While many of the heritage buildings across Yangon are left to face the elements and become evermore damaged, a select few are undergoing intense restoration processes to restore their former grandeur and make them fit for purpose once more. Issy D’Arcy Clark digs through the rubble to get an exclusive look at three of Yangon’s most exciting restoration projects for 2019.
The Pegu Club
The glory days of The Pegu Club, found on the corner of Zagawar Street and Pyay Road, were marked by hosting the likes of English writers Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, as well as royalty including the then- Prince of Wales Edward VIII and Shan Princess Sao Ohn Nyunt. Completed in 1882 for British army officers to enjoy, The Pegu Club was once one of the most notorious clubs in South East Asia but had stood derelict for 53 years until it was officially taken over in June 2017 by the KT Group. After nearly two years of intense work, the doors of The Pegu Club were finally reopened in December 2018.
Today the Club will host private events in their seven different areas, including three indoor event spaces, an al-fresco courtyard, as well as three more outdoor venues in the surrounding gardens. Of these, the 284-square metre Prince of Wales Great Hall has an especially impressive history, as it was purpose-built in 1921 to host Edward VIII during his visit to Myanmar. Today, it will host up to 120 guests.
Though many may fantasize about the chance to transform an old ruin, the practicalities of undertaking such a project are an often forgotten. “It’s easy to fall in love with old buildings, and get intrigued by the mystery that lies behind the walls,” says Harriet Kyaw Thaung, Executive Director of The Pegu Club. “Restoring the past, while ensuring you create something beautiful, and practical is where a lot of the challenge lies.”
Since there was no blueprint of The Pegu Club existing, KT Group enlisted the help of The Beaumont Partnership, an international design studio based in Bangkok who specialize in conservation and hospitality, to measure and document the area in minute detail. “Together we conducted a Conservation Management Plan, guided by the Yangon Heritage Trust, that studied every inch of the site from many angles – historical, architectural and social impact,” explains Ms. Kyaw Thaung. “When the team took over the site, the buildings were neglected and deteriorated. The Club was like a treasure map; each section had something to be discovered. Restoration work was spilt into partial restoration, replacement, or a total reconstruction.”
As inch by inch of the area was recorded, the Club began to reveal her secrets that had been hidden beneath a tangle of vegetation for half a century, the most notable of which was two surprise squash courts.
When it came to repairing the damage that the years of neglect and Myanmar’s climate had brought, the most challenging was fixing the teak pillars that held up the portico, which had sank 30cm into the ground due to the movement of the soil beneath the buildings’ foundations. In an excruciating process, KT Group employed structural engineers to jack-up the portico, millimetre by millimetre, over the course of weeks, until it was level. “The restoration had to be done very gently and carefully to ensure minimal damage to existing structures. It had to be a sensitive, dynamic process,” explains Ms. Kyaw Thaung.
Re-creating an authentic look of the interiors of the Club was another test as the developers were able to find less than 20 reference photographs of the Club from its heyday.
Some of the main work in the interiors included teak restoration, sourcing the original marble from Mandalay and redoing the walls using an original lime plaster technique that was also used by craftsmen who built tthe Prince of Wales Great Hall in the early 1920’s. The final design flourishes in the Great Hall were guided by Citizens ID, a interior design firm in Yangon.
Though the jungle that had grown up around the Club in the 50 years of disuse was a hindrance when first encountered, now it has served as a source of inspiration for Ms. Kyaw Thaung. She explains that in the future she would like to use the produce from the cotton plants to create a retail line of cushions and other home furnishings, and use home-grown mangos in cocktails.
Looking around The Pegu Club today, it’s not difficult to imagine the space filled with laughing guests, music and merriment. It was created as a place for leisure and entertainment and in its latest renovation it will do this again. However, crucially The Pegu Club will now be a place of inclusivity, where all will be admitted.
“These buildings are very much part of Yangon’s urban and visual landscape that sets the city’s downtown scene apart from any other city in the world,” says Ms. Kyaw Thaung. “We see ourselves as the current custodians of The Pegu Club. I believe that each building’s stories and meaning to Myanmar should be preserved for future generations.”
Though the doors of The Pegu Club may finally be open, the work is far from finished. A Phase 2, which will include the restoration of further rooms on the property and even the opening of guest villas, is planned for the future. After a half-century of silence, it’s certainly time to welcome The Pegu Club back to Yangon’s party scene.
The New Law Courts – Rosewood Yangon
A mammoth undertaking, the restoration of the 5-storey New Law Courts on Strand Road is currently underway to transform the building into hotel, tipped to partially open towards the end of this year. Originally, Switzerland’s Kempinski Group were at the helm of the project however in June 2018 it was announced that Rosewood Hotels & Resorts would be taking over, owned by Prime Residence, a partnership with Thailand’s Kanok Furniture and Decoration of Thailand and Myanmar’s Jewellery Luck Group of Companies. Leading the project is Supalak Foong, the Managing Director of Prime Residence who explains; “I want to be part of how to preserve Yangon.”
After the Old Law Courts were damaged during an earthquake, the architect Thomas Oliphant and Doorman Long UK, the engineers behind the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, were commissioned to build a replacement. Completed in 1927, the New Law Courts were a revelation at the time as the first building in Myanmar built with a steel structure, as well as being the first to have electricity and a lift. Later, during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar, the building was briefly taken over by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, before being used as the Police Commissioner’s office. It was then returned to its original purpose and used to house The Rangoon Division Court until 2012.
From the offset the idea of repurposing the building as a hotel was met with protest from many Myanmar lawyers, opposing the privatization of the building in favour of restoring its original function as a court. “Good or bad, the past is the past, it shouldn’t be demolished or abandoned,” says Ms. Foong. “I want to widen the perception of the people in the city.”
Today the Rosewood group intends the hotel to have 205 rooms and amenities include a grand ballroom, three additional meeting spaces, a barbers, five restaurants and bars and a Heritage Salon. The 5th floor will also be home to Sense, a Rosewood Spa and fitness studio. The rooftop will have an outdoor pool and bar with panoramic views of the Yangon River.
Though much of this may seem like drastically modern additions to such a
historic building, Ms. Foong and her teams worked closely with the Yangon Heritage Trust to ensure that that history and integrity of the building was not compromised and their designs both compliment and celebrate the building’s history. “The collaboration with Yangon Heritage Trust meant the reduction of 40 rooms and the delay of one year,” explains Ms. Foong. “But it was important as it means that a representative from the general public has been a consulted.”
As well as working with the YHT, historians and restoration experts from the UK were also consulted and a Conservation Management Plan for the building was created. “We are trying to understand the building before we repurpose it,” says Ms. Foong.
One of the more elaborate processes necessary to preserve the building came when trying to restore the 100-year- stone pillars in the hall. After much research and investigation, the team had to hire specialist equipment from Germany to use -50ºC dry to clean the pillars and make them fit for purpose once again.
For Ms.Foong however, merely repurposing the building isn’t enough. “We don’t want to stop at this building, we want to spill our ideas out onto the street,” she says. “We want the community to see what we’re trying to do.”
In a very literal sense the project is indeed spilling out on to the street as Ms. Foong has enlisted the help of Yangon-based placemaking social enterprise Doh Eain to sculpt the surrounding gardens and walkways, creating a green community area. “Our goal is to create great places in the city by transforming mere spaces into places with identity, meaning and practical functionality for the people passing through them,” says Emilie Röell, the Founder and Director of Doh Eain.
In a rapidly changing city, the attitude towards the heritage buildings of Yangon is in a state of flux. “Within four years there has been so much change, especially with organisations like Doh Eain,” says Ms. Foong. “But there have been good and bad changes to Yangon. This for me is a mission statement for trying to save the city.”
The Tourist Burma Building – Turquoise Mountain
Established in 2006, Turquoise Mountain started in Afghanistan restoring damaged buildings and founding the Institute of Afghan Arts and Architecture. After expanding to Myanmar, the Turquoise Mountain team originally cut their construction teeth on a restoration project on Merchant Street that started in 2015. As the building was currently occupied with residents, the team wanted to work around them to ensure that they didn’t have to move out – even when they took the roof off.
After the success of that project, the Turquoise Mountain team were commissioned to begin work on the Tourist Burma Building, with the Yangon Regional Government funding the project. The building was deemed a priority due to its location near Sule Pagoda and the town centre. Originally named Fytche Square Building when it was built in 1905, the building became one of Myanmar’s first locally owned department stores, the Burmese Favourite Company. Later, in 1947, it was taken over by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, giving rise to its current name. Having stood derelict since 2005, the Turquoise Mountain team started their restoration in November 2017 and are scheduled to finish in mid-2019.
The key to the plans for the Tourist Burma Building is public access. The atrium on the ground floor will be developed into an exhibition space, while the rest of the building will be home to a food hall, office spaces on the middle two floors as well as roof space, including a public roof garden.
“The priority is public access and the roof space,” says Harry Wardill, Country Director of Turquoise Mountain, describing the Tourist Burma Building. “The challenge is going to be making sure that people feel welcome to come into the building as it’s quite a formal building. For that reason the food hall has to be very accessible to welcome people and create an informal feeling.”
As well as developing the accessibility of the building, the Turquoise Mountain team also want to develop the surrounding outside space to make it more pedestrian friendly. “One of the big challenges, not just in Yangon but throughout Asia, is the lack of understanding of the relationship between buildings and the public space,” says Mr. Wardill. “Here, a lot of the space is used as parking but we’re looking to make it more of a community space.”
While restoring the façade of the building the Turquoise Mountain team discovered blue lettering around the outside spelling out a phrase that translates as “Myanmar Welcome”, a relic from the building’s time as department store. Their decision to restore the words speaks volumes about their ethos and approach to the project.
For Turquoise Mountain however, the completion of a fully restored building is just the starting point. “We are working here to build the capacity and professionalism of the construction industry in terms of architects and engineers,” explains Mr. Wardill. “We also have training programmes and we hold events about conservation and urban planning.”
In addition to having a practical value for the construction industry in Myanmar, the restoration of the building also holds a symbolic value too; “By doing this project we’re showing what’s possible with these buildings,” says Mr. Wardill. “We’re showing that they are assets, rather than liabilities, and showing that they can be creatively reused and fit for purpose.”