Guardian UK: Burma's building boom threatens its architectural heritage

Burma's building boom threatens its architectural heritage

On the corner of 35th and Merchant Street, in the heart of Rangoon's city centre, San San Win is preparing lunch for the workers in the surrounding offices, shops and ministries. Her noodle stall is sheltered from the rain by the vast portico of a government bank, built in the 1930s by the British when Burma was part of the empire.

Close by, labourers scale the girders of what will be a massive commercial centre. Opposite is an empty plot, soon to be filled by a 25-storey tower block.

Win, who has lived with her family in a tiny apartment 50 metres from her stall all her life, is happy with the changes. "More people means more noodles sold," she said.

Others are less sanguine. Decades of isolation from the international community, economic mismanagement and inertia have left Rangoon the only major city in the region with such buildings, constructed by its former colonial overlords in styles ranging from straight neoclassical to art deco, intact.

Many people fear the economic boom sparked by rapid political reform over the past two years could spell disaster for this rich heritage. In nearby Malaysia or neighbouring China and Thailand, many older buildings have been demolished to make way for modern malls, offices or hotels.

"These are very lovely and very beautiful buildings. Whether built by the British or the Burmese, these are part of our history. They belong to us all and we need to save them all," said Sun Oo, a Burmese architect who works from a studio in a mildewed block built in the 1930s as dormitory accommodation for Indian labourers.

Oo and other architects have documented many of the highest-profile buildings likely to be razed or redeveloped, in a bid to preserve at least their memory. These include the spectacular Secretariat, from where colonial officials once administered a far-flung province of the Raj, and the old Rowe Company store, once the favourite shop of colonial memsahibs. "In Hong Kong, the younger generation now have no idea of how their ancestors lived. We too will be lost, like a man without a face," Oo said.

Recently, the architects received support from an unexpected quarter when lawyers demonstrated against development plans for the spectacular high-court building. That they could protest at all is an indication of the extraordinary change in this country, even if hundreds of political prisoners are still held in appalling conditions and the military remains extremely powerful.

Those changes now mean that investors across the region – and beyond – are eyeing Burma hungrily. Land prices have soared. The cost of living in Rangoon is now higher than in Paris, according to the Mercer cost of living index, and only slightly cheaper than New York. The planning process is impenetrable, public consultation nonexistent, corruption endemic and profits astronomical.

Not far from where Win has her noodle stand, a $100m (£66m), 38-storey office tower is planned. "Myanmar has now become a distinct choice for international investors … We want this building to be a long-lasting landmark that will remain close to the hearts of the beautiful people of [the country]," the Singapore-based developers told local reporters this month, using the name given to the country by the military authorities in 1989.

Another huge project will tower over the famous Inya lake, where the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has her home, spoiling the view from the gardens of the stucco colonial-era village where the Nobel prize laureate has spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest.

In the rush of excitement over Burma's ongoing political reforms – President Barack Obama flew in this month to become the first serving US president to visit – little attention has been paid to the more mundane problems. Economic growth, for example, is likely to send millions of migrants to the cities. Rangoon's population, currently around 5 million, is likely to soar.

"Currently, there are tight restrictions which limit small businesses like workshops, shops or IT outlets. This is keeping people in the villages. Once they are lifted, many, many villagers will head to the city. There's nothing to keep them in the countryside," said Phone Win, director of Mingalar Myanmar, an NGO working in communities around Rangoon.

Burma's commercial capital is ill-equipped to absorb the influx. Power is already scarce and since restrictions on buying cars were lifted this year traffic congestion has become a serious problem. All infrastructure – from sewers to the city's circular railway – is in a state of almost total disrepair.

Oo, the architect, believes reconciling preservation with development is possible. Restored buildings will bring in tourists as well as provide a more pleasant environment for locals, he argues.

Rangoon's top municipal officials understand the problem.

"We are at the watershed of this city's history," Rangoon's mayor, Myint Swe, told a conference this summer. "We want to see Yangon [Rangoon] as a 21st-century city but also want to preserve the best of our heritage. I have no illusions about the challenges we face, but we will learn from the mistakes of other Asia cities."

But there is little public awareness of the value of decrepit villas and ministries. After years of making do with crumbling old structures, physically as well as politically, there is a desire for a clean break with the past. Driving past a billboard advertising the new tower to be built over Inya lake, a taxi driver, Joseph Phyongon, 40, made a thumbs-up sign. "Very big, very tall, very new, very good," he said.