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Rangoon's Rich Architecture


The Burmese capital's colonial architecture is worn down. What happens to it now that the country is opening up? SARAH ROONEY heads off in search of answers. PHOTOGRAPHED BY CEDRIC ARNOLD

Published on Jun 6, 2012

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Stroll down Rangoon’s Pansodan Street and you’ll come upon Sofaer’s Building at the corner of Merchant Road. Like Burma itself, it’s seen better days. During the building’s heyday in the 1910’s, however, it was an emporium of marvels. Residents of Rangoon came here for Egyptian cigarettes and fine European liqueurs. The Vienna Café, a royally appointed bakery and confectionary, catered lavish garden parties for the British governor of Burma. At the Reuters office, telegrams rang in news of the latest events from around the world.

Designed by Isaac Sofaer, a Jewish émigré from Baghdad, the building drew on a variety of aesthetic influences. Its opulent façade was accented with Italianate flourishes. The floor tiles—a mosaic pattern of green, gold, burnt sienna and lapis lazuli—were shipped from Manchester, England. If visitors weren’t brave enough to enter one of the city’s first electronic lifts, they could ascend sweeping staircases carved from premium teak felled in the jungles of Upper Burma.

Today, however, the building is severely dilapidated. Those floor tiles are cracked and faded. The lift shaft fell silent long ago, its wrought iron swirls now used for drying clothes. There’s a carpet of dust and grime on the upper floors, and the teakwood stairs are rotting away. The central courtyard has become a fetid rubbish dump that is the exclusive domain of scrap collectors and hungry crows.

Sofaer’s Building is just one of scores of colonial-era buildings surviving in downtown Rangoon in varying stages of decline. Protected by the country’s isolation and stagnant economy over nearly half a century of military rule, the biggest danger to these structures has been neglect and gradual decay. Now, they face a more urgent threat. With political changes afoot, Burma is on the verge of opening up for international investment; as property developers seek out prime plots in the former capital’s central business district, the scant legislation that exists for heritage protection may not be enough to save these buildings.

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