Secretariat Building to become ‘cultural complex’ by 2019

Special Exhibition Gallery at West Wing.
Special Exhibition Gallery at West Wing.

Myanmar’s most beautiful abandoned building is set to get a new lease on life. A team of international architects and conservationists has been commissioned to transform Yangon’s Secretariat Building into a cultural complex that will include museums, galleries, event spaces, eateries, retail outlets, gardens, and offices for creative industries.

The restoration of the 120-year-old colonial building will be led by Singapore-based design firm Pomeroy Studio. The studio says the work will be carried out with an attentiveness to sustainability, local culture, and the building’s original design.

“The Secretariat is recognized as one of Yangon’s most important heritage buildings and has been the scene of the most defining moments of Myanmar’s modern history. This includes the assassination of General Aung San, which paved the country’s path to independence,” said Prof. Jason Pomeroy, founding principal of Pomeroy Studio. “Restoring this grand colonial building to its former glory and reinvigorating its internal spaces with a program of arts-related functions seeks to both preserve Yangon’s cultural past and cultivate Myanmar’s creative future.”

Internal Colonnade at South Wing
Internal Colonnade at South Wing.

Pomeroy will partner with Italy-based architecture firm Architetti Croce to preserve the building’s most historically significant features. However, some features will be reinterpreted to references to Myanmar culture, such as a new dome whose design was inspired by a Pathein umbrella and interior decorations by local artisans, including lacquerware artists and stone carvers.

A press release from Pomeroy Studio says the restoration is part of the the ongoing effort by the Yangon Heritage Trust to preserve the city’s architectural heritage “in the face of break-neck development and modernization.”

A bumpy road to restoration

While Pomeroy’s website lists its client in the Secretariat Building project as “confidential,” the site was famously leased in 2012 by the Anawmar Art Group – a previously little-known collective of artists and art collectors. Managing directors Le Yee Soe and her husband Soe Thwin Tun were both educated in Singapore. Their 50-year-lease began in 2015.

That year, the company announced it would spend “an estimated US$50 million on renovation and conservation, as suggested by the Yangon Heritage Trust.”

However, the company’s stewardship of the Secretariat Building has been marked by controversy. The group has said it does not intend to profit from the venture, but it has not registered as a non-profit company.

The backgrounds and behaviors of some board members have also raised speculations about their intentions. For example, Soe Thwin Tun is the grandson of a former general in Myanmar’s former military government, Tun Gyi, who was ousted in the Khin Nyunt purge of 1997. Tun Gyi was widely held responsible for driving up the cost of cars through exploitative import licenses.

In March 2015, a board member and daughter of Tun Gyi named Thi Thi Tun was criticized for hosting a lavish, private birthday party for herself in the Secretariat compound. Guests included elites such as Aye Ne Win, the grandson of former military dictator Ne Win. Critics said the banquet disrespected the memory of General Aung San and other independence heroes, who were assassinated in the building in 1947.

Thi Thi Tun responded to the criticism by saying the banquet was not a birthday party but a meeting to raise financial support for the site’s restoration.

The Anawmar Art Group has behaved more sensitively since then, opening parts of the compound to visitors on Martyrs’ Day and allowing the Geothe Institut to host a public exhibition of the work of German artist Wolfgang Laib in February 2017.

Geothe Institut Myanmar director Franz Xavier Augustin said the exhibition was meant to be a “first attempt” to give the Secretariat Building back to the people on Yangon in the form of a cultural center.

The site’s restoration is scheduled for completion in 2019.

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