Yangon is a city with character, one that charms and fascinates, despite, the ageing structures that line its streets. The impeccable glistening newness of the Shwedagone Pagoda reveals the effort that goes into maintaining this exquisite structure which is perhaps the most beautiful pagoda in the world. In stark contrast, as one drives around Yangon, one sees dilapidated structures, rundown buildings, belonging to the era of British rule. They contribute as much to the character of Yangon, as the golden spired pagodas, monasteries and other architectural marvels. British architecture stands out in all the countries that were once British colonies, be it India, Sri Lanka or Myanmar. But while their counter parts in Delhi, Kolkata, Colombo and a host of other cities have been restored, maintained and preserved, Yangon sees them slowly, silently crumbling.
It is not just buildings of the British era that are threatened. Being a port city, Yangon was a medley of communities and nationalities, each leaving their mark in the form of Hindu and Chinese temples, Buddhist monasteries, churches, libraries, cinema halls, and others. Decades of neglect and paucity of funds have led to each of these facing the need for restoration, renovation, partial reconstruction and sustained maintenance, before it is too late.
From the winding lanes of Golden Valley, to the cramped crowded streets in downtown Yangon, one sees run down, dilapidated buildings and concrete structures, desperately requiring a facelift, renovation and perhaps, even reconstruction. So many of these buildings are 50-100 years old, and due to lack of resources, awareness or just disinterest, are ready to fall apart. It is not just the unclean façade that needs a face lift, it is every part of these heritage buildings and architectural marvels that have to be repaired, renovated and reinforced where the concrete base is falling apart.
There have been so many instances of old colonial buildings being demolished to make place for new commercial constructions. Statistics reveal that between 1990- 2010, nearly 35% of the downtown area in Yangon was pulled down for hotels, residential condominiums and shopping areas.
This accounts for an incalculable loss that cannot be recovered. What is important, is to prevent further demolition and initiating the restoration process before it is too late. This must be done before the buildings deteriorate further and reach a point where they can no longer be saved.
Plans and efforts
The state of disrepair, and the need to take quick action to prevent further damage, and also save these buildings, has been taken up seriously by many Myanmar locals and foreigners visiting the city. Yangon Heritage Trust, a non profit organization, has drawn out a series of maps with its vision for Yangon of the future. Their idea being to preserve the existing façade, repair, uplift and upgrade, and define areas for new constructions to enable expansion of the city, but without impacting the heritage sites and distinguished landmarks.
The buildings of the colonial era including the 189 heritage sites listed by the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), need to get a makeover, keeping their character and façade intact. But given their fragile state, they first need to be strengthened to withstand natural disasters, like cyclone and earthquakes. However, the Ministry of Culture has identified nearly 5000 buildings in Yangon and other parts of Myanmar, that need to be maintained and restored.
The old and the new The existing buildings and houses are eye sores compared to the plush complexes that are being constructed in various part of Yangon. These have all the features of modern constructions and hold promise of meeting international standards. Price apart, the quality seems to be improving with every new construction. The end result will be, a vast gap between the old and the new, which have already started getting occupied gradually. Most new constructions are nearly completion and likely to be offered by mid- 2016.
As the democratic system of government took over 4 years ago, pieces of land were gradually released for development of residential and commercial properties, so as to meet the demand for quality and affordable housing, office and retail space for foreign companies and international brands. Big, private construction companies like the SPA Group, Shwe Taung Development, A1 Group and Max Myanmar are transforming Yangon’s skyline, not to mention the Vietnamese HAGL complex among others. Foreign companies interestingly, are permitted to participate in the construction industry on the Build, Operate, Transfer condition. What remains imperative is that Yangon continues to preserve its historically integral character, and not lose it gradually, as has happened to places like Singapore. The maze of concrete, manicured gardens and absence of natural greenery may be picture perfect but remains hollow.
There is a desperate need for funds to restore the old, historical buildings, ranging from the Secretariat to the District Court. There is talk of some being transformed into luxury hotels. Smaller buildings are being restored and converted into commercial eateries. The Rangoon Tea House is housed is one such renovated building. The contrast is evident when the blackened, run down structures right next to the restaurant are seen. But it’s a good starting point.
Preserving and protecting the Old
It is an established fact that new constructions in the vicinity of heritage buildings can hasten the deterioration process of very old structures. In every country, efforts are made by governments to implement regulations to preserve these structures and prevent new constructions near them. Down town Yangon, in a radius of a few kilometers, houses some of the most fascinating heritage buildings including the exclusive Shwedagon Pagoda. A new law called the Protection and Preservation of Ancient Buildings Law, has therefore, been passed, that any new construction in specific areas will have to take clearance from the Department of Archaeology and a few other government bodies, before they can initiate the building process. Not adhering to the new law, details of which are being systematically drawn out, is a punishable offence. Any damage to the buildings will lead to penalties as well.
There is talk of planned development, new high rises, condominiums and townships of international standards, but nothing is being said or done about existing properties. The YCDC is working with Japan’s International cooperation Agency to draw up an urban plan for Myanmar. But there is hope that this urban plan retains the essence and character of Yangon that charms the international tourist, and gives a sense of identity to the locals.
Besides buildings and concrete structures, the road network needs to be improved to avoid traffic congestion, which has literally begun to choke the city. Visitors and residents alike, find Yangon a mess and traffic jams a major deterrent.
Numerous non governmental organizations and foreign countries have expressed concern and shown interest in helping to preserve the heritage structures all over .Myanmar. Some are already raising funds and trying to restore one building at a time, and even try to improve external lighting to make them eye catching in the dark .
The heritage buildings of a city make it attractive as a tourist destination since international tourists are avid enthusiasts of understanding the past. Keeping them intact will be a big boost for the tourism sector, which is one of the fast growing sectors in Myanmar, earning precious foreign exchange and providing employment opportunities to the locals.
Heritage buildings apart, numerous residential apartment blocks line major roads like Anawartha Road, Merchant Street, Mahabandola Road and others. These are so run down, and look so unimpressive besides being unclean, that something needs to be done about them too. The idea being to improve the façade and clean common areas to spruce up the busy streets. Many of them seem to have been constructed in a bygone era, and will benefit not just from being clean but also appreciate in value, at a time when the real estate sector is booming due to increasing demand that cannot be met by existing supply levels.
There is no doubt that in a few years’ time, Yangon will emerge as a modern, cosmopolitan city, with glass and steel multi storeyed structures lining its roads. But it will lose its old world charm, its originality and its beauty, if efforts are not put in to preserve, redo and restore what exists today.