Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fit for an empire


The massive scale was also a response to the sharp rivalry between European colonial powers in Southeast Asia in the 19th century (see MTE 732, June 9-15, 2014). The Secretariat had to proclaim Britain’s regional dominance as well as the solidity of its rule of Burma. To accomplish this, the Raj tried to combine architectural styles in a hybrid, more or less with success. Scottish-born James Ransome (1865-1944), consulting architect to the Government of India from 1902, was told “not to put up any Mongrel buildings” and instructed in the architectural style of “Calcutta Classic, Bombay Gothic, Madras Saracenic and Rangoon Renaissance”, some of these being themselves hybrids.

An archival photo shows the Secretariat in its prime. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsAn archival photo shows the Secretariat in its prime. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The importation of both European high Renaissance pastiches and Indian patterns – especially black wooden staircases and white walls – make the Secretariat a very interesting case of architectural syncretism, built with a mix of imported and local materials. Indeed, many foreigners from around the world flocked to Rangoon, a strategic harbour that joined the British Raj for more than 50 years (1886-1937), the world’s second-busiest immigrant port after New York in the early 1920s and, at its peak, one of the most cosmopolitan trading cities in the world. These many foreigners brought architectural ideas, techniques and materials with them. The cast-iron pillars were imported from Glasgow, Scotland. And all the inner courtyards were covered by glass ceilings, a design feature that was employed to bring light inside houses and factories in 19th-century Victorian England before spreading through all Europe. Arches and columns, intricately wrought balconies and elaborate balustrades completed the very elegant whole, conceived in large, balanced proportions.

Walking through the former ministers’ offices – a maze of deserted hallways, cavernous chambers and offices separated from long corridors by saloon-style swinging doors – is a gripping experience. Hundreds of civil officers and bureaucrats were once busy ruling the country here. Two rooms in particular stand out, one from an aesthetic point of view, another in terms of historical significance.

The first is the main hall which is covered by a glass atrium, which was once a huge Neo-Florentine dome. A spectacular green and white double-spiral iron staircase leads from the south-gate entrance to the third floor. Visitors coming in here were likely flabbergasted by the luminous space, as I was after my first steps inside. With four-faced caryatids all along the bannisters, the whole – light and heavy at the same time – creates a great impression. The atmosphere of romantically faded glory cannot be overstated.

The second is the first-floor meeting room where Bogyoke Aung San, the national hero and father of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and six of his cabinet were assassinated on July 19, 1947. In 1952, the room was transformed into a prayer hall with a Buddhist shrine, which the Secretariat’s Buddhist Association takes care of still. Wood panelling hides bullet holes from the spray of the gunfire. History saturates these walls, where it’s easy to imagine the shadows of ghosts.

Now, buried among overgrowth in the main inner courtyard along the northern wing, a red-and-white circular concrete Martyrs’ Mausoleum commemorates the “seven heroes of the nation”. Their names are simply engraved on seven white marble plaques. A national flag flies overhead.

The shrine to Aung San marks where he was shot. Photo: Kaung HtetThe shrine to Aung San marks where he was shot. Photo: Kaung Htet

But the historical importance of the Secretariat to Myanmar’s history didn’t end with this bloody event. The Secretariat was also where the British announced Burma’s independence on January 4, 1948, and where the administration lowered the British flag for the last time. It was, at last, the seat of the nation’s first parliament from 1948-1962 before Ne Win’s military coup.

Miraculously, the Secretariat survived bombing by Japanese war planes during the Second World War and all the earthquakes and cyclones that have since touched Yangon, minus eleven towers and turrets. It suffered serious flood damage during Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Will it survive the modern era?

The Secretariat has regularly come under threat of demolishment, though it has been on a heritage list since 1996. At the same time, the potential of the building, according to its size, history and location in Yangon, has aroused appetites of private-sector international developers and investors. In 2011, tentative plans to convert the Secretariat into a museum failed. In 2012, a consortium formed by seven Myanmar and three foreign companies proposed to turn it into a museum, a 500-room hotel and a cultural centre. The public decried the idea of a hotel as inappropriate, however, so that this project failed as well.

In 2013, a private arts organisation, Anawmar Group, was awarded the right from the Myanmar Investment Commission to restore the building and preserve it as a historical museum and cultural centre, with plans to later create offices, seminar and exhibition halls. A Conservation Management Plan, written by the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), stated what could and couldn’t be done with the building before it was leased, though funding remains unclear. But an exhibition project, still confidential at this stage, could soon open within the Secretariat’s walls. This would be a great opportunity for Yangon citizens to see the place for themselves, which is impossible for the moment for safety reasons, as some of the wooden floors on the second level have wide-open holes.

It is easy to imagine the repurposing of the building into a centre of art, culture and commerce such as the Louvre Museum in Paris and other similar complexes around the world. Any project faces a long road as it will have to gain the assent of consultants like the Yangon Heritage Trust and, of course, the approval of YCDC.

Restoring the Secretariat will be a huge technical and financial challenge. International experts recently estimated that at least US$100 million would be needed to restore it properly. Far more than being the city’s most iconic heritage building only, the grande dame is today a first-ranking piece of Myanmar national history. Though its construction was imposed from Europe in the colonial times, its legacy is now integrated in Yangon citizens’ daily lives. It certainly deserves, for this reason, more care than any other historic building in the country.

Amaury Lorin is a French Yangon-based historian, journalist and consultant. He is the author of Nouvelle histoire des colonisations européennes: XIXe-XXe siècles (France University Press, 2013) and the founder of Myanmar Challenge.