Decades of neglect and rapid economic development are putting heritage buildings at risk.
In the first quarter of 2014, Myanmar approved 340 high-rise projects nationwide on top of 705 low-rise projects, most of them to be erected in Yangon – the largest commercial city.
Amid the construction boom, concerns for the health of old buildings built before 1960 are rising. On the list completed by Yangon City Development Committee, 189 historic structures are enlisted as heritage buildings, including religious buildings. Some are being used as government offices, while some will be converted into hotels. Many others are in poor conditions.
They are at risk, following the emergence from isolation and new foreign investment opportunities. Century-old residential and commercial buildings are being replaced by poorly designed structures.
A piece of good news came this month, when the Asian Development Bank agreed to provide Myanmar with US$400,000 in aid to conduct a study on historic buildings in Yangon.
"This is a preliminary study. We will be provided with about $400,000. The study will take less than a year. Then projects will follow," said urban planning department director Toe Aung.
The study will focus on both government and private buildings.
Experts gathered in the city from January 15-17, to discuss historic edifices and sustainable development.
The experts pointed out challenges posed to Yangon&’s historic buildings by urban development plans, which include the population growth. AdB projects that by 2050, some 62.9 per cent of Myanmar’s population will be urbanised. Yangon will remain the biggest city.
Some buildings that were over 100 years old were destroyed, and others sustained structural damage due to the projects, they said.
A piece of good news came as their call for a plan for heritage protection, conservation and promotion zones is answered.
"Old heritage buildings are being replaced with new buildings. Therefore, heritage zones will be designated to preserve them. To maintain and sustain the old buildings, rules and regulations will also be set for some areas in downtown," said Hlaing Maw Oo, an architect from the Construction Ministry.
Experts also agreed that the government should form an advisory group to carry out the recommendations reached at the conference.
Civil planner Win Myint said the plan would be easier to maintain if it were complemented by education programmes.
"Some hundred-year-old building have been damaged, and in some cases, the original shapes of historic buildings have been altered," he said.
"A bridge was built in front of the colonial building which now houses the Myanma Port Authority. The bridge blocks the building and kills the view of the building. Losses like this occur because we do not have experienced technicians. Education is thus necessary," Win Myint said.
Soon after the country escaped the military ruling, a private group was established.
Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy. As part of the revitalisation of Yangon, YHT is working on several pilot projects to demonstrate what alternatives exist for the adaptive use and upgrade of historic structures. These projects go beyond physical restoration of buildings and emphasise a holistic approach to preserving the spirit and vitality of neighbourhood life with special attention to social exchange and environmental impact.
Yangon Historic City Centre is also on the 2014 World Monuments Watch, a programme of independent organisation World Monuments Fund.
Set out to save the world’s most treasured places, the fund said on its website that the conditions in Yangon offer opportunities to frame heritage conservation in a new era of sustainability concerns and a newly emerging modern city.
"Heritage conservation can serve as a vital component in economic, environmental, and social policy. Inclusion on the Watch seeks to promote a thoughtful and well balanced integration of cultural resources and new development as part of Yangon’s public policy, so as to build the foundation for a dynamic urban life and landscape," it said.
Scruffy Yangon losing heritage, seminar told
At the conference in Yangon, experts also noted that aside from many new poorly-designed buildings, Yangon also suffers from deficiencies.
Hlaing Maw Oo of the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development said Yangon lacks basic infrastructure like water, electricity and public transport.
"Yangon has poor drainage, piles of garbage and clouds of mosquitoes," Hlaing Maw Oo said.
Most paths to Yangon’s backyards were full of waste and many power lines were dangerous, she added.
There was little quality control on building construction and some buildings did not even receive sunlight due to poor planning and overcrowding.
"They construct buildings without thinking about the quality and designs are very poor which make a 20-year-old building look like a 50-year-old one," she continued.
In addition, historical buildings were being knocked down and heritage policies were needed to protect its architectural legacy, foreign experts told the seminar.
Although funds were available, they were never used well and short-term solutions were found, the seminar was told.
Urban planning experts recently sent a letter to President Thein Sein asking for action to solve problems like traffic jams, flooding, parking shortages, housing shortages and a rising number of squatters.