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The future of the Secretariat

At over 100 years old, the splendid centrepiece of Yangon’s colonial heritage, the Secretariat, is a landmark beloved by locals. More than its aesthetic appeal and imposing size, the building holds a special significance for being the site of the 1947 assassination of General Bogyoke Aung San and eight other senior advisers.

The Secretariat was designed by British architect Henry Hoyne-Fox, with construction beginning in 1889. The southern portion of the structure was completed in 1893, with the wings of the buildings being finished in 1905.

The grand building was rocked in the Yangon earthquake of 1930, suffering damage to its dome and some foundational cracking. It would continue to be used as an administrative building for decades following Myanmar independence but slowly slid into disrepair until it was abandoned. When the country reopened in 2011, the Secretariat had lost much of its roofing, exposing the structure to the ravages of the weather. Auxiliary buildings had become mere shells. It was further damaged by Cyclone Nargis before work began to restore it.

The building is open to the public for just two days a year for Martyr’s Day, allowing Myanmar citizens to pay their respects to the memorial placed in the centre for General Aung San and his eight companions. The Secretariat has already hosted a number of cultural events and art exhibits in its renovated spaces and now offers guided tours for K9,000. Following public controversy back in 2015, however, it will be unlikely to see any more private birthday parties.

In 2012, a group named Anawmar won a tender to turn the site into a ‘Myanmar arts and culture centre’ under a 70 year contract. Work began to scale up in 2016 with cleanup, roof installation and the job of bringing the interior up to code for public use. The Yangon Heritage Trust and YCDC are also involved in the restoration.

“We want to make a relaxing space in this compound. The east wing will be office space and be rented out to companies. The west wing will be reserved for arts and culture. The north wing will be for restaurants and the south wing will be a museum. It will be for the public and also act as a tourist draw,” said Dr Maung Maung Thein, Chairman of the Secretariat Conservation Trust.

The entire restoration process is expected to cost US $50 million. Costs were heightened not only by an attention to authenticity and quality in materials but by the fact all those materials need to be imported. The roof tiles come from Switzerland and France. Necessary materials to restore large staircases are being procured from Scotland, and floor materials from India.

“There are two parts to the restoration plan. We reuse old materials, but we also need to substitute and rebuild with new ones. Overall, the idea is that we use as much of the original building as possible,” said Dr. Maung Maung Thein.

Despite efforts to remain as true to the original aesthetic as possible, some members of the public have expressed concern with what they see as a threat to the historicity of the site.

“We offer technical support. We’ve had arguments about parts of the restoration. They’ve built a new structure on the Thein Pyu Road side. We quarreled over the building of that structure. The new building requires manpower, an air-conditioning system, a generator and a tank to store water. We suggested they build those underground, But it couldn’t be,” said Daw Moe Moe Lwin, Director of the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT).

She added “We advised them on how to minimise the visibility of the modern buildings on the site. The designers had their own methods for making sure the new structure’s influence on the historic aesthetic was minimal. It depends on the choice of colours, architectural materials and design, but the new buildings definitely stand out”.

The auxiliary buildings, which were found to be empty brick shells, required extensive modern replacements, including windows, which have been criticised for looking too modern and not matching the windows of the main building.

“There was basically nothing left. We conserved some of the ironwork but it required a modern overhaul to be functional,” said Dr.Maung Maung Thein.

“We try to keep things as original as possible, but changes sometimes have to be made. For example, when it comes to installing plumbing and sewers,” a responsible person from the Anawmar group told The Myanmar Times.

Some public anxiety remains over the proposed use of the north end of the centre as a food court; the accumulation of rubbish being cited as a potential issue, in addition to the tastefulness of such a space.

Architecture and urban planning expert Dr.Kyaw Latt said, “The building was initially intended to be a hotel. The place where general Aung San was assassinated should not be a hotel or restaurant. They should be transparent about what they are doing with the public”

So far, there is a souvenir shop operating out of the east wing. The shop has various items such as old Myanmar coins, rare cash notes, crafts, traditional costumes and branded T-shirts. They have announced their collaboration with TS1 in launching a cultural wing at the southern range of the Secretariat. They will be works from both local and international artists on display.

SOURCE: MYANMAR TIMES

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