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).
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.
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.
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.