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Features  >  City of Blood, Dreams and Gold: An Architectural Anatomy of Yangon

City of Blood, Dreams and Gold: An Architectural Anatomy of Yangon

City of Blood, Dreams and Gold: An Architectural Anatomy of Yangon

Story by Joe Cummings / CPA Media (14 January, 2023)

The cityscape of Yangon, former capital and international gateway for Myanmar, represents a vivid blend of traditional Myanmar, British colonial heritage and contemporary innovation in the arts, resulting in a unique and unparalleled urban culture. The skyline is pierced by the gleaming spires of Buddhist stupas clad in layers of hand-pounded gold, while the downtown district alongside the Yangon River is filled with historic heritage architecture, charming teashops, and colourful markets supported by a multicultural, multilingual community of Myanmar, Chinese, Indian and Persian descendants as well as minorities from the border regions.

Yet Yangon is a fragile city, battered frequently by natural disasters such as 2008's Cyclone Nargis and political violence following the 2021 military coup. Conflicts between old and new politics, as well as between conservation and economic growth, apply constant pressure on the former capital's rich architectural legacy. Thankfully, Yangon's municipal government still recognises the Yangon City Heritage List, which confers protection from demolition or modification upon hundreds of historical buildings, mostly temples, churches, mosques and other religious structures, as well as schools, hotels and government buildings from the British colonial era. A recent decree forbids demolition of buildings dating back 50 years or more.

Easily the most iconic monument in the city for the last 250 years is Shwedagon Paya. Built on a hill, and visible from almost anywhere in Yangon, the 99-meter-tall stupa soars over the cityscape, the holiest of Buddhist monuments and an enduring symbol of the city. Adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and thousands of precious stones, the stupa is surrounded by a convoluted hive of pavilions, pilgrim shelters, and smaller stupas which form a virtual city, abuzz with worship day and night. The civil importance of another gold-encrusted stupa, Sule Paya, was acknowledged by the British occupation in the mid-19th century, when the Bengal Engineers created Yangon's street grid with the 44-metre monument at its centre. Today it remains a hub for public life, and a popular site for pro-democracy demonstrations.

In all of Southeast Asia, Yangon boasts the highest number of colonial-era buildings, including hundreds of majestic late 19th- and early 20th-century structures the British built in Victorian, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Art Deco and British Burmese styles. The most impressive survivor today is The Secretariat, a massive brick Victorian monument inaugurated in 1905 and taking up an entire city block. Inspired by trends from Calcutta, architect Henry Hoyne-Fox spared no effort in sourcing the best materials: Steel beams were imported from England, and the terra cotta roof tiles are from Marseille. The southern entrance features a double-helicoidal, wrought-iron staircase with banister finials bearing the face of Queen Victoria. After the military coup of 1962, the Secretariat was declared off limits to the public and its perimeter wrapped in barbed wire. The building fell into disuse and was closed to the public until 2011, when a restoration project converted the historic building into offices, retail space and a museum.

One of Yangon's best-restored colonial-era buildings, the Strand Hotel faces the Yangon River in the centre of town. Built in 1901 by British entrepreneur John Darwood and acquired soon after by the Sarkies, four Armenian brothers responsible for some of the most famous hotels in Southeast Asia, including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, The Strand soon became known as the premier hotel in the city, thanks in part to its prime location for arrivals by sea. After Myanmar regained its independence, the hotel was neglected until an international luxury hotel group restored and reopened it in the 1990s.

Several historic apartments in Yangon's downtown area, particularly along colourful Bogalayzay Street and 47th Street, have recently gone under renovation for use as homes and rentals. One such renovation, on Mahabandoola Road near Bogalayzay, is the magnificent 1928 Soorty Mansions, which once housed the Chilean Consulate, where 22-year-old Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, better known as the poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, worked for eighteen months as a junior official. “I came late to Rangoon. Everything was already there--a city of blood, dreams and gold,” he wrote.

Story by Joe Cummings; Photo by Joe Cummings - CPA Media