage."
He says authorities are in a "fortunate" position, to make choice about architecture before it is too late. "How do we protect the past and also grasp the opportunities of the future. ...Can we go the Beijing way or do we go the Yangon way?"
*Andrea Vance participated in the East West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship with the support of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
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