Through six decades of assault—the bombing of Yangon during World War II, two military coups, a half century of isolation, and devastation by Cyclone Nargis in 2008—the buildings in Myanmar exuded its graceful arches and colorful patios sacrificing little of their elegance and charm to the torments of time, nature, and repression.
Then in 2013, three years into Myanmar’s unprecedented political and economic opening up, most buildings succumbed to a force that proved too great to resist: development. Since Obama’s first visit here in 2012, Yangon -the crown jewel of the “Golden Land”, has undergone a seemingly overnight transformation, with new construction reshaping its skyline—as well as its social fabric. The rapid changes are being driven in part by the simple economic logic of supply and demand. Gone are the wide pedestrian sidewalks and roadside tea shops that helped spur a rich and vibrant art community, victims of a plan to widen the roads to create more space for cars bought with new found wealth.
Hulking monoliths of concrete and blue-plated glass are replacing fine old residential and government buildings. Only a few dozen structures from the colonial period, between 1824 and 1948, remain downtown, and many have fallen into decay and disrepair.
Amid this transformation, an alliance of artists, historians, government officials, community leaders, and activists has begun to document what remains of Yangon’s heritage, working feverishly to preserve what still stands. Although much has already been lost, many architecturally or esthetically significant structures have hung on. The question now is how long they will last.
The most painful loss—the one many in Myanmar still bemoan today—was the demolition of an entire block of classic cinemas to make way for the Traders Hotel (now the Sule Shangri-La), near the famous Sule Pagoda.The Sule neighborhood was the heart of Yangon, and those picturesque cinemas provided a rare and welcome escape. In just weeks they were razed, replaced by a concrete parking lot.
Towering old marketplaces, decorated with lacelike iron filigree forged a century ago in Glasgow, are being demolished in favor of nondescript new warehouses. Wooden homes and monasteries and well-kept Victorian mansions, once abundant on the outskirts of the city, are now a rarity.
Even nature is not immune to the push for more space. “Large, mature trees have been stealthily removed in the night—they’re just not there the next day,” said Virginia Henderson, an oral historian of Myanmar society and architecture. Even as the preservation movement has gained momentum, though, the pace of destruction has increased. Along with new opportunities and freedoms, the reforms have brought an unprecedented influx of buyers and a surge in real estate prices—making the land beneath heritage buildings a precious commodity. The government, meanwhile, has failed to adequately fulfill its role as an impartial regulator. Basic zoning laws remain underdeveloped or unenforced, and local officials struggle to determine which buildings merit protection.It is not an either or situation, there must be development, room for change but shouldn’t it continue to embrace age old beautiful structures, full of history and charm.