The restoration of one of the most important buildings in Myanmar, The Secretariat, will see one of the largest Colonial buildings in Southeast Asia restored to its former glory and adaptively re-used as a cultural complex
Award-winning Singapore-based Interdisciplinary sustainable design firm Pomeroy Studio have been appointed to restore The Secretariat building in Yangon – one of the largest Colonial buildings in Southeast Asia.
Their multiple appointment for conservation architecture, interior design, landscape design, lighting, wayfinding and branding will see the sensitive restoration of the abandoned 120-year-old former colonial government office – turning it into a cultural complex containing museums, galleries, cultural event spaces, lounges and offices for creative industries. These functions will be complimented by an array of heritage, retail, and food and beverage spaces set within lush, landscaped gardens.
“The Secretariat is recognised as one of Yangon’s most important heritage buildings, and has been the scene of the most defining moments of Myanmar’s modern history. This includes the assassination of General Aung San, which paved the country’s path to independence. Restoring this grand colonial building to its former glory and reinvigorating its internal spaces with a programme of arts-related functions, seeks to both preserve Yangon’s cultural past, and cultivate Myanmar’s creative future” said Prof. Jason Pomeroy, Founding Principal of Pomeroy Studio.
The Secretariat complex occupies approximately 16 acres in the South of Yangon, and was designed by British architect Henry Hoyne-Fox (1855-1905) as the epicentre of Rangoon (present day Yangon), the first South-East Asian garden city. Work started in 1890 on the central building, with the Eastern, Western and Northern wings added in subsequent years.
However, an Earthquake in 1930 laid many of the Secretariat’s iconic features, including its turrets and central dome, to waste, and the building was left to fall into disrepair post-independence. The restoration forms part of the Yangon Heritage Trust’s aim to restore and preserve the city’s architectural heritage in the face of break-neck development and modernisation, a heritage that is deemed of world importance.
Restoration and Reinterpretation
Pomeroy Studio are working with heritage and conservation expert Prof. Luigi Croce, of Architetti Croce, who has worked closely with Pomeroy Studio in design and research projects in Europe and Asia.
The Padova, Italy-based firm are taking a careful restorative approach that seeks to preserve the exterior and key internal areas of historical significance and reinstate the original building’s details that were of architectural merit. The extensive settlement, an earthquake and the general dilapidation that took place over decades of neglect presents acute challenges in the restoration.
A counterpoint to the restoration of the British colonial structure was the careful reinterpretation of Burmese cultural elements. A striking feature is the new roof structure that caps a lofty cylindrical atrium space, replete with grand wrought – iron staircase, which was once crowned by a heavy brick dome.
Given settlement and structural issues, a lightweight and sustainable solution was needed. Pomeroy studio thus created a unique reinterpretation of the ‘Pathein’ (Traditional Burmese Umbrella) that sought to perform the very same tasks of counteracting direct glare from the sun; protection from the rain and acting as a heat vent – albeit at building scale.
Burmese culture was brought further into the interior spaces by reinterpreting ‘Pan Se Myo’ (ten traditional arts), that range from stone carving through to lacquerware. These techniques sought to sensitively complement the original shell and core of the 19th century building whilst also employing local craftsmen and their skills.
Colonial Rangoon was once heralded as Asia’s first garden city; yet urbanisation has seen the gradual erosion of green open spaces in modern Yangon. Pomeroy Studio were also appointed for landscape design with a particular emphasis on rehabilitating the greenery and restoring the parklands, quadrangle and grand lawns to their original condition.
The cultural celebration of Martyrs’ Day through a central memorial, coupled with sensitive lighting will be the focal point of the new landscaped quadrangle, which will provide a welcome respite from the busy and bustling city outside of its walls, and thus create a much-needed green open space for the south of Yangon.
Given that the buildings themselves were designed before the advent of electricity, the original high ceilings and large windows / skylights will continue to optimise natural light and ventilation, with the careful use of new smart technologies and modern conveniences to enhance the user experience and, reduce overall energy and water consumption. Locally sourced materials, crafted locally and expert supervision by restoration experts from Italy seeks to further ensure the overall sustainability of the development.
The history of Myanmar in one building
The Secretariat holds a unique place in Myanmar’s history, being the location for some of the most important moments in its colonial, independence and post-independence history. Fully completed in 1905, The Secretariat was the centre of British colonial administration in Burma, and was the pre-eminent structure associated with the government during this period. The building was also the place where Myanmar’s first steps towards independence happened. The diarchy (Legislative Council) was established at The Secretariat in 1923, giving Burma a limited measure of self-rule. It was the location where Burma formally separated from India in 1937, and where the largest anti-colonial student demonstration at the time occurred in 1938.
After the Second World War, independence negotiations began, and by 1947 an agreement had been reached with the then independence leader, General Aung San. On 19 July 1947, however, Aung San and eight other cabinet members were assassinated in the west range of The Secretariat, a murder that has since been commemorated every year on ‘Martyrs’ Day’. Independence from Britain was finally marked in the quadrangle of The Secretariat complex’s main courtyard in 1948, a key event in Burmese and British history. It continued to be the centre of post-independence governmental administration until the capital was relocated from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2005.
The project is anticipated to complete in 2019.