Opening of the Goethe Villa An open house and a centre for cultural learning
On 11th of June the Goethe-Institut Myanmar opened its new building. It offers numerous possibilites for cultural exchange and interactive learning. Director Franz Xaver Augustin talks about past difficulties and future chances which the Goethe Villa brings about.
Mr. Augustin, how are you feeling these day after the inauguration?
Exhausted and deeply grateful! The former because, after all, there was a lot happening over the course of just a few days: The inspection of the villa by the German Foreign Office, which acted as building contractor; the handover of the key by our Secretary General Johannes Ebert; the whole process of moving in (six 40-feet containers full of furniture and technical equipment); the big musical performance which drew some 800 guests – on the only thunder-free evening for past three weeks; and finally the official inauguration with the presence of the Minister of Education of Myanmar, the Chief Minister of Yangon, the Vice President of the German Bundestag Thomas Oppermann, President of the Goethe-Institut, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and many other dignitaries.
On the other hand, I am grateful for many things: For the unique opportunity to not only build a new house for the institute these past 4 years, but to bring together an excellent team of now almost 40 colleagues; for the immeasurable dedication of this team together with the colleagues in our headquarters in Munich during the preparation of the inauguration; for this wonderful building, which was offered to us by the Ministry of Culture and for which the German Federal Foreign Office invested millions of Euros; for the enthusiasm of our many guests at the opening; for the keen attention of the media and the many acknowledgements, which we received from all sides.
What makes this new house so special?
The villa, which constitutes the very core of our new institute, is approximately 100 years old and briefly played an important role in the history of Myanmar. By the end of the Second World War the previously luxurious residence of European and Chinese businessmen stood empty and was declared the headquarters of General Aung Sans independence movement AFPFL (Antifascist People’s Freedom League) in early 1945. Hence, it was here, in the foyer of the old villa, where AFPFL’s strategy towards the British colonial powers was discussed and which lay the foundation for the prospective Constitution of an independent Myanmar. Later, the building served as a state-run art academy for several decades. In 2005, the academy was moved to a campus on the outskirts of Yangon. During the negotiations over a cultural agreement between our two countries, the Minister of Education in 2013 offered us the villa – albeit at the time decrepit – as our future seat in Yangon. It was agreed upon a long-term, reasonably priced lease agreement in exchange for a commitment to substantially renovate the historical villa. The German Foreign Office then assigned the Berlin Architecture Firm Gerhartz to not only renovate and modernise the old building, but additionally with the task of erecting an entirely new, fairly big building, which was to house a library and an auditorium. Surrounded by a small park and old, large trees, a small complex has been created with the addition of a cafeteria and an annex with a small studio apartment for artist residencies. The architects have managed to maintain a sense of connection between the old and the new. The very careful and therefore particularly complex renovation works of this historical villa harmonise perfectly with the surrounding modern buildings. The old villa continues to constitute the focal point of the compound. The new additions perfectly complement the main building – their facades largely consist of native woods – while at the same time asserting their individual charisma within the overall picture. Together, they form an inviting ensemble of buildings which constitute the new Goethe-Institut, which can surely be counted as one of the most beautiful Institutes in the entire world.
What opportunities does this new house offer?
After half a century of military dictatorship and virtually systematic neglection of culture and education, Yangon is by far lacking a suitable cultural infrastructure. There is the large, but very run-down national theatre, concerts usually take place in the big hotels, and the more modern cinemas are fairly expensive to rent considering the standard they offer. With 180 seats, a beautiful foyer and, for Yangon, very modern standard technical equipment, our auditorium may not immediately rectify these shortcomings – however, it will become a sought-after place for more moderately sized cultural programmes. The most important advantage it offers is the qualities of a censorship-free space. Within the once again increasingly restrictive political environment, such a space is an essential asset. Undoubtedly, it creates the possibility for unrestricted exchange and independent artistic expression. I see a huge potential for the institute in offering the Goethe Villa – the spontaneous title given to the house during the first months of usage before the renovations began – as an open house, with a clear European profile, as a place for civil debates, and as a centre of cultural learning and encounters.
The language classes will take place in the spacious parlour of the villa. The immediate challenge will be to fill these on a regular basis. On the one hand, a major task will be to continue with the qualification and expansion of our teaching staff, which has already reached a considerable standard over the course of only 4 years. On the other hand, it will be crucial to make the advantages of Germany as a place for studying known among the young Myanmar citizens. At the moment, people tend to be more oriented towards the English-speaking world. Nonetheless, there is already a growing interest in Germany.
The spacious and originally designed library in the new building will primarily focus on offering opportunities for participants of the language classes. From my past experiences from working in Vietnam and Indonesia, I know that most young people also in Yangon struggle to find a calm place to study at home. I am sure this will also make our media room a very attractive place for our visitors.
You mention changes in the political environment in Myanmar. From your perspective, what changes have taken place in the past few years?
The big euphoria which marked the years after the opening of the country in 2011/12 has given way to a clear sense of disillusionment. I am thinking especially of the mass displacement of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Northern Rakhine state, which was felt as a strong blow internationally. The far too high expectations to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has long been worshipped as an icon for human rights, have now widely been replaced by disappointment in the global media. The challenges faced by this country are much greater and complex than what people were ready to acknowledge at the beginning of the democratisation process. There is still a long way to go to find a resolution to the ongoing ethnic conflicts. The conflict taking place on the border to Bangladesh constitutes only one of many and is the most well-known internationally. These conflicts paralyse the country. Much is still left in the hands of the powerful military. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly clear that the democratically elected parts of the government are not really using their political leeway to create more freedoms – on the contrary. Still, authoritarian and patronising tendencies are increasingly palpable, particularly with regard to freedom of expression.
In such an environment, the opening of our new house holds a very special meaning. It is a clear signal that our foreign policy with regard to culture and education opposes the currently indicated developments. It comes at the right time and targets first and foremost the younger generation – to fuel their thirst for education, curiosity and readiness to break away from the strict habits and customs remaining from the time under military rule, and to show the only way to a better future for the country.