Rangoon | Yangon

(work in progress, the selection above is an early preview)

History is filled with places that get named and renamed. Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, was born as the large multiethnic city it is today near the end of the 19th century. Then called Rangoon, capital city of Burma, itself a province of the British Raj of India, the city was built from the ground up by engineers and architects from England. Scottish companies involved in natural resources moved in, along with many immigrants from India and southern China, working as administration clerks, coolies, technicians, or setting up their own business. In the 1920s, Rangoon was one of the most ‘modern’ city in Asia – albeit in Renaissance style – internationally connected and home to a bustling economy.

After the post-war independence, due to the isolation of the country for nearly sixty years under the military government, Yangon has been little touched – and even less maintained – unlike similar cities elsewhere in Asia. Families still live in the downtown shophouse their entrepreneurial ancestors built – yet with much lower living standards ; foreign companies buildings changed owners and tenants ; narrow alleys are used as dumping grounds or open air tea stalls ; relics of national history remains empty ; and more generally, life (and if not, vegetation) has invested every interstice of the fabric of a city largely left to itself. A whole intricate pattern of socio-economical relations slowly grew out of an urban environment built by the British Empire. Originally conceived with a different era in mind, space has been repurposed into a way of life deeply tied to the buildings and the streets, where private life extend far into public space.

This situation has been rapidly changing since the 2010s, as space becomes once again the focus of attention. Signals of an opening of the country with the transition to a civilian government in 2011 led to a influx of foreign capital, with investors on the lookout for office space and real estate development projects. Many buildings reaching back to the 1880s have been taken down on ‘structural safety’ grounds advocated by city council engineers as an excuse to make way for new business properties, often with poor design, little consideration for nearby structures and lower construction standards than the century-old buildings they are replacing. In a scheme widely seen across developing cities, people that were living in downtown for generations are being relocated to the outskirts, thus breaking neighbourhood ties and dismantling the social structure of the city.

Aware of this looming change during my second stay in the country in 2010, I started this project in 2013, aiming at exploring and recording the city as it is now and as it is being transformed by conflicting interests. With a focus on how architecture and space are being appropriated, repurposed, reconquered and at times destroyed, this work is both a long-term documentary project and a fine art graphical approach of Yangon urban spaces.

Rangoon | Yangon – in progress | 2014 | Projects