RANGOON — Rangoon’s architectural heritage has been recognized by the World Monuments Fund, which on Tuesday put Burma’s largest city on its “Watch” list of places “at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political, and economic change.”
In a counterargument to the largely positive narrative that has accompanied Burma’s re-engagement with the West, the conservation group said Rangoon’s religious and colonial-era sites are threatened by commercial interests intent on bringing high-rises and other modern development to a city long neglected by the former military regime—and outside investors.
“Beautiful, century-old residential and commercial buildings, dilapidated from long neglect, are being torn down at an alarming rate,” said the US-based Fund, which releases an updated Watch list biannually.
Boasting Southeast Asia’s single largest collection of surviving colonial architecture, Rangoon’s low-rise skyline stands in contrast to regional capitals such as Jakarta and Singapore, where skyscrapers have sprung up amid economic boom times. Colonialism’s architectural legacy has been replaced by glass and steel in much of the region, but decades of isolation and economic stagnation have spared many of the late 18th and early 19th century buildings in Rangoon.
That doesn’t mean they are in good shape, however, with most of the city’s colonial buildings in varying states of disrepair.
While the Fund says it has put US$54 million toward conservation efforts globally and helped to steer nearly $200 million in additional third-party funding to projects, no money will go immediately to programs in Rangoon.
“But there are a few cases where financial and technical support on conservation projects follows after nomination,” said Moe Moe Lwin, director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), which nominated Rangoon for the at-risk listing and is seeking to save as many of the old buildings as possible.
“Inclusion on the Watch seeks to promote a thoughtful and well-balanced integration of cultural resources and new development as part of Yangon’s public policy, so as to build the foundation for a dynamic urban life and landscape,” the Fund said.
One obstacle to this vision, among “hundreds of challenges,” is simply figuring out which government body to approach with concerns about conservation for a given building, according to Thant Myint-U, founder and chairman of the YHT.
“In terms of the government-owned buildings, which is a huge amount of the heritage property downtown, you have different ministries that own them,” he told The Irrawaddy. “You have the Ministry of Construction, which is responsible for caretaking, and you have the city authorities, YCDC [the Yangon City Development Committee].”
Aylin Orbasli, a British architect who has worked on conservation efforts in the United Kingdom and several other countries, gave a presentation last week in Rangoon on ways in which architectural heritage can serve as a cultural as well as economic asset, adding vibrancy to city life and boosting tourism revenues.
Acknowledging a gauntlet of challenges in conservation efforts—from gentrification to finding ways to make an 18th century building useful in 2013—Orbasli said Rangoon faced “very solvable conservation problems.”
“You can’t always continue a building’s original function, but I think being creative in responses is key,” she told The Irrawaddy. “There are whole monasteries in Italy that have been turned into conference centers.”
Thant Myint-U said the YHT had surveyed hundreds of buildings in Rangoon and would soon submit a list of suggested additions to the current YCDC list of 189 protected buildings in the city.
“We already have a sense of maybe 20 or 30 buildings that should be urgently added to the existing list,” he said.
Rangoon’s historical city center was among 67 sites in 41 countries identified in the World Monuments Fund list of at-risk heritage sites.