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
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.
Aware of this looming problem, local architects are keen to promote Rangoon’s unique heritage. The sheer density of surviving colonial-era structures—from rows of humble shop houses to the once-grand edifices of Empire—is unparalleled in Southeast Asia and represents what academics have cited as the best remaining example of a “colonial core” in the region. In downtown Rangoon, it is possible to walk along the Strand Road and the lower block of Pansodan Street without encountering a single modern structure. To stroll these streets is, quite literally, to step back in time through chapters of Burmese history.
Within just a few short decades of the British conquest of Rangoon in 1852, it was transformed from a riverside village to one of the busiest ports in the British Empire. Trading firms amassed great fortunes from the so-called “trinity” of Burma’s natural resources—paddy, oil and teak. As the Strand Road ran parallel the river and was near the jetties, it became a premium address for leading merchant houses and, though the firms themselves are long gone, a number of their offices remain.
The large maroon building at the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw Street was the headquarters of Bulloch Brothers & Co., which was established in Burma in the mid-19th century by two Scottish brothers from Glasgow and became one of the most successful rice-milling firms in the country. Now used as the Central Post Office, its more affluent origins are visible in its Beaux Arts portico and rows of Lancet-arched windows—a neo-Moorish touch inspired by Indian Mughal design, common in the architecture of the British Raj. Next door stands an elegant white building that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Constructed in 1900 as the premises of Graham & Co., a major shipping and insurance company, it is now pristinely restored and houses the British embassy.
Further along the Strand is the former office of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, a powerful timber firm that played a critical role in the fate of Burma; it was a dispute between this company and Burma’s last monarch, King Thibaw, which led to the third Anglo-Burmese War and the final British annexation of Upper Burma in the 1880’s. Unsurprisingly, this was one of the first properties seized by the Burmese government after independence from Britain in 1948. It was stripped bare of any architectural significance and today serves as a Myanmar Airways office.
Despite the obvious association with the oppressive and rapacious side of colonial rule, few Burmese hold any grudge against this architectural legacy. As Burmese architect Daw Thynn Thynn Aye points out, “It’s our history and we can’t obliterate it. Instead, we should enable the younger generation to learn from it and invite visitors to our country to learn from it, too.”
Administrative colonial architecture was marked by a formidable grandeur designed, no doubt, to attribute a sense of might and glory to the British Empire. The magnificent Port Authority building is located on the eastern corner of Pansodan Street and features a distinctive square corner tower, wave-inspired stuccowork and sculpted reliefs of various ships. Across Pansodan is the old Accountant General’s office and Currency Department. Clerks in the building once oversaw the collection of colonial government revenue that came from opium (importation and legal sales), salt, custom duties, railways, post offices, telegraphs and major irrigation works. During World War II, a bomb destroyed an entire wing of this building and it was never properly repaired; the ruined brickwork, laced with weeds, remains an evocative memorial to the fierce battles fought over Rangoon.
Further along the Strand are the Custom House and the imposing Police Commissioner’s building, a massive structure that encompasses an entire block and required 2,700 metric tons of steel for its framework. Around the corner on Sule Pagoda Road is the sprawling complex of the Supreme Court that served as the highest seat of justice in the land during colonial times.
Walking through this neighborhood is like stepping into a larger-than-life museum in which each building is a work of art in itself. Take, for instance, the building constructed for the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (today known as Standard Chartered). Completed to cutting-edge designs by a Hong Kong-based architectural firm on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Rangoon in World War II, it is still a striking structure; the hulking pagoda-inspired entrance tower is made of cut stone and looms imperiously above Pansodan Street.
Opposite the bank building is the former office of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, once the country’s primary provider of river transportation. By World War II, the company was operating 600 vessels that transported a staggering eight million passengers and nearly a quarter million metric tons of cargo per year. Most of those boats were deliberately sunk during the war as part of a “scorched earth” campaign to deny the invading Japanese army any useful resources. After independence, the building was taken over by the Burmese government’s Inland Waterways Department but the words “Irrawaddy Chambers” remain, a nostalgic echo, engraved above the entrance archways.
Many of these buildings are now up for sale; most are owned by the state and were left abandoned or only partially occupied after the government established a new capital in Naypyidaw. Burmese architects and urban planners are currently lobbying the government to pedestrianize this lower block of Pansodan Street and invite investors to repurpose the buildings into hotels, restaurants, shops, museums and theaters.
“We should make a feature of this area,” says U Win Myint, a patron of the Association of Myanmar Architects. “Now, when tourists visit the city, there’s not so much for them to do—they visit the Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, do some shopping at Scott Market and then they are done. If we develop this area it could become a major tourist attraction, generating income for the developers as well as for local residents and small business enterprises in the area.”
It’s a worthy aspiration but there are plenty of challenges ahead. The biggest hurdle is, quite simply, money. With hardly any government or municipal budget dedicated to heritage preservation, funds must be raised privately. But once renovation works are added to the high cost of land in Rangoon, the final price tag for restoring a single building becomes exorbitant. It costs less to demolish and start anew.
The Strand Hotel is one of a scant handful of professionally restored buildings in Burma. Built in 1901 by the legendary Armenian hoteliers, the Sarkies brothers, the renowned hotel managed to stay open after being nationalized in the 1960’s during Burma’s socialist period, though all hints of luxury were duly excised. By the time Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet guidebooks, stayed here in the 1970’s, the hotel was much deteriorated. Wheeler wrote, “By 11 p.m. you are likely to be feeling pretty lonely in the lounge area [with] just the occasional Strand rat scampering across the floor to keep you company.” Then, in 1990, an enterprising joint venture between the Burmese government and Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha set out to restore the hotel. Three years and more than US$16 million later, it reopened with 32 fully renovated rooms and remains Burma’s most famous hotel.
Finances aside, other imminent threats to these buildings include the planned expansion of Strand Road into an eight-lane highway to accommodate increased traffic to and from the ports. Indeed, with many of these state-owned structures now up for sale, there is no doubt that this neighborhood is on the cusp of change.
In a landscape where time has effectively stood still for so many decades, the people who inhabit these buildings may be ill-prepared for what lies ahead. U Tint Lwin, an elderly English teacher who has worked in a partitioned corner of Sofaer’s Building since the mid-1970s, is seemingly unaware of the potential danger of the wrecking ball that may come with a new wave of development. “They are a unique example of a grand vista such as you no longer see elsewhere,” he says of the colonial-era buildings along Pansodan Street. “I have to say, though, not much has changed here in the past 35 years, only I have gotten older.”
Sarah Rooney is the author of 30 Heritage Building of Yangon: The City that Captured Time (Association of Myanmar Architects).