The neoclassical complex known as Sofaer’s Buildings was designed by a Baghdad-born Jewish trader and once housed a Reuters Telegram office and stores selling Egyptian cigarettes, German beer and English candies. Sofaer’s was constructed in central Rangoon in the early 1900s, and in its first decades it served the international population that controlled the upper echelons of British-controlled Burma’s social, political and economic life. Like hundreds of its architectural contemporaries in the Southeast Asian country, Sofaer’s owes its provenance to the British invasion, in 1852, of what was then a fishing village. The British destroyed the community and remade it along a grid oriented around the waterfront to create a new outpost for the Empire.
(PHOTOS: The 11 Most Endangered Historic Places)
Today, the cream-yellow paint of Sofaer’s exterior is faded, peeling and in some sections entirely ensconced in soot and mildew. Its best-preserved section is occupied by an art gallery and a government office, but the bulk of it houses a budget guesthouse, photocopy shops, a hodgepodge of vendors, or is vacant. Decades of economic stasis has helped preserve the core of what is today the largest collection of late 19th century and early 20th century urban architecture anywhere in Southeast Asia. The reopening of Rangoon promises much-needed renewal but, conservationists worry, could hasten the destruction of these remarkable structures.
In 1948, shortly after World War II, the British Empire relinquished control of Burma. Promising stability and playing to Burman nationalism, a group of hard-line generals took power in a coup in 1962 and nationalized the economy, expelling foreign companies (and most foreigners) in the process. Burma, also known as Myanmar, has since become the second poorest country in Asia. In Rangoon, which today is still Burma’s largest city and commercial center, roving blackouts remain routine, sewers are exposed and potholes pepper the roads. Aging buildings that might have been demolished in other cities in favor of high-rises or malls have remained as they were.
A little over a year ago, the junta handed power over to a semicivilian government, which over the past year has enacted a sweeping series of reforms: releasing hundreds of political prisoners of conscience and easing draconian restrictions on political association, civil society and the press. The Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest, is now a member of parliament. Western countries have, in return, suspended their sanctions, reopening Burma to international investors. The country is being trumpeted in business circles as one of the world’s last virgin markets, with vast stores of natural resources still ripe for the taking.
To date, the only successful large-scale renovation of a colonial-era structure is the riverfront Strand Hotel: it was one of Asia’s most luxurious hotels when it was built in 1901 and after extensive rehabilitation in the early ’90s has regained that stature, and despite lofty rates is popular again with well-heeled travelers precisely because it was authentically restored.
Many investors, Burmese and foreign, value the real estate of colonial-era buildings for their prime downtown locations and view the low-lying structures as an impediment to their plans for soaring apartment blocks and office towers, says Sun Oo, vice chairman of the Association of Myanmar Architects. He worries some investors with “a very thick book of project proposals” will sway government officials to grant them demolition licenses. “I feel we are a few steps behind the developers.”
(PHOTOS: The 2012 World Monuments Fund Watch List)
To counter the risk of unbridled development, a band of historians, business representatives and architects, Sun Oo included, recently formed the Yangon Heritage Trust, a nonprofit group to lobby and propose plans for preserving the traditional cityscape of Rangoon’s oldest districts. “We have this very unique situation where in one square mile in downtown Yangon, we have both an Anglican cathedral and a Roman Catholic cathedral, two pagodas, seven mosques [Sunni and Shi‘ite], a Jewish synagogue, seven Hindu temples, Sikh, Parsi and Jain temples and an Armenian church,” says the Heritage Trust’s founder, Thant Myint-U, a prominent historian and author. “And I think even in New York or London you’d be hard-pressed to find a square mile with that diversity of faiths represented.”
Kyaw Latt, a former architect who now serves as an adviser to Rangoon’s city council, says the recent efforts of conservationists have made an impact. “The city council is now conscious [of] the fact that we should preserve our city.” He acknowledges, however, that there are still few safeguards in place: most conspicuously, zoning laws are nonexistent. And though 189 buildings are listed by the city council as heritage sites, hundreds more impressive structures from the same era remain without any official recognition.
There is also the issue of popular support for saving these structures. If in colonial times Rangoon stood as an expression, in the mind of the British, of the Empire’s order and prosperity, most Burmese experienced the city as second-class citizens. “All gentlemen interested in general society are eligible,” stated the membership rules of the Pegu Club, constructed in 1882, mostly of teak. It was a given, though, by the standards of the social club’s gin-drinking British board members, that Burmese were not welcome. The architect Sun Oo, 57, recalls that during the early years of military rule, the junta would deride relics of the colonial era by invoking the indignity of being looked down upon by foreign rulers.
But, regardless of their origins and original exclusions, says Thant Myint-U, “these are buildings that have spent most of their lifetimes in independent Burmese times. These are buildings where maybe one initial use was as a [foreign-owned and patronized] company in British times but since have gone through many incarnations and been the offices of many famous Burmese people.” Perhaps no building better embodies this shifting historical tenure from British to Burmese than the Secretariat. The sprawling Victorian complex was initially the seat of the British colonial government but it became a centerpiece of Burmese independence: it’s the place where independence leader General Aung San was assassinated in 1947, which subsequently became the administrative center of the new government. A proposal earlier this year to convert the now vacant Secretariat into a hotel ignited a public outcry. The people of Rangoon, says Thant Myint-U, were saying the building was theirs.