In almost every Southeast Asian city, it is common to see masses of concrete and steel-framed mid- and highrise apartment buildings, some of which appear to have been modeled on the Russian gulag. Smog is a daily hazard to the lungs. And old buildings are often cleared as part of what seems to be an architectural and cultural blitzkrieg led by property developers and governments unable to withstand the tide of urban economic movements.
On the other hand, modern architectural gems have been created that attract the eyes of architectural media and the world at large to Southeast Asian cities. So successful have skyscrapers been to the image-building process of many cities and nations in Asia, it is now hard to imagine Taipei without the 101 Tower, Kuala Lumpur without the Petronas Towers, and Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong without their impressive vertical skylines.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is unique among Southeast Asian countries. Governed by a secretive military-led regime that seized power in a coup in 1988, Burma has not developed on a par with its regional counterparts. Architecturally, this lack of development may be something of a blessing, for many of the country's old buildings have not yet fallen victim to wider economic developments and standardized, concrete building forms like those in other cities in the region.
While wealth in Burma is significantly lower than that of much of the rest of Southeast Asia, the nation has emerged from colonial British rule with its own distinct identity and a strong influence from the British legacy.
The capital, Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, is Burma's largest city, with a population of about four million. It is believed to have the greatest number of surviving colonial structures of any Southeast Asian city.
But in light of the common Asian attitudes regarding urban modernity as equivalent to progress, and historic architecture as unprogressive, it remains to be seen how long many of these buildings will survive.
Empire, Architecture, and Heritage
Following the Second Anglo-Burma war in the early 1850s, the British drafted plans to develop a village into a major port on the Ayeyarwaddy River. In subsequent decades, they established a grid plan, forming what is now the central core of Yangon.
Within this grid, from the 1870s on, hundreds of colonial buildings were erected. Such is the sheer number of colonial works in Yangon, any visitor today cannot escape the presence of these grand, British-designed buildings. But visitors must also wonder about the future of such pieces of cultural heritage given their deteriorating condition.
Unlike other major cities in Southeast Asia, Yangon has not experienced the effects of industrialization and urbanization: the old face of urban forms being replaced by concrete and steel-framed structures loosely designed along standardized modernist lines. In contrast to Hong Kong or Taipei, for instance, Yangon has not yet lost its historic core; however new, taller buildings now surround the core.
These changes to the face and form of Yangon are slow and minor in comparison to those of other Asian cities. Also, these changes are unlikely to yield the same results as in other cities because of the preservation policies implemented by the Burma government in the mid-1990s.
In 1996, for example, the government created a heritage list that gave official protected status to 70 or so buildings in Yangon. Since then, the list has grown to include about 200 buildings, many public, deemed worthy of safeguarding.
But while preservation is less controversial than in other Southeast Asian cities, a remaining problem is the maintenance of these old buildings, which have been in decline ever since Burma's independence in 1948.
Because Burma, the self-proclaimed "disciplined democracy," is one of Asia's poorest nations, funds are scarce to maintain these historic resources. And the present government is suspicious of the outside world and does not welcome experts from other nations who might offer advice for the upkeep of this architectural heritage, much of which is used as government offices.
Furthermore, the Burma government officially confirmed in November 2005 a policy to establish a new capital city to be known as Naypyidaw ("seat of kings") and to move all government offices to a remote rural region in the center of the country. Given all these factors, what is the future for Yangon and its colonial architecture?
Though not the only Southeast Asian city facing this dilemma, Yangon serves to illustrate the complexity of urban development in the region. While a great deal of attention has rightly been given to matters such as the growing gaps between the urban rich and urban poor, air pollution, social stability, and inequality, less attention has been given to the possible destruction of historic architecture.
I do not wish to glorify the colonial activities of the British — far from it. But Yangon nonetheless highlights an all-too-rare example in Southeast Asia of comprehending the value of historic buildings, even though the issue of building maintenance has yet to be adequately addressed.
With the growth in cultural tourism across Asia, hopefully city and national governments will appreciate more the aesthetic and cultural value of their historic architecture. Although the Asian thirst for modernity is understandable, let's hope, for the sake of world culture, that greater preservation and maintenance policies are respected as much as the fashionable urban clearance that now predominates in Asian cities.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Dr. Ian Morley is Assistant Professor of Urban & Architectural History at Ming Chuan University in Taipei and author of numerous papers on urbanism and civic design. He currently is composing a book to be published by Edwin Mellen Press on examples of late-Victorian and Edwardian civic design and the building of cities in Britain.