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A Changing Myanmar Finds a New Approach to Preservation

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Visitors to the Shwedagon Pagoda grounds in Yangon, Myanmar, snap photos. Photo by Kristi Eaton.
Visitors to the Shwedagon Pagoda grounds in Yangon, Myanmar, snap photos. Photo by Kristi Eaton.

Rising high in the sky like a mountain and set against the backdrop of an ever more bustling metropolis, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Located in the Southeast Asian country's former capital and largest city of Yangon, the 2,500-year-old monument draws visitors from around the globe to view its pagoda, which is covered with hundreds of gold plates and diamond-encrusted stupa, a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine.

But as Yangon experiences a surge in development projects—the ascension of a nominally civilian government in 2011 brought in new opportunities for economic development after decades of military rule—some worry that the sacred site and its unobstructed views will soon be overrun by high-rise condominiums, bustling shopping centers, and five-star luxury hotels, forever changing the fabric of the city.

"If Shwedagon is not there, there's no Yangon," says Daw Moe Moe Lwin of the Association of Myanmar Architects. "The Shwedagon is really incomparable. The Shwedagon, it's a landmark. It's not only for Buddhists. It's for all Myanmar."

Members of the architectural association have been outspoken critics of plans to develop the area around the Shwedagon, hosting public forums and sending letters to Myanmar President U Thein Sein and government ministries. And in July, government officials announced that five projects in the works near the famed pagoda were being cancelled over fears that the developments would obstruct views or affect the site's foundation, according to local media outlets. The proposed developments included a luxury hotel, shopping complex, and residential apartments.

But Lwin worries that other projects will pop up, threatening the Shwedagon and its place in Yangon.

Development projects like this one near Yangon's Sule Pagoda are seen throughout Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and largest city. Photo by Kristi Eaton.

"There are several dozen projects coming up that will change our landscape as well as the livability because some will be very high density and traffic will be generated," she says of a number of planned high-rise buildings that are expected to be 20 stories or more.

As Myanmar, a country of 53 million people also known as Burma, struggles to adjust to a democratic political system, another issue is emerging in Yangon: how to balance development while maintaining the city's character.

For people like Lwin, who is also director of the non-governmental organization Yangon Heritage Trust, that means protecting the sanctity of the Shwedagon Pagoda, preserving the city's historical British colonial architecture, and making sure Yangon remains livable for its residents.

Yangon's past, specifically its time under British colonial rule, can be seen throughout the city today: from the historic Secretariat complex—the now-abandoned administrative seat of British Burma that U.S. President Barack Obama toured in 2014—to the city's embassy quarter, which features the Belmond Governor's Residence, a colonial-style mansion built in the 1920s as a home for the ruler of Myanmar's southern states and now a renovated hotel.

"Our great concern was the buildings, because the buildings have been one after the other demolished to make way for new development," Lwin says of the Heritage Trust's original mission when it was founded three years ago.

The Belmond Governor's Residence, a colonial-style mansion built in the 1920s as a home for the ruler of Myanmar's southern states and now a renovated hotel, is just one example of the historic British influence seen throughout Yangon. Photo by Kristi Eaton.

But once the organization was established, the mission broadened. Officials, Lwin says, soon realized that if they concentrated only on the buildings and not on whether people could continue to live in them safely or how they add to people's experiences of the city, they might be able to save a few key structures, but not the city's configuration as a whole. "We concentrate more on the livability of the people, so how we are providing the people more public space, cleaner streets while keeping the street character and city character as much as we can," she says.

"When you talk about heritage, that is not only the building. Usually you're thinking only of saving the building, so this building, that building," Lwin says. "That is not enough, and our scope of heritage goes beyond it, so it will be the people, how people use the spaces in the city or how they have connected their life with the city or how attractive the city is to the newcomers."

The organization may help save the buildings featuring the colonial heritage, she says, but what good is it if the local community has to move out and is replaced by business ventures? That's not what the organization wants. This is in contrast to preservation efforts in other countries, like the U.S., where there is often little focus on making sure saved historic structures are usable; the focus is simply on preserving the structures.

A renovate colonial-era building abuts a deteriorating building in Yangon. Photo by Kristi Eaton.

This year, the Yangon Heritage Trust, which works with the government, businesses, and others to create policies, is focusing its actions on the downtown area of the city, where many of the colonial buildings are located and vendors, cars, and walkers often fight for the same space on the side of the roads.

"[If] traffic is congested more and people can't walk, then saving the nice heritage building doesn't do anything," she says.

One of the Trust's projects involves working with the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain—first started in Afghanistan in 2006 to bring back the country's arts and architecture—to restore a historic commercial and residential property in the city's downtown area. The nine-month project includes a vocational training program to improve the skill sets of local workers, says Harry Wardill, director of Turquoise Mountain Myanmar.

Few local construction workers currently have the necessary skills to work on the historic buildings, Wardill notes, but relying on foreign labor is unsustainable. Improving the workers' skill sets will also improve their salary potential.

Training local workers also helps get them involved in an issue that is key to them: their own housing. It was the residents who pushed to save the building that Turquoise Mountain is currently restoring, Wardill says.

Images by Tim Webster from Yangon Echoes.

Livability and evictions are issues that Tim Webster and Virginia Henderson know well. The couple documented through photographs and interviews the people who call the heritage buildings home in their book Yangon Echoes: Inside Heritage Homes. In some cases, these residents were forced out due to development.

Webster, a photographer, and Henderson, a trained oral historian, spent a year and a half learning the personal stories of more than 50 people residing in more than 30 places. "The buildings are for the people and the people were not part of the equation thus far," Webster says during an interview at a downtown Yangon restaurant and teashop on the second floor of a colonial-era building. "It was a great window into the contemporary history of this country." There's the photo of U Khin Sein, a former tailer, in his second-floor lounge with his protégé. Another shows U Kyau Kye, who reads the newspaper in downtown 50th Street. The entire city block has since been demolished to make way for condos.

The goal of the work was not to advocate or promote one belief over another, Webster says, but give a voice to people who may not otherwise have one.

Since the book's release this spring, some of the people interviewed have been forced to leave and the buildings they live in declared dangerous and the buildings demolished, Webster says. "One of the sobering things is seeing places that are truly beautiful that have just been removed, so there's no argument about whether [they] should stay or not," he says.

· Take a Tour of Yangon's Unique Modernist Architecture [Curbed]
· Building Better Train Stations for a Growing Myanmar City [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]