Rangoon | Yangon

(work in progress)

History is filled with places that get named and renamed. Yangon, the ex-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 rebuilt from the ground up by engineers and architects from England. Scottish companies involved in natural resources moved in their headquarters, 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.

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 dump grounds or as 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 is about to change abruptly, as space becomes once again the focus of attention. Signals of an opening of the country led to a surge of foreign capital, and investors are on the lookout for office space. Many buildings reaching back to 1880s have been taken down, on structural safety grounds advocated by the city council engineers, in order to make way for new business use properties, often with poor design and little consideration for nearby structures. In a scheme widely seen across developing cities, population that have lived in downtown for generations are being relocated, thus breaking neighbourhood ties as well as dismantling the social structure of the city.

Aware of this looming change during my second stay in 2010, I started this project in 2013 and 2014, aiming at exploring and recording the city as it is today – and especially its private architecture often out of media spotlights – and as it changes over the coming years. With a focus on how architecture and space are being repurposed and lived, this work stands at the crossroad of long term reportage with the graphical approach of fine art photography.

Rangoon | Yangon | 2014 | Projects