The recent lowering of tensions with Cuba, and subsequent loosening of travel restrictions, has given Americans a chance to rediscover the island's cultural and architectural treasures. But Cuba isn't the only country re-emerging from a period of isolation. Myanmar, formerly a pariah state ruled by a military junta, has slowly re-established itself on the international stage over the last few years, giving visitors a chance to observe the country's unique landscape, a fusion of Buddhist pagodas, remnants of the colonial past and modern high-rises. Curbed spoke with Ben Bansal, one of the authors of the forthcoming Yangon Architectural Guide, to learn about some of the country's lesser-known modern gems
University of Medicine-1 (former Rangoon College of Engineering)
(Raglan Squire, 1954-1956 )
"While this was one of the first major public constructions after Burmese independence, the brief was given to British architect Raglan Squire, who had made a name for himself during the reconstruction of war-damaged London. With this Yangon assignment, a long and fruitful international career kicked off that would see Squire build in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Almost 60 years old, the Engineering College is strikingly modern and even today, it still exudes the spirit of a newly independent nation that placed a heavy emphasis on the education of its young. Take a walk around and take in the beauty of the wall mosaics."
Pitaka Taik (Tripitaka Library)
(Benjamin Polk, late 1950s)
"American architect Polk, who ran his architectural practice from New Delhi, was asked to incorporate a number of highly symbolic elements and numbers into the design of this library and Buddhist museum. It was built on the occasion of an important gathering of Buddhist dignitaries that took place in Yangon from 1954-1956. Post-independence prime minister U Nu was a deeply spiritual man, and used Buddhism as an expedient tool for nation building. This building is magical. With its bold architectural design, it conveys the bygone optimism of a young nation. The entire Kaba Aye (World Peace) complex, replete with hollow pagoda, is worthwhile checking out. Be sure to take a peek inside the massive man-made cave!"
Inya Lake Hotel
(Viktor Andreyev and Kaleriya Kislova, 1958–1962)
"The Soviet Union donated several buildings to the fledgling Burmese nation in the late 1950s, including the Inya Lake Hotel, which closely follows the tried and tested Soviet sanatorium (i.e. rest and relaxation resorts) architectural style, except in two major aspects. A giant steamship funnel decorates the roof and creates a playful maritime association. The entrance canopy, much larger than in the hundreds of sanatoria found from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, is an homage to Burmese climatic realities, since torrential rainfalls inundate the city several months of the year. A cold beverage in the hotel's garden bar, overlooking peaceful Inya Lake, is a much recommended conclusion to a day of exploring Yangon."
Thakin Kodaw Hmaing Mausoleum
(U Kyaw Min, 1966)
"A commemoration for an important national poet, this mausoleum is one of the boldest manifestations of modern Burmese architecture. U Kyaw Min used pure and geometric forms; the daring use of deep red and gold in the interior resembles the traditional colour combination of ancient Burmese palaces. The architect stood for parliament as an opposition candidate in the 1990 elections, which were eventually annulled by the military junta. He would spend much of the 1990s in Insein prison, the country's most notorious jail, contracting liver disease, which would plague him until his death."
(U Ngwe Hlaing, 1972-1974)
"Returning from the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka (Japan), General Ne Win was so taken with the Burmese pavilion displayed there that he decreed for a vast replica to be built in Yangon, on Kandawgyi Lake. Today, this swimming restaurant is one of the stranger sights in the city. Its design goes back to the royal barges used by Burmese kings during ceremonial processions in Mandalay, their last capital. The seven-tiered pyatthat roof is typical of traditional architecture. Karaweik Palace is often used for folklore dinners and other cultural shows."
(U Tun Than, 1970–1978)
"The Children's Hospital was U Tun Than's first major assignment. The façade modelling is designed to create shade and provide cooling. To the architect, today in his eighties, Burmese architecture should focus on the country's harsh climate conditions first and foremost: extreme heat and heavy rainfalls are a constant issue. Such a vernacular Burmese architecture would also be more environmentally friendly and energy efficient. However, a cursory look at Yangon's construction sites shows rampant use of glass cladding. New power plants will no doubt be needed just to keep the AC units humming."
(U Sun Oo, 1984)
"A mausoleum commemorating the nation's father Aung San and his eight comrades has stood here since the 1960s. U Sun Oo won a competition for a complete overhaul of the building in the early 1980s. Alas, before construction could begin, the previous structure was blown up by a North Korean agent when they attempted to take out a visiting South Korean delegation. This was seen as a bad omen and U Sun Oo's open and accessible winning entry was completely changed into this rather monolithic concrete structure."
Drugs Elimination Museum
"In a city full of surprises, this may be one of Yangon's more surreal buildings. First there's the premise: an entire permanent exhibition dedicated to class-A drugs and Myanmar's (frankly dubious) triumphs in stopping their production. And then there's the building itself: impossibly vast and imposing, with vague allusions to pagoda architecture, especially the tiered roof design and the canopy, bizarrely supported by Roman Doric columns. The overgrown and empty surroundings, colonised by stray dogs, are rather haunting. But nothing prepares the visitor for what they find inside: first a deathly silence, ominous enough to discomfort even the most hardened drug users."
Transit Shed No. 1 and Port Autonomy
(Dominic Leong, 2014)
"TS1 is an art gallery and retail space converted from an old warehouse. Two doors to the right on a corner plot is Port Autonomy, the complex's bar and restaurant. Although beautifully renovated inside, both buildings' corrugated iron exteriors were left largely untouched, and fit seamlessly into the industrial texture of the surroundings. Architect Dominic Leong, of Leong and Leong, a New York City-based design studio built a modern gallery defined by a diagonal wall, creating two symmetrical spaces."