A Journey Through Myanmar’s Architectural Heritage

A Guest Post by Jennifer Lang

In February during the Chinese New Year holiday, my family spent a week visiting Myanmar including Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay.  A cruise on the Ayeyarwady River (the lifeline and spine of the country) provided a perfect opportunity to experience this beautiful country.

Blooming tress

In advance of and during the trip, I read three historical fiction novels about Myanmar that I highly recommend: George Orwell’s Burmese Days originally published in 1934 in the USA after Orwell spent five years living in Burma serving with the Indian Imperial Police; F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady, originally published in the 1930s in England about the true story of a love affair that precipitated the annexation of Mandalay and Northern Burma by the British; and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason published in 2003.  All three novels helped to set the stage for understanding more of what I would see and experience during the trip.


Life on and next to the Ayeyarwady River is busy – there are many boats (some loaded with teak logs, others with construction materials) and men women and children bathing and playing in the water, washing clothes, fishing, tending to crops growing in the fertile fields next to the river shore and there are simple small huts along the banks and shores of the river adjacent to the agricultural fields.  As you pass along the shores in a boat, everyone waves and smiles!

Typical vernacular residential buildings in rural Myanmar are simple wood frame structures, often raised up off the ground on stilts, featuring woven bamboo walls and rush/thatched/corrugated metals roofs.  The woven bamboo walls are often covered in a black-colored coating (possibly creosote) for protection.

The Htilomini Temple in Bagan

Bagan is a vast archaeological zone and historic region of the ancient and former capital of the first Burmese Kingdom.  Some 13,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious structures were originally built here in a 26 square mile area in the 11th to 13th centuries. Palaces, many monasteries and private dwellings were built from wood, and all temples and stupas were made of fired brick – and only these non-wood structures remain. Today there are about 2,000 extant monuments that cover the landscape. The temples were inspired by the rock-hewn caves of Buddhist India and were sometimes large multi-storied places of worship one could enter and can feature decorated frescoes and barrel vaults and pointed arches.

The pagodas or stupas are Buddhist temples that have a variety of forms including bell-shaped pyramid brick structures set on square or octagonal bases with knob-like domes with square caps. Shwezigon Pagoda They are constructed of brick, covered in stucco and adorned with fine carvings, or gold.

Mandalay was honestly a bit of a disappointment – today it seems like a typical dusty Asian city with many “modern” buildings; only the palace walls and moat and a number of religious monuments remain today to document the story behind the city’s history as the former Myanmar capital. The magic, mystery and intrigue found elsewhere in the country appears to be missing here and indeed there is ongoing trading and contact with nearby China (the overland trade route to China begins here and evidently has recently been active since the 1980s) that may partially account for Mandalay’s present appearance. We did visit some interesting religious sites. It was interesting to note that Mandalay, unlike Yangon, does not have any evidence of colonialism.

Kuthodaw Paya

Mandalay’s Kuthodaw Pagada was built in 1857 by King Mindon as a copy of the Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan.  This pagoda houses the “biggest book in the world” – 729 white marble mini stupas inscribed with the Tripitaka texts surround the main pagoda in grid neat lines.

The Mahamuni Paya is a site of pilgrimage where families groups bring their costumed children for “coming of age” celebrations. The interior of the Pahamuni Paya in Mandalay has a 2,000 year old 13-foot high seated Buddha image with applied gold leaf (a six-inch layer of pure gold) – only men are allowed to enter the Buddha area and apply the gold leaf to the statue!  This monument was originally built in 1784, destroyed by fire in 1884, and then rebuilt.

The former Yangon Currency Department

Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial and diplomatic capital is a large, busy city that displays a combination of significant substantial western buildings left from the days of colonial rule by the British (1852-1937) when it was engaged in significant trading activities in the port, along with Buddhist temples and other traditional Burmese structures.  Yangon is a fascinating city today because it has one of the most intact collections of 19th and 20th century colonial buildings in Asia, composed of administrative government and state buildings as well as buildings from significant commercial enterprises.

The former Sofaer’s Building – built by a Baghdadi Jewish trader in 1906. This is where you could buy fine liqueurs and commodities such as Egyptian cigarettes, Munich beer, and English candles (Jennifer Lang).

In 2005 when the government moved the capital of Myanmar from Yangon to a nearby suburb – Naypyitaw – most of these state-owned buildings were abandoned and remain empty today with no care or maintenance.  Yangon, like the rest of Myanmar, has yet to be introduced to the many western chain stores that one sees all over the world today, such as McDonald’s, 7-Eleven and Starbucks – and this is a welcome reprieve!

With the backdrop of many substantial yet partially derelict buildings, the sidewalks of Yangon are filled with locals working, patronizing and socializing at the markets and eating spots the cover the sidewalks and spill out into the roads.  The colorful fresh fruit, vegetables and street food looked fresh and delicious!

The Sule Pagoda in central Yangon is the city center, with an 1850s grid plan of wide tree-lined boulevards around the pagoda created by Scottish engineer Alexander Fraser.  The earlier buildings constructed just after the British arrived in 1852 are more Victorian or eclectic in style.

Yangon City Hall

Later in the early 1900s, professionally trained architects from England and Scotland (such as James Ransome and John Berg) were hired to design key government buildings and to inspect plans prepared for all buildings. Yangon City Hall, constructed in 1925-1945 by McClumph, Brey and Bermese U Tin architects in the British Myanmar style with three-tired pyatthat roofing and traditional Myanmar iconography of peacocks and serpents.

Jennifer Field Lang is an architectural historian and building conservationist who has worked and studied in the field for over 25 years, primarily in North America. She has been living in Asia for the past three years.

In the fall of 2012 Jennifer assisted in the planning and teaching of a Common Core Curriculum class to undergraduates at HKU entitled World Heritage and Us. Jennifer obtained a BA degree from New York University, an MS in historic preservation from Columbia University, and an MS in conservation from Hong Kong University. Currently Jennifer is beginning her studies as a PhD candidate at HKU focusing on the Taikoo Sugar Refinery and its role as an example of a company town in Hong Kong.

local woman at U Bein teak bridgeAll photos copyright Jennifer Lang. Read the original post

The Connection Between Communities and Preservation – and You

Buildings may stand alone physically, but they are endlessly connected with communities. Buildings are accompanied through time by the comings and goings of people… No matter their purpose, all buildings are lived in: feet move across their floors, hands open and close their doors, eyes look along their balconies and through their windows. It is buildings, then, that are some of the best witnesses to history and some of the most integral parts of communities.

Photo courtesy Alexey Sergeev

Shotgun house Photo courtesy Alexey Sergee

Buildings aren’t only used by communities, they represent communities. Building types and styles developed in direct response to their communities’ needs, desires and resources. The shotgun house, for example, is the handprint of history for parts of Louisiana (and now spanning upward into Illinois), whereas brownstones are almost synonymous with Brooklyn. 

What about today? Communities need their history and their identity… and they need other things. Like affordable housing. Community gathering spaces. Old theaters and Mom & Pop shops. This is where you – and preservation – come in. The greenest building is the one that is already built. The building already built also has an irreplaceable tie to the community around it.

All this and you (yes, you!) can be the one to dig your hands in? Help preserve history and help communities at the same time! You can take action on a small scale by supporting adaptive reuse projects in your town, or you can look beyond: Adventures in Preservation has several preservation projects coming up that aim to help communities while preserving their historic structures. For example, restoration work at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in The Bronx supports a major community resource.  AiP is also helping out abroad in places like Nepal and Albania, bringing volunteers to do hands-on conservation work.

Gjirokastra Tower HouseIn Gjirokastra, Albania, preserving the building fabric of the local tower houses will also preserve the fabric of the community. Albania is rich in culture – and tourism potential – but is one of Europe’s poorest countries. Adventures in Preservation’s trip to Gjirokastra to work on the Skenduli house will raise awareness, create jobs for maintenance and preservation, and support training of local youth in traditional trades. The next group of AiP volunteers heads over in 2014 – just around the corner!  Visit the trip page to find out more.


– Susie Trexler