Yangon boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse urban landscapes: famous Buddhist buildings like the Shwedagon Pagoda, Anglican and Roman Catholic Cathedrals, Baptist and Methodist churches, over a dozen Sunni and Shia mosques, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh temples, and even a Jewish synagogue and an Armenian church. The city retains one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with splendid parks and lakes. Long the centre of Myanmar’s political, economic and cultural life, Yangon has played a critical role in the country’s history. It was in Yangon that the Myanmar people first become ‘modern’ and interacted with the world and it was through this process of exchange that Yangon’s history became internationally linked to the history. Visitors from Mahatma Gandhi to Graham Greene travelled to Yangon alongside an array of historical figures, from the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. These layers of history are still evident in the architectural legacies of the city. Today, Yangon’s built heritage is at risk from decades of neglect and, more pressingly, a new wave of intense pressure for rapid urban development. An immediate need exists for a comprehensive urban plan that integrates Yangon’s existing urban fabric with the needs of a rapidly developing city. Century-old buildings in the downtown area are being demolished with alarming speed. As new structures rise without a regulatory vision, intact architectural blocks and iconic views of the Shwedagon Pagoda are being lost.
It was to address this growing concern that Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy. The idea for the organisation began three months earlier, following initial talks between Dr Thant Myint-U and the Chief Minister of Yangon Region U Myint Swe and then Industry Minister U Soe Thane (now Minister in the President’s Office), where Dr Thant Myint-U outlined the urgency of working on Yangon preservation. The June 2012 conference “Towards a Conservation Strategy for Yangon in the 21st Century” united national and international experts, civil society leaders, and government ministers, and marked the start of the Trust’s activities as an organization. An International Advisory Group of urban planners, conservationists, and architects now supports the Trust by facilitating dialogue with local experts and interested parties.
The Trust established its credentials and explained its objectives with President Thein Sein during a meeting in February 2013. Dr. Thant Myint-U provided a presentation on how preservation efforts could be integrated into a wider urban planning process, why this was urgent, and how this could help make Yangon into one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the region, with tremendous economic benefits. In the months that followed, the Yangon Heritage Trust began to broaden its area of focus from simply the preservation of historic buildings (primarily in downtown Yangon). YHT recognised that preservation could only properly take place within a wider urban planning process and began discussions with city authorities on how best to connect preservation to urban planning.
By protecting and promoting our heritage in the process of development, Yangon is uniquely poised to become one of the most vibrant and attractive modern cities in Southeast Asia. The preservation of Yangon’s pre-1960 buildings should not be seen in isolation but as part of a broader urban planning effort. The combination of inherited laws, regulations, and policies pertaining to tenancy, taxes and rents directly affect the physical condition of the City’s built heritage. Current economic conditions and incentives may only lead to the further impoverishment of the area. Simply adding a preservation agenda will not be sufficient. Yangon needs a broad vision that finds the right balance of preservation and new development, properly planning for the reuse of government land and property (including and especially the waterfront) and puts in place the appropriate mix of market incentives. Getting the downtown economy and real estate market right is critical to long-term preservation aims. As part of the revitalization of Yangon, YHT is working on several pilot projects to demonstrate what alternatives exist for the adaptive use and upgrade of historic structures. These projects go beyond physical restoration of buildings and emphasize a holistic approach to preserving the spirit and vitality of neighborhood life with special attention to social exchange and environmental impact.
Exemplar Restoration Project on Merchant Road
The project is to restore a historic building at 491-501 Merchant Street which is over 100 years old, and has a mix of commercial and residential uses. The restoration project which will run from the beginning of July 2015 for nine months is being undertaken by the Yangon Heritage Trust in partnership with the Prince of Wales’ Foundation, and funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, and Alphawood Foundation through Global Heritage Fund. This work is aimed at engaging the public and government in a conscious decision making process regarding the development of Downtown Yangon, and to guide it to promote and integrate its unique urban heritage into a 21st century vision of Yangon as one of Asia’s most liveable cities. The work will be carried out to international standards, and will provide an example to drive the sympathetic conservation of other historic Downtown buildings.
Yangon General Hospital
YHT is proud to be closely associated with this project of major civic importance. Through government investment, the YGH is being sympathetically updated and restored. Workmen are undertaking an extremely sensitive approach at the site which stems from the wise decision to use the original buildings as recovery wards while moving the major operating theatres and care wards to new buildings.
In 2014 YHT funded a Conservation Management Plan (CMP) for the iconic Secretariat. The work was undertaken by Edinburgh-based heritage consultancy, Simpson and Brown following the Myanmar Investment Commission(MIC) requirement that the site’s lease holder, Anwamar Group, submit such a plan. Anawmar has worked closely with YHT on the conservation guidelines within the plan and are very keen to ensure that the works on site are of an extremely high standard. Given that this is perhaps the most significant secular heritage site in Myanmar, YHT is continuing to be involved in works at the site and provide support where it can to Anawmar Group.
New Law Courts
The MIC has also requested that the proponent at the New Law Courts site submit a CMP as part of the approval process. This is plan is currently being undertaken by Purcell, out of their Hong Kong office. YHT is working closely with Purcell and Prime Residence to ensure that the plan to convert the NLC into a Kempinski Hotel is undertaken sympathetically. The building is nationally significant for its associations with Myanmar’s legal, political and WWII history.
(State Fine Arts School) Chin Tsong Palace
YHT has been asked by the Ministry of Culture to provide advice on how to ensure the long-term conservation and use of the State Fine Arts School (the former Chin Tsong Palace) The site one of the most ornate and impressive heritage buildings in Yangon. The Ministry are hoping to allow limited commercial use of the site to fund future conservation.
Former Reserve Bank of India
YHT has been closely involved in advising on the adaptation of the former Reserve Bank of India into Myanmar’s first stock exchange. A Japanese company has been tasked with installing the necessary features for the stock exchange and the interior design of the project. This work will not affect the building’s exterior. YHT continues to advocate for the conservation of the interior as part of a review committee.
The U Thant House
The Yangon Heritage Trust assisted with the renovation of the residence of former United Nations Secretary – General U Thant. The house, which belongs to the government, is a colonial era building within the Windermere compound in Yangon. In early 2012, President U Thein Sein approved a request from YHT Chairman Dr. Thant Myint-U that the house be renovated for reuse as a museum dedicated to the life of U Thant, as well as a centre for public events, such as lectures and seminars, on issues related to the former Secretary General and his work. In May 2013, preliminary renovation work was completed followed by a ‘soft opening’ and photo-exhibition that was attended by an array of government ministers, leaders of political parties, foreign ambassadors, donors and interested parties. YHT hopes that this may be the first of several projects to properly recognize and restore the Yangon homes of leading figures in Myanmar history and international history.
Waziya is the oldest cinema in Yangon and is situated the heart of what was once known as “cinema row” in the center of the city. A shared vision between MMPA and the Yangon Heritage Trust is to renovate and restore the historical Waziya into a modern cinema and performance arts space in the center of Yangon. Working closely with the Myanmar Motion Picture Association, YHT is proposing a restoration of the historical Waziya Cinema in the center of Yangon. Through a heritage assessment process, YHT will decipher the most appropriate plans to conserve the building while preparing it for a new life as a central entertainment hub in Yangon. Initial ideas include renovating the building’s interior, retrofitting the theater with digital technology, improving the lighting and audio capabilities for movies and live theater performances, and creating a lobby museum to display historical artifacts from the history of the Myanmar film industry.
Yangon Heritage Trust advocates for heritage protection, develops clear and sustainable policy options, engages with government, business and civil society, communicates its ideas to the widest possible audience, undertakes specific conservation projects, and facilitates research and training.
Source: The Yangon Heritage Trust. http://www.yangonheritagetrust.org/home