Myanmar’s opening up, but some of its renewals are more questionable than others

Secretariat complex, Yangon.
Secretariat complex, Yangon. · Credit: Olly Wainwright

When Tony Picon arrived in Yangon five years ago, a ‘luxury’ building was one that had a working lift. Now, driving into town from the airport, he passes billboard after billboard promoting glistening new apartment towers, boasting infinity swimming pools and 5-star hotel service on tap.

‘The market has exploded here,’ says Picon, who heads up Colliers International’s operations in Myanmar (as Burma is now known). ‘When I arrived, commercial rents were around US$17/m2 a month. Now they’re more like $100, making it a more expensive place to do business than Manhattan.’

Cut off from the outside world for 50 years, Myanmar is feeling the effects of global capital. As well as welcoming democracy, the country is embracing commercial property speculation like never before, with alarming results. Concrete frames sprout across Yangon, looming above the skyline of the city’s historic downtown – the last surviving colonial core in Southeast Asia, for now at least.

  • Left abandoned since the government moved to Naypyidaw in 2005.
    Left abandoned since the government moved to Naypyidaw in 2005. · Credit: Olly Wainwright
  • A serious amount of work is required to make this into a world class arts venue as planned, architect Patrick Roberts leads the way.
    A serious amount of work is required to make this into a world class arts venue as planned, architect Patrick Roberts leads the way. · Credit: Olly Wainwright
  • A start has been made.
    A start has been made. · Credit: Olly Wainwright
  • Conservation experts have estimated turning the complex into a Louvre-sized arts building could easily cost upwards of $400m.
    Conservation experts have estimated turning the complex into a Louvre-sized arts building could easily cost upwards of $400m. · Credit: Olly Wainwright

Cecil Balmond is working on what promises to be the country’s first mixed-use luxury development, with four 25-storey towers rising from a bloated retail podium. Clad in swooping metallic fins, which attempt to meld ground into wall into roof in an series of contorted swooshes, the Landmark complex could have been airlifted in from any other second-tier Asian city, if it wasn’t for what lies at its foot. Cowering below Balmond’s imminent ripples is the stately redbrick Victorian headquarters of the former Burma Railway Company. It is being saved from ruin by being transformed into a 5-star Peninsula Hotel, but the cost to its setting – to make the restoration ‘viable’ – is clear.

The rash of new towers now inundating the city is the biggest concern of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), a campaign group founded in 2012, when many of the colonial buildings first began to be threatened.

It will be something to rival the Barbican, the Pompidou, the Met and the Smithsonian, says Patrick Robert

‘We have a list of 188 protected structures,’ says YHT director Daw Moe Moe Lwin, ‘but there is no legal protection, and no punishment if they are demolished. We still don’t even have a formalised planning system, so developers can get away with as much as they want, particularly during this time of political transition.’

One of the biggest question marks hangs over the majestic Secretariat complex, once the administrative seat of British Burma. A palatial red-brick pile in the centre of town, it’s been empty since the government upped sticks to the new capital of Naypyidaw in 2005. The building was sold in 2011 to the daughter of a former trade minister. After local outrage scuppered a plan to make it yet another luxury hotel, she now aims to transform the buildings into a world-class arts complex.

‘It will be something to rival the Barbican, the Pompidou, the Met and the Smithsonian,’ says Patrick Robert, a French designer who has lived in Myanmar for 25 years and is to draw up the plans. ‘When you have good relations here, anything is possible.’

As he scuttles through the crumbling corridors, cane in hand, he gestures to the lofty spaces that he says will one day become multimedia auditoriums and cultural libraries, exhibition spaces and artists’ studios. But his dream is hard to believe. At two-thirds the size of the Louvre, the project is a gargantuan undertaking. Conservation experts have estimated it could cost upwards of $400m, yet the owner has so far committed just $50m – and work is now on hold.

A more likely future for the building might be gleaned from Robert’s experience arranging a recent European cultural tour for one of the country’s elite, for which he went to great lengths to fix special access to museums and galleries. ‘He wasn’t interested at all,’ he recalls. ‘It was all just Louis Vuitton this and Chanel that. Buy, buy, buy.’ 


 

PLANNING ENLIGHTENMENT

An unlikely form of planning control in Yangon recently came from Buddhist quarters, when plans for yet more towers near the city’s most important religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda, were halted when the monks came out in force against it. ‘The government happily ignores planning advice and the outcries of international heritage experts,’ says one local architect. ‘But when the monks start to grumble, they drop everything and listen.’