Former Burma Railway Company Building, Yangon

Burma Railways Building 2

Former Burma Railways Building, 2012 (©Myanmars Net Inc)

On the corner of Bogyoke Aung San Road and Alan Pya Pagoda Street in the Pabedan district of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) stands one of the nearly 200 designated buildings on the Yangon City Heritage List. Completed in 1896, the building housed the Burma Railway Company, becoming Burma Railways from 1928 to 1989 and thereafter Myanmar Railways. The building has lain derelict since 1994, with an ever darker shadow of doubt creeping over its future.

The building very much represents a key moment in Burma’s transport history, when three of the region’s competing and privately-run railway lines came together into a single network, the national scope of which knitted the country into one unit. The first line in the British-controlled region, then comprising only Lower Burma, ran northwest from Yangon to Prome (now Pyay) along the Irrawaddy river and was opened in 1877 as the Irrawaddy Valley State Railway. The line primarily served an economic function, facilitating the transportation of agricultural goods, mainly rice, from the valley to Yangon. In 1884, a second line was opened, running north from Yangon along the Sittang river valley to Taungoo, extended north to Mandalay soon after the annexation of Upper Burma in 1885. By 1895, a third railway line, run by the Mu Valley State Railway, connected Mandalay with Katha on the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy. Between them, these three lines connected the north and south of the country, serving both economic and strategic functions. In 1896, the three companies coalesced to form the Burma Railway Company, which was to be a state-run organisation and it was in response to this that a new headquarters was built in Yangon, just across the way from the Central Station (built 1877, destroyed in WW2).

The Burma Railway Company Building, c. 1925

The Burma Railway Company Building, c. 1925

In 2012, the neglected building was purchased by a developer who began to look for a suitable new use for this huge structure, comprising three ranges around an inner courtyard. Though the building itself was certainly imposing at the time of its construction, the architectural style can best be viewed as a subdued form of Indo-Saracenic, of which there were exuberant contemporary expressions in British India (e.g. Victoria Terminus by F. W. Stephens, 1887, now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai) and also in Malaysia (e.g. Government Offices by A.C. Norman, 1894-7, now the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Kuala Lumpur). Interestingly, the architecture of many Yangon buildings from this time reflect this more restrained confection of European and Asian details, without the flourish of domes, chattris and guldastas that characterise so many other buildings of the neighbouring regions.

Elevation detail, 2012

The building is given a Gothic feel by the regularity of its pointed cast iron canopies to the first and second floors, with their intricately carved wrought iron brackets and finials, echoed by similarly-wrought ‘Juliet’ balconies at each window position on the external-facing elevations. The building is constructed with red brick to the upper floors and laterite blocks to the ground floor. Laterite is a clay-like soft soil layer, commonly encountered in tropical regions, that is excavated and easily cut into blocks, which are then left to dry and harden. The dried block, often called a ‘stone’, displays a porous surface which, from a distance, much resembles artificial vermiculation. On the ground floor, projecting courses of laterite blocks are used to articulate what could be interpreted as a simplified classical idiom, with a frieze of triglyphs and metopes, with guttae below. The keystones of the arched window/door positions below extend upwards to join with the ‘guttae’ of the triglyph frieze above.


Surface detail of laterite block

Conservation challenges included, as so often, retaining as much of the fabric as possible, whilst remedying structural defects and accommodating a sustainable future use. For this, two particular strategies put forward were for a façadism on the one hand, or a free-standing internal steel frame on the other. We counselled strongly against the first option, as this would entirely strip the building of its character and, in the parlance of our own heritage legislation, rob it of its special architectural and historic interest. The second option, if proposed modifications required such intervention, was thought preferable in order that the impact on the existing structure might be kept to a minimum. The external treatment also requires attention, as in almost all locations there are vestiges of cementitious render that had formerly been applied to the laterite, presumably to increase its weathering properties. However, the gradual build-up of moisture behind the render has caused systematic failure, such that the block faces are now all but clear of it.

Since our involvement, it has been confirmed (in March 2014) that the building is to become a luxury hotel, part of the global Peninsula chain, due to open in 2015. It is hoped that this use will allow retention, repair and celebration of the building’s existing features; indeed, early visualisations indicate that the outward-facing elevations will be retained and repaired, whilst the courtyard (whose elevations are treated less grandly) will receive a glazed roof to create a new atrium.


Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013

On 6 April 2014, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 came into effect, resulting in amendments to the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The ERR Act has resulted in some changes to the current framework of heritage protection which, according to English Heritage, ‘are aimed at making protection more efficient and effective’. Just to makes sense of these changes, I have included a brief summary below. Further information on each of the new measures can be found by hovering over the titles and clicking the links.

Certificates of Lawfulness of Proposed Works

These (optional) certificates can be sought by those planning works to a listed building, or other designated heritage asset, when it can be demonstrated that the works do not affect the special architectural or historic interest. The effect of the Certificate, issued by the Local Authority, is to confirm that the proposed works do not require a formal Listed Building Consent Application. It should be noted that a Certificate cannot be sought for demolition and is only valid for 10 years.

The intention behind these Certificates is to reduce the number of formal Listed Building Consent applications by providing an option to remove those for minor works. However,  I’m sure I don’t need to outline the difficulties of making judgements of impact on character etc. from applicant submissions that will be de facto scantier than for full LBC applications. Caveant consilia.

Heritage Partnership Agreements (HPAs)

Informal agreements along these lines have been promoted by English Heritage in the past, but the ERR Act puts them on a statutory footing. The HPA will comprise an agreement between the Local Authority and the building owner for a period of years that permits Listed Building Consent to specified alteration (or extension, but not demolition) to a designated heritage asset or group of assets.

Listed Building Consent Orders (LCBOs)

LCBOs can be granted by the Secretary of State, following mandatory consultation with EH, to grant Listed Building Consent to specified works (again excluding demolition) to any designated heritage assets covered by the Order. In practice, this is intended to be relevant for standardised building types that might cross regions or Local Authority boundaries.

In my view, the application of these Orders should necessarily be limited, as there are few buildings that can be said to be so totally removed from their local or regional architectural and social context that individual works should not be individually assessed. However, the Canal & River Trust are currently piloting an LCBO scheme for the repair of standard canal locks.

Local Listed Building Consent Orders (LLBCOs)

As for national LBCOs above, the intention of the local orders is to permit Listed Building Consent for specified works of alteration or extension (not demolition) to specified designated heritage assets within a Local Authority’s area. Again, this should only be applicable where a ‘class’ of asset along with a set of predictable or repetitive works can be readily identified. In order to avoid inappropriate works carried out under a thinly-woven blanket consent, it will be absolutely vital that extensive historical analysis of the assets and their individual contexts  is undertaken for all the assets intended to be covered.

The measures above coming into force on 6 April 2014 can be added to those measures from the ERR Act that came into effect last year, which include the following:

Amendments to Listed Building Entries

As of 25 June 2013, it has been possible for new list entry descriptions or amendments to state that any given feature(s) of a listed building, or a structure forming part of it or its curtilage, is not of special interest.

Though the intention is again to reduce the number of LBC applications for elements of listed buildings that might be unremarkable, but the keen-eyed will realise that this is rather a perilous judgement. We are fairly well alerted these days that heritage fashion and appreciation ebbs and flows, care should be exercised that some building element is not simply written-off on the whims of the time. Experience would suggest that it is rather difficult to avoid such influence, which is why blanket listing enables careful consideration in each individual case.

Replacement of Conservation Area Consent

From 1 October 2013, the requirement for Conservation Area Consent for demolition of unlisted buildings within Conservation Areas has been removed and the application is now subsumed within a normal planning permission application.

Certificates of Immunity

From 25 June 2013, it has been possible for Certificates of Immunity to be applied for at any time, whereas previously this was only possible where the building was subject to a planning application.