While many of the heritage buildings across Yangon are left to face the elements and become ever more derelict and damaged, a select few are undergoing intense restoration processes to restore their former grandeur and make them fit for purpose once more. Issy D’Arcy Clark digs through the rubble to get an exclusive look at some of Yangon’s most exciting restoration projects in 2019.
The New Law Court – Rosewood Yangon
A mammoth undertaking, the restoration of the 5-storey New Law Courts on Strand Road is currently underway to transform the building into hotel, tipped to partially open towards the end of this year. Originally, Switzerland’s Kempinski Group were at the helm of the project however in June 2018 it was announced that Rosewood Hotels & Resorts would be taking over, owned by Prime Residence, a partnership with Thailand’s Kanok Furniture and Decoration and Myanmar’s Jewellery Luck Group of Companies. Leading the project is Supalak Foong, the Managing Director of Prime Residence who explains; “I want to be part of how to preserve Yangon.”
After the Old Law Courts were damaged during an earthquake, the architect Thomas Oliphant and Doorman Long UK, the engineers behind the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, were commissioned to build a replacement. Completed in 1927, the New Law Courts were a revelation at the time as the first building in Myanmar built with a steel structure, as well as being the first to have electricity and a lift. Later, during the Japanese occupation of Myanmar the building was briefly used by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, for conducting investigations and housing prisoners, before being returned to its original purpose and used to house The Rangoon Division Court until 2012.
From the offset the idea of repurposing the building as a hotel was met with protest from many Myanmar lawyers, opposing the privatization of the building in favour of restoring its original function as a court. “Good or bad, the past is the past, it shouldn’t be demolished or abandoned,” says Ms. Foong. “I want to widen the perception of the people in the city.”
Today the Rosewood group intends the hotel to have 205 rooms and amenities include a grand ballroom, three additional meeting spaces, a barbers, five restaurants and bars and a Heritage Salon. The 5th floor will also be home to Sense, a Rosewood Spa, and gym facilities. The rooftop will have an outdoor pool and bar, which is planning to open later this year.
Though much of this may seem like drastically modern additions to such a historic building, Ms. Foong and her teams worked closely with the Yangon Heritage Trust to ensure that that history and integrity of the building was not compromised and their designs both compliment and celebrate the building’s history. “The collaboration with Yangon Heritage Trust meant the reduction of 40 rooms and the delay of one year,” explains Ms. Foong. “But it was important as it means that a representative from the general public has been consulted.”
As well as working with the YHT, historians and restoration experts from the UK were also consulted and a Conservation Management Plan for the building was created. “We are trying to understand the building before we repurpose it,” says Ms. Foong.
One of the more elaborate processes necessary to preserve the building came when trying to restore the 100-year-old stone columns in the hall. After much research and investigation, the team had to hire specialist equipment from Germany using -50ºC dry-ice to clean them and make them fit for purpose once again.
For Ms.Foong however, merely repurposing the building isn’t enough. “We don’t want to stop at this building, we want to spill our ideas out onto the street,” she says. “We want the community to see what we’re trying to do.”
In a very literal sense the project is indeed spilling out on to the street as Ms. Foong has enlisted the help of Yangon-based placemaking social enterprise Doh Eain to sculpt the surrounding gardens and walkways, creating a green community area. “Our goal is to create great places in the city by transforming mere spaces into places with identity, meaning and practical functionality for the people passing through them,” says Emilie Röell, the Founder and Director of Doh Eain.
In a rapidly changing city, the attitude towards the heritage buildings of Yangon is in a state of flux. “Within four years there has been so much change, especially with organisations like Doh Eain,” says Ms. Foong. “But there have been good and bad changes to Yangon. This for me is a mission statement for trying to save the city.”