Turquoise Mountain, Yangon Heritage Trust, the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, and the Government of Canada through its Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development, have all combined resources to implement  a ‘landmark’ model for restoration of heritage buildings in Yangon.

One of Downtown Yangon’s typically beautiful, but woefully neglected, historic buildings is being restored to secure its future and that of the diverse community that lives in and around it. The project is being undertaken by international NGO Turquoise Mountain – an organisation with a track record of successfully delivering urban regeneration within threatened historic cities in other parts of the world.

Mason repairing decorative plasterwork on front facade of Merchant Street building.      Photo: Harry Wardill

Shrouded by a green scaffold, it is difficult to appreciate the architectural beauty of the building as in undergoes much needed works to not only make it a livable again, but also celebrate the craft that originally led its creation. It embodies so many of the qualities and challenges of properties in the Downtown; it is a prominently placed elegant colonial era building with grand internal spaces and vibrant street life surrounding it, but is in a very poor state, littered with unsympathetic additions and in need of urgent repair. For these reasons it makes an ideal exemplar project, as the achievements and lessons learned will be applicable across the Downtown.

The building sits on the bustling Merchant Street, within the historic heart of Yangon – an area which is a key focus for project partner the Yangon Heritage Trust, who initially brought the building to Turquoise Mountain’s attention. The restoration project forms part of a wider planning project for the historic Downtown area of Yangon, being undertaken by the Yangon Heritage Trust in partnership with Prince Charles’ Foundation for Building Community – all being carried out with funds from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. The overall objective of this work is to engage the public and government in a conscious decision making process regarding the development of Downtown Yangon, and to guide it to promote and integrate its unique urban heritage into a 21st century vision of Yangon as one of Asia’s most livable cities.

Scaffolding on the 40th Street side of the Merchant Street building site.                                    Photo: Tim Webster

One thing that can still be appreciated about the building, in spite of the scaffold, is the rich community that lives in and around it – and the fact that they remain in place during the involved and comprehensive building works. This clearly adds challenges and constraints to the works, but is fundamental to the aims of the project, as breaking it up – if only for the duration of the works – may mean that it never fits together again. Work is being carried out in parallel to document this living heritage, but that’s another story…

It’s a project of many layers, and one of these is the vocational training in traditional building crafts that is being delivered. Hundreds of craftsman, architects and engineers will be trained during the works, with the aim of providing vital skills to the local construction industry, enabling them to sympathetically renovate some of the many other historic buildings that are currently underused and underappreciated. These skills are not only good for the buildings, but for the workers too, as they can command greater wages, better job security, take pride in their work and ultimately gain greater satisfaction through their craft.

Carpentry workshop organised by Harry Wardill from the Turquoise Mountain Foundation.      Photo: Tim Webster

The works, which began in July, will be completed by the end of March 2016. What will be left at the end is a beautifully restored historic building, which is safe and dry to live in, with the community within maintained and strengthened, and the added legacy of a core of trained people who can do the same to other buildings – that is, if the project has the desired effect of engaging people with their heritage and inspiring other similar projects.

[Thanks to Harry Wardill from Turquoise Mountain for compiling this article.]
Watercolour representation by artist Aung Soe Mynt of what the site will look like after restoration.

Turquoise Mountain is a non-profit, non-governmental organization specializing in urban regeneration, and traditional arts and architecture. Turquoise Mountain was established at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales and the then President of Afghanistan, and has been successfully completing projects in Afghanistan since 2006. It was set up in Myanmar at the end of 2014 and is working with the Yangon Heritage Trust to carry out practical heritage led regeneration projects in Yangon’s historic Downtown as well as delivering a program of vocational training to complement this. It is also working to promote and develop Myanmar’s traditional craft industry.

Yangon Heritage Trust is an independent centre of excellence working to promote and integrate Yangon’s unique urban heritage into a 21st century vision of Yangon as one of Asia’s most liveable cities. YHT advocates for heritage protection, develops clear and sustainable policy options, engages with government, business and civil society, communicates its ideas to the widest possible audience, undertakes specific conservation projects, and facilitates research and training.

This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #13, November 2015.


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