The launch of our website in Yangon last week was a great chance to feel the pulse of Yangon’s built environment. More than 100 guests in the audience meant there was a great discussion taking place, providing food for thought for any future work on this project. Herewith some highlights.
First of all, we had a few requests for buildings to be included in future editions of the book. These include the Insein Technical Institute, the U Thant House and Chinese shophouses in Latha. In terms of the latter, I feel now that the YHT has published their Yangon Heritage Strategy with a lot of information on this part of the downtown area, we could definitely run with one particular shophouse and even a clan house.
The skyline of the city has changed quite dramatically over the last two years and Daw Moe Moe Lwin of the YHT was kind enough to offer a list of what she and her colleagues feel are the more important ones in a list:
Lotte, Pyay Road; Myanmar Plaza and Melia Hotel, Kabar Aye Pagoda Road; Novotel Max Hotel, Pyay Road; Pyay Garden Office Tower, Pyay Road; 3/Pyay Office Building, 61/2 miles, Pyay Road; Star City, Thanlyin; Myanmar Awba Building, KyaikWaing Pagoda Rd; Vantage Tower, Pyay Rd; Golden Flower Condo, Kyaik Waing Pagoda Rd; Junction City, BoGyoke Aung San Rd; Restaurant & Bar building at YCDC Golf Course, Mingalardon; St.John City Mall, Pyay R; 6.5 Mile City Mart Market Place, Pyay Rd; Sedona Hotel (extension), Kabar Aye Pagoda Rd; Yangon International Airport; Rose Garden Hotel, Upper Pansodan St; Crystal Tower (Junction Square Extension); Golden City, Yankin; Wyne Hotel, Kyaik Waing Pagoda Rd; Parami Hotel, Parami Rd; Hotel @ Yangon Heritage, Sule Pagoda Rd; Strand Square (IKBZ Office) Former 6 storey Office Bldg; Scott Hotel; The Link Hotel, University Avenue; Sule Square, Sule Pagoda Rd; TRYP – Dragon Mountain Hotel
Of these, I instinctively tend towards including Lotte on Pyay Road (I heard the quality of the interior work is standard-setting), Junction City (major impact on the downtown area), Wyne Hotel (a very young and promising architect), Hotel @ Yangon Heritage (perhaps in conjunction with a place like the Rangoon Tea House or so), Strand Square / KBZ head office (is this the “New Secretariat”?) and of course Sule Square. I think we will probably look at including 10 new buildings, while dropping about the same amount from the existing list.
A few people want us to better convey the spaces in the city not occupied by buildings, i.e. the open spaces in between. We try to capture the “experience of the street” in the text, but could probably do better. Perhaps this comes to life better when juxtaposed with nearby places like Bangkok, where the pedestrian has often been separated from the physical reality of the street (via the BTS, for example).
One commentator suggested that the website could be more extensive than the book and that both versions do not necessarily need to align 100%. We will certainly be adding to the website as we go along, in preparation for a second edition. This way, the website will by definition be running with more text than the book.
Professor Frauke Kraas made a great comment on the modernization discourse in general. A relatively weak civil society may mean that Yangon, too, will suffer from the same forces that led to disappearing heritage in neighboring countries. The “dangerous building rhetoric” of having to get rid of old structurally-weak buildings is just another example of special interest wielding outsize influence here.
A great comment came from another guest, who said that we should really try and include more residential properties. A natural tendency to feature more public and commercial buildings exists: They are larger, their histories are usually recorded, etc. However, many of the more important architectural works are smaller in scale, as this allowed their architects to be more daring, do more with less, etc.
She also suggested the YHT could do more to protect some of these buildings, e.g. one on the shore of Kandawgyi Lake that recently got torn down. Another great example may be a small villa designed by Raglan Squire in Golden Valley, of which one commentator on our Tumblr made us aware.
I suggested some revisions to our thematic insets. A few of them can probably be consolidated into one or two major pieces, i.e. urban planning, heritage, waterfront and public transport. This would benefit from the new information released in the aforementioned Yangon Heritage Strategy. I suppose we would have to interview a few important people again to get our writing up to date.
The two chapters on post-1988 changes to the city as well as Naypyidaw still have their place. My friend Heinz is working on a project about the new capital, and I hope we can benefit from some of his insights, too.
Then I was hoping to write one or two new insets. One of these should be about public housing projects of the relatively early postwar era. I walked through the U Wizara Estate next to the National Theatre. It is mainly inhabited by government employees. Another of these complexes is adjacent to Zoological Garden Road, and, according to our friend Ronnie, was built by Indian architects during the U Nu period.
Another great inset would be to portray the work of some urban renewal projects, e.g. Doh Eain’s impressive initiative to clean up some of Yangon’s notorious back alleys. Originally intended to supply the buildings, they today are nothing more than rubbish dumps. A friend of mine is working on her PhD on this topic, too and may provide some interesting perspective.
Lastly, I would like to venture into the unplanned areas of the city to show the increasing problem Yangon is facing with regards to slums. There has been some interesting work taking place by UN Habitat and other organizations on mapping the extent of the problem. How are Burmese slums different? What is their history? I think there is not much information on this topic out there in accessible form, and our guide may only stand to benefit from shedding some light at this particular expression of the built environment.
Finally, the quotation marks around “opening up” — a frequently used word in our book — may have to go. Now that the new government has been in place for two years, it is time for a reality check. This is especially important with regards to the new government’s influence on urban governance in Yangon. What is their vision for the city? How is it different from the previous government? How has the day-to-day-running of the city been affected?