Historic architectures need restoration not demolition

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Though  Mongolia doesn’t have buildings aged over a century like many of the western countries, it prides in a few buildings with historic and cultural values. However, these buildings might no longer exist as the government is set to take them down for a redo.

The Ministry of Finance set aside over 330 billion MNT last fall to rebuild the State Academic Drama Theater, State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, National Library, Natural History Museum and Central Stadium. Government documents show that 52 billion MNT has been allocated to rebuild the drama theater, 54.6 billion MNT for the opera theater, 52.4 billion MNT for the library, 94.4 billion MNT for the museum, and 80 billion MNT for the stadium. A total of 12 billion MNT will be spent on these projects this year alone, according to ministers. 

While many oppose this idea to demolish cultural and historic buildings, a number of artists and cultural workers support it as they’ve been waiting for these theaters and museums to be upgraded for almost three decades

Drama theater turns 59, opera theater turns 69

The government approved the establishment of the State Academic Drama Theater on November 12, 1931 and laid its foundation in 1957 with investment from the Youth Union. Designed by architects B.Chimed and A.Khishigt, the theater opened three years later, becoming the first modern theater in Mongolia where artists could develop new dramas and plays.

The State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet opened doors a little earlier than the drama theater with the premiere of one of Mongolia's most famous operas “Uchirtai Gurvan Tolgoi” by D.Natsagdorj on December 30, 1950. The two theaters were adjacent under the name “State Central Theater” until the government decided to separate them into independent theaters in May 1963. Both theaters were given the “state academic” title on July 7, 1981.

The opera theater employs over 280 peoples specialized in opera, symphony orchestra, choir and other theatrical arts. It is an important building embodying the history of more than 100 national and world classic ballet and opera pieces and it picks 26 operas and 21 ballets to perform each year.

Without any major restoration since its establishment, the opera theater wasn’t able to age gracefully. According to Minister of Education, Culture, Science and Sports Yo.Baatarbileg, the foundation of the building has cracked, the outside of the building is extremely damaged, and the brick walls need to be repaired to increase their bearing capacity. The roof, stage, backstage, practice rooms all require repairs, according to “diagnoses” made by the Ulaanbaatar Specialized Inspection Agency, Reconstruction Diagnosis, Blueprint and Research Center, and SSIMN in 2009, 2015 and 2017. A disaster risk assessment showed that the theater cannot withstand earthquakes of magnitude seven or greater.

The drama theater faces similar problems and runs a busier schedule as it also houses the National Arts Theater and Children’s Theater. The theater repaired its roof in 2015 due to leaks, but in 2018, an earthquake damaged the foundation. The staff have been complaining about the poor structure hindering operations, causing inconveniences, and arising health and life risks to both the staff and audience. They stressed the need for a major repair.

The National Library isn’t in any better shape. The government library was built in 1951 with the capacity to hold 500,000 books. The library hasn’t been repaired or expanded not once in the last 69 years.

“The National Library holds cultural heritages created by Mongolians and items of significance to the national independency. We’ve shown time and again how difficult it has become to work here. Electrical wires are exposed and there’s high fire risk. When it rains our staff wear water boots and clean puddles caused by leakage to protect our unique cultural heritages. We must protect this cultural heritage.”

Minister stops reconstruction projects

Minister Yo.Baatarbileg held a sudden press conference on Wednesday, announcing that the theaters and other buildings will not be demolished.

“I announced last October that renewal of the drama theater, opera theater and National Library have been stopped and that it’s becoming too politicized. I still hold this position. Back then, employees of the three institutions gave a statement that it was wrong to stop investment to the sector and asked to continue this work,” he said. “The state budget has projected two billion MNT each for the drama theater, opera theater and National Library (in 2020). This money will be used to repair and renew three buildings. The two theaters previously developed repair plans and our specialists will review them.”

However, it’s hard to just purely depend on the minister as the budget for the reconstruction work has already been included in the 2020 state budget. For example, despite considerable opposition from the public, the Natural History Museum was taken down last year after it was included in the state budget.

Restoration or destruction?

Considering the degree of degradation of these buildings, a demolition sounds reasonable but many people believe that the government should opt for a large-scale restoration rather than taking down the buildings as they have cultural and historic value.

The two theaters and National Library are not included in the List of State General Database of Cultural Heritages, as underlined by G.Enkhbat, head of the National Center for Cultural Heritage. He said that only temples and monasteries were considered as historic architecture, but in 2015, authorities decided to include building that were built before 1960 and those built in historic styles in the list. The National Center for Cultural Heritage is gathering documents to put the two theaters and National Library on the list.

“To urgently protect these buildings, architects and academic organizations need to prove that they are historic architectures,” said G.Enkhbat.

Preserving old buildings is important for a number of reasons. An art historian said that some old buildings are extraordinary works of architecture that can’t be remade today. They can exist as a type of monument that speak to a specific time in history, and represent a continuity with the past. Other buildings are by influential architects and are worth preserving for their aesthetic and historical value.

We must consider the financial side too. According to experts, it is often less expensive to maintain or retrofit an old structure than demolish it and build anew. Now that the election is on the way and political instability is very much possible, we can’t deny that ministries and agencies in charge of the redevelopment of the theaters, museum and library will try to cut down costs. This gives rise to the fear that the new buildings will not be as durable and valuable as the original ones, or guarantee that it will actually be built anew. It is without a doubt foolish to try to preserve all old buildings but it is necessary to preserve those with history and unique value that attract foreign and local tourists.

In addition, the government plans to demolish and rebuild a number of buildings in just one year besides the theaters and museums. This will most likely drop the overall productiveness and efficiency. Rather than pushing to complete them all at once, a one-at-a-time approach is advisable.

In any case, the budget has been approved but complaints have yet to cease. By summer, the fate of the historic buildings will be decided as construction season begins.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan