Harry Wardill, 2011 Scholar and structural engineer, writes about the cultural preservation charity he set up in Myanmar. This article first appeared in The SPAB Magazine, autumn 2016. The SPAB Magazine is a benefit of SPAB membership.
The city of Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma) is an enchanting place – whether it’s the smiling faces, tropical climate, bustling street life, gilded temples or crumbling British colonial architecture that appeal, it seems to be a place that captivates many. For me it is the perfect mix of all of these things, united to create something even greater than the sum of its parts. I came here at the end of 2014 to set up the cultural preservation charity Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar, one of the initial aims being to support the local Yangon Heritage Trust by delivering an exemplar renovation project – focusing on aforementioned ‘crumbling British colonial architecture’.
I arrived at a key moment in Myanmar’s history – what we now know to be on the path to democracy led by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Oxford resident Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – but then it was a much less certain time still under the former quasi military government. With this opening up of the country comes the desire, and increasing economic means, to develop. And it is this rapid and unregulated growth that poses a threat to the unique heritage and character of the city.
Work began on site at our first project, 491-501 Merchant Street, in July 2015 and was completed in April of this year. This building was chosen because it embodies so many of the qualities and challenges of properties in the Downtown. It is a prominently placed, elegant colonial building with grand internal spaces and vibrant life in and around it, but it was in a very poor state, and littered with unsympathetic additions. The residents originally approached the Yangon Heritage Trust because the building was under threat of demolition – and they didn’t want this despite promises of space within a shiny new building proposed by an opportunistic landowner keen to realise monetary value from his site.
The community, like the Downtown, is a real mix – from a Hindu teashop to a Muslim photocopier stall, from a spacious apartment with a family of 4 to a more compact place, home to an extended family of 20! To add to the excitement, everyone stayed in residence throughout the renovation works – even when the roof was stripped back to the original iron wood trusses. There were weekly community meetings, and as you can imagine, never a dull moment, but everything skilfully and diplomatically overseen by the ever-smiling Ko Ko, my dependable site engineer.
To address the skills and knowledge shortage in relation to building conservation, a programme of training was delivered throughout the build – both day-to-day on site, and at special workshops open to the wider building community. The standard of these was set when master plasterer Philip Gaches was flown in from the UK for the first two-week workshop, which covered the relevant skills needed to repair the flat and decorative lime based plasterwork. Given this was the first time this kind of training was delivered in Yangon it was difficult to predict how it might go. Thanks to Philip’s mix of skill, rigour, adaptability, and sense of humour, in conjunction with great local support and the willingness to learn, a huge amount was achieved in a relatively short time, and it provided the model for future workshops. Most importantly, it meant that the craftsmen had the skills and knowledge they needed to get started on repairing the internal and external plaster elements – from in situ running of mouldings to hand modelling the acanthus leaves of Corinthian capitals.
Future workshops covered topics such as conservative repair of architectural timberwork, clay tile roofing, and brickwork conservation to name a few. The base skill level of the best craftsman is very high- often issues exist around methodology, inappropriate materials, a tendency to over-restore or simply just not getting the right people for the job.
The rich living heritage within the building was recorded through photo portraits, oral histories and a documentary made entitled ‘Under One Roof’, which gives fascinating snapshots of Myanmar’s torrid history over the last decades, told through the voices of the residents. All this culminated in an exhibition that was held in part of the building, and a three-month programme of events aimed at getting as many different audience to engage with the project as possible – from traditional puppet shows for school children to a lively two day heritage themed debate in partnership with the Yangon Debate League.
The project has gained the attention of the new democratically elected government and the public, secured the building, and laid the foundations for a local skilled conservation construction industry. In very simple terms, it has shown people that, with a little effort, Yangon’s historic buildings can be made fit for modern living – and what’s more, they have a beating heart.