Tag Archives: Architecture

The Wild East

As an untempered development boom surges in Yangon, an uncertain fate is placed on the architectural icons of Old Rangoon.

I

n 2011, the enigmatic country of Myanmar, once isolated country under nearly six decades of violent military rule, installed a quasi-civilian government bent on its reformation and integration into the world. Soon after, the U.S. and EU eased fifteen years of sanctions, thrusting the country into a surging real estate development boom with aggressive players from both the West and the East. Corporate offices began quickly outpacing new residential and hotel properties, with even the most astute developers and urban planners puzzled on how to best calibrate the developments in the absence of sound regulations.

During the military rule, citizens endured a dark age that saw streets lined with child soldiers and myriad human rights violations; political opponents and journalists released from jail, then thrown back in again, but it appears now that the transition towards reformation and integration is prevailing, if still incomplete. In November 2015, the country held its first democratically held election in 25 years – the first was discounted by the military – and just three months later, the National League for Democracy led by noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi sat as majority rulers in a country that once imprisoned her in her home for 15 years due to her calls for democracy.

For the country’s former capital of Yangon and its residents, decades in isolation and economic stagnation had brought life in the once burgeoning British-ruled port city to a complete standstill, while the military-tied elite stood as the privileged few who would mount meaningful new business.

Most in the city of over 5 million, meanwhile, had to use what they had, making homes of abandoned banks, office buildings and even within the hundreds of dilapidated structures their former colonial masters built there at the turn of the 20th century.

With the reformist government finally taking power, foreign backers began flocking to the city with hopes of pouring investment into rejuvenating one of the world’s most promising economies: a country still rich in underutilized natural resources.

Yangon was finally set to thaw, and as the stench of oppression began to fade, a shocking reality about the dwellings that once served as the pride of Southeast Asia began to emerge.

img-2The long abandoned alternative entrance to the Balthazar Building.

The sight is a common one. Heavy traffic and betel nut splattered roads surrounding once gorgeous Edwardian or Victorian architecture, now weather stained and mutated, with carefully lain bricks now carelessly kicked out to make way for makeshift plumbing.

Large rats and street dogs overrun parts of the town and the smell of open sewage is widespread, while tenants hurl their trash into the alleys.

Standing over the railing of his second floor apartment, 74-year-old U Than Win, a former Burmese naval officer, points down into the open-air courtyard of the building, now being used as a dumpster.

“Look, there is garbage everywhere,” he says. “I moved into this very old building one year and seven months ago to live with my daughter, but there is too much damage.” Win is just one of the building’s 60 or so residents that wish to see the building, known affectionately by locals as the Balthazar Building, restored to its former glory. Instead, it stands as a Relic of Rangoon.

Built by Armenian merchants in 1905, the iconic structure in downtown Yangon stands today as one of the most important examples colonial-era architecture in Myanmar. Today, it’s more significantly an example of the eastern city’s rich architectural heritage which is vanishing in the wake of the development boom.

The scale is staggering—as much as 35 percent of downtown Yangon, or about 1,800 buildings, were destroyed between 1990 and 2011 to make way for new development projects, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT). Established in 2012 by Harvard educated historian Thant Myint-U, the YHT is composed of prominent historians, architects and scholars who collectively lobby government bodies to preserve the city’s unique architectural legacy.

Since the reformist government took over in 2011, the country has experienced unprecedented growth in foreign direct investment and swelled to $9.6 billion in 2015-16, according to data released in April, up from just $329.6 million in 2009-10.

Ne Win’s government seized control of Myanmar in 1962. For most of the last six decades of autocratic rule, Yangon’s heritage buildings have been left to spoil and the Balthazar Building is no exception. An Edwardian red-brick façade, Italian marble art-deco tiles and intricate iron rails leading up the three floors of the building hint romantically at the prosperous past of the Balthazar Trading Company, but these glamorous architectural features are now covered with mold and cobwebs, its walls dilapidated. The enchanting birdcage elevator that rests on the ground floor has been defunct for nearly 40 years.

img-3To the left is downtown Yangon’s historic City Hall and to the right is the Sule Pagoda.

Most of Yangon’s colonial architecture was built in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the city, formerly known as Rangoon, was a major trade hub for the region and as such served as a major source of income for the ethnic Indians that inhabited it at the time. Downtown Yangon contains a wealth of heritage buildings including ancient Buddhist pagodas and monasteries, churches of various denominations, over a dozen mosques, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue and the country’s only Armenian church.

In fact, Rangoon was in the early 20th century the second biggest port in the world behind New York.

So well-known and fascinating was old Rangoon that it drew the likes of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived there as an honorary consul of Chile in 1927, and English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling.

According to conservationists, city officials are at a pivotal crossroads, where they can opt to showcase its heritage as an aspect of its attraction to the tourist trade, much like Malaysia’s Penang has, but will face relentless pressures and obstacles marked by new developments.

“It was a major center of international exchange. Famous writers and famous people lived here and wrote about it and so it has a legacy that is completely unique,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. The WMF, which has been advocating for at-risk landmarks over the last half century, added downtown Yangon to their prestigious World Monument Watch list in 2014.

“I also think in 40 or 50 years if that’s successful, Yangon will be the Charleston or the Boston of the Orient in terms of having utilized its history as part of its vision for itself in the future,” says Burnham.

With the downtown cityscape consisting mainly of inhabited older buildings in poor repair, the issue for the government has become striking a balance between preserving the city’s heritage and promoting modernization, says U Toe Aung, director of the urban planning division of the municipal Yangon City Development Committee. “Both of these have to be harmonized.”

Win Khaing, president of the Myanmar Engineering Society and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Engineering Council, says that while conserving Yangon’s past is essential, it also has dire infrastructure needs that includes providing adequate housing for its 5 million inhabitants.

“In terms of infrastructure, we are below par. We need a lot. What we have now is nothing,” says Khaing.

Many of the new projects slated to reinvent Yangon as a modern commercial town are being built on the cheap and without guidelines, endangering the neighboring historical sites and residents in the process. In particular, the area around the 2000 year old Shwedagon Pagoda is widely considered holy land that is supposed to remain free free of new development. Yet what constitutes this land is vague and large projects jutting up into the skyline overnight.

“We can still see improper developments going on and some of it is quite threatening, especially near Shwedagon [Pagoda]” says Daw Moe Moe Lwin, director of the YHT. “Unless you really care about the issue, or have insight about its potential impacts before you notice the damage happening, it could become irreversible.”

According to Lwin, only 189 buildings throughout all of Yangon are protected by the municipal government’s regulatory body, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), while urban planners do not have a concrete definition of what a heritage site is.

Add to that, there are other challenges to the preservation of Yangon’s heritage, as confusing leasing agreements bury revitalization plans of well-known public buildings in red tape, and confused ownership rules around private property prevent signatories from investing in the upkeep of their buildings.

Another issue, according to Rupert Mann, senior program officer at YHT, is that land owners will often intentionally allow for buildings to become dilapidated with the hopes of gaining government approval to partner with developers to demolish it and build more profitable structures.

img-3A resident of the Balthazar Building looks down the elevator shaft of the building from the top floor.

“As a result,” says Mann, “the land owner refuses to allow the upkeep of the building because the longer they can make the building look like it’s going to fall over the more they believe that they can convince the YCDC to allow them to demolish it. Meanwhile, the tenants are sitting in there. They are unable to pay for a new roof, or upgrade the façade or even fix broken utilities or stairs.”

While the most trafficked city in Myanmar, only an estimated average of 250,000 visitors pass through per year. This is in part due to its isolation, but equally due to its modest hotel infrastructure, another side effect of years of underinvestment. (Only 3000 of the 8000 hotel rooms are considered suitable for tourists.) Without the restoration of landmark properties alongside grandeur and mystique of its historic architecture to lure travelers from far flung locales to its storied cultural center, Yangon is at risk of a future identity crisis.

While the question of which new economy will emerge in the city over the next ten years is one many are trying to answer – cultural tourism, or an offshore colony of corporate offices – the answer will shape the skyline.

NIEMEYER’S TRIPOLI

Inside Tripoli’s International Fairground; an abandoned futuristic vision that survived a 15-year civil war and served as a base of operation through a Syrian occupation.

B

razilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—often described as a sculptor of monuments—was terrified of planes. When he came to Lebanon in 1962, he took the boat. At the time, the newly independent country was nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East. Beirut was the region’s financial hub, striving for modernity and international recognition. President Fouad Chehab encouraged the capital’s economic success, but tried to promote national unity and reduce social inequalities by counterbalancing Beirut’s dominance with decentralization.

The first beneficiary was the capital of the North: Tripoli. The ancient coastal city was considered highly strategic due to a number of reasons: it stood in close proximity to the Syrian border, and it had a deep-water port, direct boats to Turkey, and the remains of a railroad line.

Niemeyer was commissioned to create the structures for the International Fairgrounds, stretching over dozens of hectares of land, expected to be the crossroads of all regional commercial activities; a landmark for a modern nation.

Like many major urban development commission, the International Fairgrounds project was loaded with tension. Niemeyer brought his communist aesthetic into the design, favoring an open space that prioritized form over function. The Lebanese, in contrast, wanted a very functional center of business from which they could derive capital revenues.

In 1975, both respective visions for a grand future became casualties of the 15-year civil war that erupted and the nearly completed project was abandoned months before it opened.

W

hen she was a child in the 1990s, Mira Minkara would watch her brother play on the dome that sat silently in an empty park. Behind it, a derelict arch, a concert hall and a helipad stood as stalwart artifacts of the futuristic vision that had once united Chehab and Niemeyer well before her time.

Like most of her peers, Mira knew nothing of the history of the dome. The ashes of war were still settling and the northern city of Tripoli was under Syrian occupation. A few yards apart from young boys playing football, the Syrian Army held an administrative block. It’s long been rumored that Lebanese prisoners were tortured and executed under their watch.

Years later, as Mira completed tourism studies with a special focus in the hammams and khans of old Tripoli, the city was racked with political assassinations and car bombs. At war with Israel and facing Islamic uprisings, visitors weren’t lining up for tours—they were lining up at embassies for a one way ticket out. Wrestling with the gravity of the times, Mira became committed to showing the people of the world her city should they ever return. After the ceasefire, she discovered quickly that what caught the attention of most foreigners was not any number of local landmarks, but an abandoned fairground. “For thirty years I walked past this place without paying attention to it,” Mira laughs, “but as more and more people asked about it I got curious.”

I’m sitting beside Mira on the road from Beirut to Tripoli, a willing participant in the local tour, intrigued by Niemeyer’s historical pursuit. A massive metal sign stretches across the highway to greet visitors: “Relax. You are in el-Mina, the city of waves and horizon.” The fairgrounds lie dead ahead.

“You need to experience the architectural promenade. This is what matters here: texture, landscape, harmonies,” explains Mira. The entire project is built around three elements: concrete—the flagship of modernity—water, and wind. The Fair opens on the Exhibition Hall, a curved structure, with a long, wide and flat roof. It was under this roof that participating countries were to install their respective pavilion.

“When Oscar Niemeyer started working in Lebanon it was a cultural shock,” explains Mira as we stand at the vast entrance. “He wanted everything to be opened like in Brasilia but we have a different idea of private and public space.” Open meant no fence, no entrance fee, no ticket booth, perhaps even no windows. The Lebanese insisted on having it their way but Niemeyer had his own plans. The architect’s solution for the ticket booth? “He hid it underground so that it wouldn’t ruin his esplanade,” replies Mira, pointing to a recess in the ground.

From the entrance, the Exhibition Hall seems infinite; no edges, no columns, endless extension into the distance. For the host country, Niemeyer built a separate pavilion. In this building, large open arcades with a view of mountains and sea bring the native architecture into view. Surrounded by a shallow pond, the Lebanese pavilion’s sharp angles become watery reflections as soon as the wind picks up.

Further on, we’re standing in the Experimental Theater; this is the dome of her childhood. “If it weren’t for concrete, this structure could not hold,” she explains. Her voice resonates off the walls, intensifying all senses as we step further into the enveloping darkness. The theater’s acoustics are impressive. A large aperture at the center was intended to hold a mobile stage which would turn, enabling the audience to see the performances from different angles.

Back in the nearly blinding daylight, we climb up a sublime ramp that leads under a gate towards the concert hall, surrounded by reflective pools. Chairs were added in 1996, and the space is now sometimes used for conferences and musical events. (As a teenager, Mira saw the French band Zebda perform here.)

The Master’s Villa, originally built to house the general manager of the fairground, is almost completely covered in vegetation. Nearby are the remains of a white-tiled swimming pool.

“I enjoy the nostalgia of this villa” Mira explains, “I close my eyes and I feel like I’m in Latin America, I try to image what could have happened here. It opens my imagination.”

Walking back to the entrance and through the administrative buildings once occupied by the Syrian army, graffiti covers the charred remains of fire on a wall pockmarked with gunshots. I pause to stare. “Executions,” notes Mira.

Moments later, from the terrace of a bustling restaurant, the fairground appears anachronistic, like a silent phantom on the outskirts of a bustling city. Fatteh is served, a traditional mixture of bread, yogurt, chickpeas and olive oil. I ask about Tripoli’s future.

Some rehabilitation projects have been put forward, including the creation of a theme park—something to rival Disneyland for the Middle East. Another proposal was to create a mega distribution center for Chinese products, but the investors were discouraged by political instability.

“Tripoli is a forgotten city, people are scared to come, even the Lebanese,” says Mira. “I hope I can change this perception because in reality, the city is full of life and has great potential.” She reminds me, in ways, of the men who came before her.

POST ISLAND FUTURES

“No national leader in the history of humanity has ever faced this question. Will we survive, or will we disappear under the sea?” — Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sosene Sopoaga

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rriving from Fiji on a twice-weekly flight, the three-hour trip is bumpy and cramped and mostly spent staring out a dense window looking for signs of life below. Floating closer, they eye catches flecks of green; nothing however that looks able to support human life. Finally, palm groves and rectangular iron roofs in an irregular row come into view, cutting through a narrow strip of habitable land.

This is Tuvalu, population 11,000. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, an archipelago of nine atolls and coral islands rests precariously, one of the smallest and lowest-lying countries in the world.

Tuvaluans are one of a few nations of people whose very existence is threatened by the planet’s rising seas. In fact, the nation has developed a reputation as the ‘front line’ of sea level rise, and is now playing a role of design in environmental risks—and is an oft-referenced case study in academia. As part of a graduate thesis at M.I.T., I’m here to envision alternative futures catalyzed by climate change.

Atoll nations like Tuvalu, the Maldives or Kiribati have proven extremely vulnerable to changes in oceanic systems, rendering them urgent symbols of climate change’s impact. This isn’t about postcard-perfect lagoon isles slowly sinking below the waves; the actual risks to Tuvalu are far more complex and closely tied to the geological and natural systems that form the basis for atolls and their inhabitation.

As we step off the plane into the weighty tropical heat, it seems the entire population of Tuvalu’s capital—Funafuti—has come to greet our arrival. Likely because I’ve arrived with Eliala Fihaki, a Tuvaluan working in Fiji for UN Development Programme. Her aunt greets us and leads us to the road, pushing me and my suitcase onto the back of a motorbike. Fihaki explains as we ride that Fiji is a volcanic archipelago, with lush mountains, waterfalls, and a rich and complex tropical ecosystem. In contrast, Tuvalu is on an atoll: low, flat, and so close to the salty water that only a few plant species can survive.

While the market in Fiji’s capital bustles with villagers selling mangoes, bananas, pineapples, leafy greens, avocados, and even tomatoes, the fare in Tuvalu scarcely varies from the standard of tuna or reef fish (often raw) and coconut. As one of the few and precious natural resources in Tuvalu, coconut trees are used to make everything: food, beverage, liquor, body oil, building material, rope, and utensils. When I asked one woman what made Tuvalu unique she responded simply “the coconut.”

Tuvalu Edit_2
An islet from Funafuti atoll as my plane approaches the airstrip.

Atolls are a type of island formed by the build up of coral reefs and debris on the rims of subsiding volcanoes. As these volcanoes sink below the sea, all that’s left is ring-shaped build up of eroded coral sand, washed onto a framework of coral limestone. In other words, there’s a dizzying amount of coral in the natural infrastructure. As living systems, atolls maintain a symbiotic relationship with the coral surrounding them, making them highly susceptible to wave action, sea level rise, and changes in coral health.

Interestingly, coral has a biological ability to compensate for sea level rise by growing upwards towards the light; atolls have survived pre-historic sea level rises in this manner. Despite this adaptive capacity, projected environmental calamities going forward are more severe and active threats: the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, massive coral bleaching due to the changing acidity of oceanic waters, and coral death due to increased water temperatures. Without a constant supply of sediment from healthy coral reefs, atoll nations such as Tuvalu would quickly erode into the sea.

My visit to Tuvalu in January coincides with the king tides, an annual phenomenon that results in several days of flooding and tides that creep higher and higher every year. During this time, saltwater bubbles up from the ground along the airstrip, which doubles as the community’s main recreation space.

Here, soccer players splash through ankle-deep puddles, while motorbikes skim through large pools, well acquainted with the aqueous ground. Along the road which hugs the lagoon for the length of the islet, waves crash steadily onto the pavement, dumping remnants of eroding sea walls and other debris onto the roadside.

King Tides Bike
A Tuvaluan man continues on his daily activities is spite of the flooding caused by the King Tides.

More than just novelty or inconvenience, the saline infiltration makes it impossible to grow most crops. Pulaka, a root vegetable similar to sweet potato, is cultivated by Polynesian islanders by digging shallow pits and cultivating fertile soil by years of composting. King tides inundate these pits with saltwater, damaging and eventually killing off the Pulaka crops.

The king tides also contaminates the freshwater lens, a delicate reserve of potable water sustained by rainwater seeping into the soil. On most islands of the archipelago, the freshwater lens is no longer viable, and Tuvaluans now rely on rainwater collection for drinking, cooking and bathing; a strategy which is particularly risky in light of increasing droughts in the region.

Lomiata Nuiatui, Tuvalu’s only trained design architect, has experienced environmental change firsthand. He tells me, “Just in case someone ask you about water rising tell them: Since 2006, seawater level where my pig pen is has risen by more than 250mm.” That’s about an inch a year.

Tuvalu’s 2015 damage during Cyclone Pam was, from a global perspective, only a footnote to the devastation that the storm brought to the volcanic nation of Vanuatu, destroying its capital, Port Vila, and many remote islands.

Wharf
Children swim off the end of the wharf. Throughout the day, the wharf is used for swimming, meeting, gutting fish or pigs, and launching boats.

While news sources showed the large scale flooding in Tuvalu and reported on the National State of Emergency, it went unnoticed that Pam passed a full 700 miles away from Tuvalu. The flooding which displaced 45 percent of the country’s residents was from a storm surge nowhere near the nation.

In 1972 Hurricane Bebe slammed Funafuti, destroying 90 percent of the housing stock and killing seven people. While severe storms pose issues for any low-lying islands, in this case risk was amplified by Funafati’s cheaply made housing, built to replace traditional island-friendly homes leveled by bombs during WWII when—due to its proximity to Japan—Funafuti hosted a U.S. Marine base.

Traditional Tuvaluan structures, like their many Polynesian counterparts, have aspects that enable them to weather intermittent tropical storms. Thatched roofs wick away water, coconut trunk columns embed deep into the earth for stability, and bases of coral rock elevate inhabitants away from floodwaters. In contrast, the U.S. Marines’ replacement housing had tin roofs that were easily ripped from the structure and flimsy clapboard frames that crumbled under the waves. Forty years later, construction methods have barely evolved and, there is unsurprisingly no building code for Tuvalu.

Atoll dwellers have typically been mobile peoples, moving from island to island when freshwater was tapped out, crops came up short, or conflict erupted. This was mitigated in the 1700s, first by Christianization and then colonization, each serving to anchor groups of people in place.

Tuvalu-Edit_4
A single-room wood frame home on Funafuti atoll.

It was shifting claims by the Western world —first Britain, then the U.S.—that conceptually tied this archipelago into a territory of one island nation. This nationhood plays strongly into the future Tuvuluans face as their land becomes increasingly uninhabitable, binding their identity and rights to these sinking islands.

Adding depth to the dilemma, the parameters of the Law of the Seas (set by the UN Conference) allots each nation a 200 mile perimeter of oceanic territory, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. For Tuvalu, this results in a territory of 10 square miles of land, and 350,000 square miles ocean. However, the liquid territories are only valid when they surround habitable land. One unprecedented response to this law was China’s controversial construction of new islands and territorial claims in the South China Seas.

Without China’s financial reserves, if and when Tuvalu subsides below the waves, the people of Tuvalu will have neither land nor water to claim as their own, and they will have no nation; they will be refugees.

Various proposals have been brought forward forward as to what this future might look like, from a mass resettlement to a Fijian island, to the even more costly and potential futile proposal of raising the islands. However, without a massive policy investment, creeping migration is likely to continue. (The most favorable migration policy for Tuvalu rests with New Zealand, which only allows 75 migrants per year via a lottery system.) At best, Tuvalu stands to become a diaspora, with those Tuvaluans who are slow to migrate at an ever-increasing risks for a catastrophic event.

Perhaps a relic of their ocean-going pasts, Tuvaluans place more significance on goodbyes than they do hellos. On the day of my departure, I check in to the room adjacent to the women’s center that serves as the local airport, and am told I can leave and return when I hear the plane land. While lingering outside, a downpour begins and the prospective passengers, including myself, Fihaki, and the ex-Prime minister, duck into a small pavilion to wait out the rain. There, the goodbye ritual begins, with damp hugs, shared coconut drinking, and assorted sea shell jewelry. Bedecked with half a dozen necklaces and earrings, Fihaki and I depart back over the stormy seas to more stable ground.

Ocean-Side
In contrast to the calm, crystalline lagoon, ocean waves are aggressive and intense. No one swims on the ocean side of the atoll.