Inside The Manila Metropolitan Theatre Restoration
After more than eight decades of existence, the Manila Metropolitan Theatre, a National Cultural Treasure, is undergoing a comprehensive conservation programme under the aegis of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the country’s primary governmental agency tasked with the conservation, promotion, protection, and development of our Filipino historical, cultural, and artistic heritage. As the only existing Art Deco building of its scale and integrity in Asia, the Met is culturally significant in its expression of a Filipinised style of ornamentation that melds indigenous icons and Art Deco elements, creating a stylistic language that resonates with the Filipino.
Its historical significance lies in its connection to Filipino pioneers in the arts, with many art and theatre personalities having launched their careers at the Met. Its scale, as the largest theatre then constructed within the Philippines, led the Met to be accepted as the country’s first “national theatre,” hosting cultural performances, social events, and artistic endeavours. As a socio-civic structure, it has been integral in the development of civic pride. Having been funded wholly through private solicitation of the Metropolitan Theatre Company and the support of the Manileños, the Met may be considered as a theatre made by the people, for the people, and owned by the people.
The pioneer Filipino architect Juan M Arellano was commissioned by the government to prepare the blueprints for the Met. He was sent to study the latest technologies in theatre construction in the United States under the tutelage of Thomas W Lamb, who also served as consulting architect for the project. Departing from stately and monochromatic Neoclassicism, Arellano’s aesthetic for the Met was stunningly different from his previous works as it eagerly embraced a fanciful new style: Art Deco. It was an architectural confection fuelled by exoticism and fascination with non-classical ornamentation in the early 20th century.
The architecture of the Met is energised by a mélange of ornaments with allure and fantasy. Arellano adapted the stylistic language of Art Deco which had originated in the Paris Exposition of 1925 to convey local identities and meanings, using native decorative forms and subject matter. He explored familiar native motifs with the aim of asserting cultural independence in colonial social order. The country’s distinct flora and fauna replaced classical ornamentation. Native art provided new forms that were both “exotic” and national that were expressed in vibrant tile ornamentation, stained glass, friezes, sculptures, and wall textures. Nativist iconography is expressed in tell-tale Philippine details such as bamboo banister railings, carved banana and mango reliefs, and batik mosaic patterns. Styled after Philippine vegetation and wildlife, the motifs were executed with the assistance of Arellano’s elder brother Arcadio and Isabelo Tampinco, the leading decorative sculptor of the day.
The Met was formally inaugurated on 10 December 1931. Through the next decade, it seemed all the great artists of the world travelling through the Far East were booked to appear at the Met, as the theatre reached the peak of its cultural activities in the years leading up to the war. During the Japanese Occupation, the most important concerts were held there— like the one celebrating the inauguration of the Philippine Republic under Japan on 17 October 1943, that featured Antonino Buenaventura’s Rhapsodetta and Antonio Molina’s arrangement of Rizal’s “Alin Mang Lahi.”
As a cinema palace, the Met was equipped with a modern projector to show both Hollywood and local films. Disney’s Mickey Mouse made his debut in the Philippines here. The Philippines’ legendary LVN Pictures also released its inaugural film, the critically acclaimed Giliw Ko, on 29 July 1939 at the Metropolitan Theatre with no less than President Manuel Quezon attending the premiere.
AN ICON FALLS
Like many a young Filipino gallant, the Met was sacrificed at its prime in the Battle for the Liberation of Manila. Similar to most of the other buildings that lay in the path of the retreating Japanese soldiers, the Met was ruthlessly bombed and indiscriminately shelled by the American liberation forces. However, the Met was a survivor. Unlike most of the buildings in Manila, it merely lost its roof as its walls withstood the barrage of enemy and friendly fire. Battle scars can still be seen on some parts of the building.
Financial difficulties would thrust the Met into limbo with performances being inadequate in generating funds to keep the Metropolitan Theatre Company afloat. The structure would be mortgaged to El Hogar Filipino, represented by the Melian brothers, who partially renovated the theatre and made it a cinema for American films.
Through the Philippine Rehabilitation Act of 1946, partial restorations were made after World War II, but the lustre was gone from the Art Deco gem. In the three decades after the war, the Met, still partly in ruins, experienced a gradual decline, being leased and sub-leased, passed on from one management to another, fighting the slow descent to obscurity by transforming its space into the Besa Boxing Arena, cheap motels and gay bars, basketball courts, garages and warehouses—and finally, a home to about
50 families of informal settlers. Of all its pre-war establishments, only the Magnolia Rendezvous stood ground on the site, loyally embracing the Met despite its tarnished image.
In 1978, the old Metropolitan Theatre had undergone a complete restoration after its destruction in the Battle for the Liberation of Manila in 1945 and Post-War decline and misuse. The cultural renaissance it enjoyed since it reopened in 1978 was short-lived as political change marred its very existence and was finally forced to close its doors in 1996. The curtain went up again in 2010 but financial constraints and contests over ownership forced it to dim its lights once more.
Finally, in May 2015, the NCCA was authorised by the government to purchase the Metropolitan Theatre for 270 million pesos to jumpstart the rehabilitation procedure and breathe new life to the once neglected cultural landmark.
BACK TO ITS OLD GLORY
The Metropolitan Theatre is in phase one of a two-part conservation strategy covering the repair and refurbishment of the theatre’s façade; the reconditioning of its facilities and utilities; and the restoration of the main theatre, lobby, and open courts to the design intent of Arellano in the 1930s.
Work commenced shortly after the theatre was purchased in 2015, with the formulation of a Conservation Management Plan (CMP), a document which serves as the guide for the entire conservation protocol. Within this CMP is a comprehensive listing of the structure’s physical, social, historical, and architectural significance. Structurally the Met is sound, with most damages and deterioration occurring only on the surface. The building itself is an engineering wonder, with massive members and a structural frame of reinforced concrete and steel girder construction in the same light as its contemporaries, the Ayala and Quezon bridges.
To generate accurate plans and models of both the structural and architectural details which will form the basis for all subsequent restoration works, ground penetrating radar (GPR), 3-D Laser Scanning, XRF spectroscopy, and core sampling were conducted on the Met. Every step of the way, the project highlights the best practice in architectural conservation: that of least intervention.
For authenticity, the restoration of the Met’s iconic Art Deco ornaments underwent a thorough investigative process. Sources for the study included archival plans and hand-drawn sketches by Arellano, and depictions of the Met in print and audio-visual media shot by the American and Philippine governments, and films, such as Bituing Walang Ningning. These sources shed light on the details of how the theatre looked like in particular moments of its storied history and helped the team arrive at aesthetic choices honest to the spirit and character of the structure.
The actual construction on the site has been ongoing since February of 2017 and since then, there have been significant milestones.
The façade has been cleaned of debris and vegetal growth, with cracks and spalling mitigated. The iconic anay-finish exterior has also been restored to original specifications: in light pink and cream with pastel undertones, featuring exotic and tropical motifs in a medley of colours in line with the Art Deco style. Decorating the main entryway are floral elements rendered in capiz and antique bronze. The marquee—a monumental stained-glass beacon, backlit, executed by the Kraut Art Glass company—is now visible, capturing the imagination of passers-by as it had done for the past 86 years. The canopy is lit through a series of Technicolor panes, echoing the stained glass above and adorned by sculptures, reliefs, and tiles depicting gargoyles, mythical figures, and tropical floral elements. Four oriental dancers flank the core of the structure, their likenesses evoking a sophisticated beauty which inspired, in part, the likeness of the Filipino superheroine, Darna. The Met is topped by a series of finial capped bamboo and spires on a bowed silhouette echoing the temples of the orient, including Borobudur and Paoay Church. These are rendered in gold.
The Main Lobby is nearing completion, with the iconic Adam and Eve sculptures by Francesco Monti, in their bronzed concrete and back to their original splendour. However, the murals painted by Fernando Amorsolo in the lobby, The Dance and the History of Music, are in the GSIS Museum so for now, pending their repatriation, digital reproductions hang in their place. The walls have likewise been painted with a yellow-green colour scheme, replicating the look of the theatre when it first opened. The Art Deco grillwork, including the drooping floral balustrade and the birds of paradise motif on the gate, is awaiting its final coat of antique gold paint. Art Deco fixtures are being fabricated and will once again illuminate the grand lobby of the Met. The ceiling ornamentation, rendered in plaster, was unfortunately lost during the war; however, significant details have been extracted from the extensive research and they are now being rendered in the more durable fibreglass material. The floors are a combination of different kinds of marble, all imported from Italy, and have been at the Met since its inception. All the cracks and chips tell the story of the Met and will be retained when the structure is completed.
The Main Theatre seats 1,760 in the orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony areas, and was at its inception one of the largest theatres in the Far East. Its walls continue with the anay finish, but in a delicate old rose colour, with the textured appearance serving an acoustic function.
The highlight, however, is the theatre’s fruit festooned ceiling, with its Art Deco mangoes and bananas bordered by abaca rope, a playful showcase of the Philippines’ primary produce and a creative solution to an acoustic challenge. Complementing this is the orchestra seating’s ceiling which is a tropical rendition of Art Deco: banana leaves, coconuts, parrots, and unfurling ferns symbolise perfection in the golden ratio; and frozen fountains symbolise eternal life.
The proscenium too, is being restored to the original Monti masterwork, with the one lost plaster relief uncovered during the restoration work. A team of skilled artisans and artists are on hand to execute the damaged portions in plaster and fibreglass to ensure the longevity of the piece. In the search for the original proscenium, two of the eight bas reliefs depicting the songs of nature were revealed after more than 40 years. Thus, the Main Theatre will be ready to return to its role as a venue for dramas, zarzuelas, and recitals, with all the luxuries and amenities of a state-of-the-art performing arts space.
The open courtyards adjacent to the main theatre are being restored to the original configuration, with gardens and performing arts spaces. As Arellano himself did not specify a final design, and photographs of the Met do not show the courtyards in a finished state (the 1970s intervention opted to build more structures here), the design of the courtyards took inspiration from the motifs present at the Met and gardens from the same era. The newly liberated courtyards will serve as alternative venues for performances, with possibilities for theatres-in- the-round and outdoor cinemas.
In keeping with Arellano’s On Wings of Song theme for the two wings of the Met, the renovation envisions that they house workshops and function halls visible to, and open to the masses, for a more intimate and engaging experience of our art and culture. These will be venues for visiting, and resident artists, craftspeople, and artisans to showcase their process and product and the NCCA to educate and inform the public of such endeavours. Gallery and exhibition spaces will showcase developments in our performing and visual arts, as these spaces were originally intended to do so in the 1930s. A permanent exhibition on the conservation of structures in concrete will complement a laboratory dedicated to the same, to keep the Met and its contemporary heritage structures intact for generations to come. A curated selection of stores facing Padre Burgos Avenue will highlight Filipino art and contribute to the financial sustainability of the structure. The restaurant and café will be brought to functioning order as well, with their band stage restored from archival plans.
When completed, the Metropolitan Theatre will once again be a cultural hub at the heart of the historic district of Manila, allowing everyone equal opportunity to appreciate the beauty and sophistication that our rich and diverse culture offers.