We are making good progress with our architectural guide to Yangon. With all the coverage on pre-independence heritage architecture (most recently on the occasion of President Obama’s visit to Yangon), I thought that post-war architecture could use a little more airtime, e.g. these two beautiful representatives.
Technical High School, Yangon (1956)
The Colombo Plan is a regional organisation that channeled Western aid money to South East Asian countries in an attempt to combat communism here. The US was to become the major donor. In common parlance thus, many Colombo Plan funded projects were often described as American aid.
So too were two buildings in Yangon, whose architectural significance is less known today. They were both designed by Raglan Squire, a British architect who was to design many projects abroad.
Squire was born in 1912 and played an important role in the post-war reconstruction of London. He set up his private practice in 1948 and won the commission to work in Burma in 1952. Here he built three buildings – the Agricultural Institute in Insein and the two below we are featuring in our forthcoming Yangon Architectural Guide.
The first of the two buildings is today’s University of Medicine (pictured above, all photos by Manuel Oka), built originally as the Engineering College of Rangoon University, between 1952 and 1956. The buildings, above all the main one with its 6-8 stories, are imposing for their early clarity and are really at the international avantgarde of post-war modern architecture.
However, Squire thought that his major accomplishment was an assembly hall (which locals quickly dubbed “Laik Khone” – or the back of the tortoise due to its peculiar shape). The structure created quite a stir in the architectural world for its innovative use of wood and won Squire much attention and further commissions around the world.
This photo I could find here, along with some other book scans (since put offline, unfortunately…)
The revolutionary use of wood is best described here:
This remarkable piece of timber engineering with its revolutionary structural principles is a monument to the versatility of wood as well as a tribute to the outstanding qualities of Burma teak. It will also serve as a constant reminder to the future architects and engineers of Burma how the tremendous advances in timber design techniques, promoted by developments in adhesives, timber connectors, calculated dimensions and prefabrication methods, have contributed in overcoming the old limitations of wood and enabling it to compete successfully with steel and concrete in the most exacting engineering requirements.
The assembly hall was torn down under Ne Win’s regime, but not many details are known.
The second building Squire designed is the Technical High School, or Nat Mauk Technical High School. It was later used by the Radiation Protection Department, but today lies largely abandoned. I posted about it on Facebook and Tumblr the other day:
Nat Mauk Technical High School opened in July 1956. It was paid for by the US government and built by a British contractor, for the stately sum of USD 2.5 million (more than USD 20 million in today’s money). The Ford Foundation paid for instructors from a Minnesota vocational college to help develop a curriculum. About 600 students, half of them boarders, combined artisanal vocational training with obtaining their high school degrees here. The mosaics were created as part of a wider campaign to install art in educational facilities. The Government Technical Institute and the Yangon Institute of Technology, as well as the Nat Mauk Technical High School and the University of Education all became sites of these large, beautiful, and inherently optimistic displays of life in independent Burma. As the Nat Mauk Technical High School lies largely abandoned today, it is a small miracle that these important 1950s artworks are in such good shape. The mural depicted here was created by U San Win, the first Burmese painter to embrace impressionism. Some of the other artists that were involved in this project back then — U Nann Waii and U Ohn Lwin — are among Myanmar’s most famous twentieth century artists.
Raglan Squire left quite an imprint on Yangon’s cityscape, with his buildings dearly remembered by their former users. The “American aid” which made these possible has to be understood against the backdrop of Burmese neutrality and careful engagement with the Colombo Plan.
We will juxtapose these buildings with the ones the Soviet Union donated, i.e. the Inya Lake Hotel and the Rangoon Institute of Technology. More on that in a separate post.