Reshmi Banerjee loses herself in the Architectural Guide Yangon.
A city’s landscape is always a fascinating mix of its history and its present. The old and the new come together in unique ways, often drawing out continuities from the past which colour the city’s skyline, creating a stunning visual archive. Architecture of post-colonial cities often simultaneously captures historical remnants with ambitions for the future, thus sketching for us a vivid picture of the city’s transformation. People create buildings but the buildings in turn shape the lives of their creators. Rangoon was made the capital of Burma by the British in 1885. The cosmopolitanism of colonial Rangoon with its stupas, mosques, churches and temples was equally matched by its political and economic importance, visible in its stately brick buildings, banks and markets, stretching from the busy jetties to the glittering Shwedagon which towered over the city. Architectural Guide Yangon by Ben Bansal, Elliott Fox and Manuel Oka depicts 110 buildings around Yangon, representing the troubled history, imposing architecture and economic prowess of a ‘city in constant flux’. The book is a riot of colours with its beautiful photographs and storyline revolving around ‘concrete structures which speak’, each narrating an exciting story about its innovative construction, vibrant use and imaginative renovation plans. It also builds bridges between memory and new modern dreams, linking the old classical Rangoon with a bustling and rising megalopolis.
The book consists of six thematic chapters covering the relevant issues of Yangon’s waterfront, heritage, boomtown planning and public transport; thus revealing to the readers a wide range of challenges which the city encounters on a daily basis. It also interestingly showcases the important buildings of the city by raising the simple question of ‘What are your five favourite buildings?’, which is taken up by people from all walks of life, thus making us aware of a wide range of opinions on Yangon and its various facets. The authors usefully divide their descriptions by the city’s eight zones 1) Botataung 2) Kyauktada 3) Pabedan, Latha and Seikkan 4) Dagon and Mingalar Taungnyunt 5) Bahan and Tamwe 6) Kamaryut 7) Insein and Mayangone and finally 8) Thanlyin. A timeline and an old 1909 map of Rangoon provided by the authors help the readers understand both the tumultuous history and the changing landscape of the city. The authors successfully document the richness of the city by combining information from the libraries with input from social media and personal anecdotes from Yangon residents. From the devastating earthquake in 1930 to the Japanese invasion during the Second World War, from the independence era to the era of the military rule, from the 1988 pro-democracy protests to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the book takes us through the different phases of the city, inspiring us with its resilient buildings and courageous occupants.
The strength of the book lies in its ability to capture the pulse of the city. It talks about the spiritual aspects of the city’s places of worship and their prominent role in socio-political upheaval. These were not just sites of public gathering but became spaces for political resistance. The enchanting architectural and social history of the pagodas of Shwedagon (the city’s most iconic landmark), Sule complex (with its Mon designs), Botataung, Ngadatgyi and Chaukhtatgyi (with its seated and reclining Buddha respectively) – is covered. The Siyin Baptist Church (serving the ethnic Chin community), St Mary’s Cathedral (the city’s biggest Roman Catholic Church) with its Neo-Gothic style, the Cholia Jamah mosque and the Surti Sunni Jamah mosque (with its connections to the Indian community), and the Hindu and Chinese temples (Sri Kali and the Kheng Hock Keong) – all showcase the endearing plurality of the city. The elegance and grandeur of the city is documented well in its description of the Minister’s Building (also known as “The Secretariat,” a symbol of colonialism as well as Burma’s independence struggle), the City Hall (with its combination of Bombay colonial architecture and Buddhist heritage), and the Sofaer and Balthazar buildings (both now suffering from structural decay).
The city as a thriving entertainment and cultural centre is delightfully remembered through its impressive cinema houses, hotels, markets and department stores. One is able to visualise the glory days when the charm of Rangoon was known far and wide. Only the Waziya cinema (the last remnant of the Cinema row which was an iconic strip of movie theatres) remains, with hotels like the Sule Shangri–La (earlier Traders Hotel) and the Sakura Tower replacing the Palladium-Globe and the Ritz cinema houses. The Strand Hotel was and still remains the choice of the affluent. The Theingyi and Bogyoke Aung San markets (earlier known as the Surati Bara Bazaaar and the Scott Market, respectively) remind us of the roots laid by Myanmar’s enterprising immigrant and ethnic minority communities. Banks and businesses flourished: the Rowe & Co departmental store (known as the “Harrods of the East”), Cox and Co (which provided banking services to the British military personnel), the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, Bombay-Burmah Trading Corporation, the Bank of Bengal and Imperial Bank of India, J&F Graham Shipping Company. Museums, clubs, mausoleums, palaces, universities, too – the diverse gems of Yangon – all get due attention by the authors.
The book not only gives an architectural overview of each of these institutions and their socio-economic role in old Rangoon but also goes into the life-history of families such as the Sarkies and the Balthazars, who were associated with these institutions. The contributions of architects like John Begg, James Ransome and Thomas Oliphant Foster who worked previously in Delhi under Lutyens, are also featured in the book.
The highlight of this book lies in its insight into the conflict between public good and private property development – an issue evident in the clash between the desire to develop green spaces such as public parks versus the fast-paced rise of high-end hotels, commercial office blocks and affluent residential complexes. The poorer and marginalised section of the city seems to have been bypassed in a grand future vision for the city’s urban geography. Forced eviction and displacement are becoming synonymous with the creation of rich ennclaves in Yangon. There is also the danger of the city’s normalcy being destroyed in the over-enthusiastic conservation drive of heritage architecture, which is turning it unnecessarily into zones of vested interests with competing visions to deal with. In December 2013, the plans of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) clashed with those of the Myanmar Port Authority (MPA) which administers much of the waterfront. Besides the YCDC, there is the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), the Japanese Aid Agency (JICA), the World Monuments Fund (WMF), and a host of other organisations, each with its own understanding of heritage preservation. The balance between historical preservation and economic dynamism is a delicate one. Should one focus only on preserving monuments and buildings or expand our notion of urban preservation by better understanding the history and culture of the city? All stakeholders need to come together to create a common vocabulary for the future.
The book is refreshingly different – in its presentation of history, architecture, photography and current challenges. Its beauty lies in the fact that it is difficult to categorize it as any particular genre. It is poetic and lyrical, as well as gripping. It gives us an idea about the endless creative ways in which one can present a city and opens our hearts and minds into appreciating the latent stories embedded in colossal structures. The book inspires us in not only getting to know our cultural heritage but also involving ourselves in rejuvenating the same with sensibility and sensitivity.
Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).