Following 18 months of extensive restorations and the addition of three new buildings housing a library, auditorium and cafeteria, the colonial-era Goethe Villa in Yangon has been unveiled as “one of the most beautiful” among the Goethe-Institut's 160 centres across the world.
The nonprofit German cultural association, founded in 1951 and headquartered in Munich, is funded by grants from the German Foreign Office and German Press Office, and in large part by its language course and examination fees.
In a press conference on June 11, Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann expressed his hopes for bringing greater numbers of Myanmar students to German universities, and also mentioned ongoing efforts to establish German language departments in dozens of public schools in Myanmar.
German ambassador to Myanmar Dorothee Janetzke-Wenzel said that her government had committed more than $10 million to the renovations.
“The German Federal Foreign Office believes that culture should work independently from the state. That's why we have the Goethe-Institut to work in the cultural field, in the foreign relations,” Janetzke-Wenzel said.
The sprawling compound, situated near the northwest corner of Kandawgyi Lake off of Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, played a key role in the struggle for independence as headquarters for General Aung San's Antifascist People's Freedom League from early 1945 until his assassination in 1947.
While the identity of its original owners is unclear, the property was purchased in the early 1920s by a wealthy and well-connected Chinese merchant named Chan Chaw Paing and later abandoned amid the chaos of World War II. Under military rule, it became the site of the State Academy of Arts up until 2003.
The Goethe-Institut enjoyed a brief presence in Yangon beginning in 1959 – its first-ever foray into Southeast Asia – but plans were cut short only months after General Ne Win's military coup in 1962. It wasn't until 2013 that Germany began to re-establish a cultural agreement with Myanmar and was offered the dilapidated villa as a future venue by then-Minister of Culture U Aye Myint Kyu.
With a long-term lease agreement and funding secured from the German government, initial planning was provided by Berlin architecture firm Gerhartz, and Yangon-based Tokyo Enterprise commenced construction in November 2016.
While a new 250-capacity auditorium and large outdoor square will allow the Goethe Villa to host much more ambitious events, prior to renovations it had already become a fixture of the Yangon cultural scene thanks to a number of successful concerts and art exhibitions.
“I can tell you, this is the most eclectic Goethe-Institut in the world,” Klaus-Dieter Lehmann said.
Eclectic is definitely an apt descriptor for the site's June 8 kickoff party, “The Re-vibrating of the Goethe Villa”, where world-renowned singer, composer and stage director Sigune Von Osten curated an event that brought together performers from around the world featuring electro-acoustic hurdy-gurdy, Chinese sheng, alphorns, conches, sound sculptures and dance from the Myanmar Entertainment Business Centre.
Events to follow as part of the Goethe Villa inauguration include a Myanmar-themed exhibition by German photographer Beatrice Minda titled “Dark Whispers”; a screening with live musical accompaniment of Myanmar's oldest surviving silent film “Mya Ga Naing” (1943); and the return of the Goethe-Institut's popular Berlin Club Night.