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Arts Culture OPINION: How Important Is The Preservation And Restoration Of Historic Landmarks In The Philippines?

OPINION: How Important Is The Preservation And Restoration Of Historic Landmarks In The Philippines?

OPINION: How Important Is The Preservation And Restoration Of Historic Landmarks In The Philippines?
Binondo Church in 1878, a church founded by Dominican priests in 1596 to serve their Chinese converts to Christianity
By Bambi Harper
April 15, 2020
The strength of a nation is largely built by its connection to its past. With the way the Filipinos are destroying historic landmarks, there seems to be no care for this

This feature story was originally titled as A Lost Heritage, and was published in the August 2013 issue of Tatler Philippines

The built environment, what is defined as the human ordering of the natural world, is a monument to man’s creativity and artistry. The presence of the past embodied in structures built by our ancestors enriches our lives and enlarges our understanding of history while creating for us a sense of continuity. In a changing world the presence of familiar and beautiful landmarks imparts a sense of security, of timelessness. In the same manner that we cherish childhood toys or old photographs because of the memories they evoke, the preservation of historic structures and landscapes protects the nation’s memories by conserving a part of its past.

When Spain sold the Philippines to the United States in 1898 it left behind the walled city of Intramuros with 11 churches and chapels, numerous stone fortifications scattered throughout the islands, a Pontifical university older than Harvard and a distinct style of architecture native to the country—found nowhere else. While World War II destroyed the centuries-old Intramuros, it missed some buildings and significant structures in Manila and its old suburbs of Binondo, Sta Cruz, Sta Ana, Paco, Malate and Ermita.

Unfortunately, what the war inadvertently preserved, modernity and a dwindling sense of history razed to the ground.

Can any visitor to Binondo these days honestly find evidence that this is a district established towards the end of the 16th century? Here is a historic district that has been converted from a colonial suburb with significant structures—that included the Hotel Oriente where our national hero, Dr Jose Rizal, stayed before leaving for Europe—into an area with a sense of “nowhere.”

The second half of the 20th century saw the demolition of houses where members of the Rizal family lived, the building on Azcarraga (now Recto) where the Katipunan was established, 19th-century industrial structures, retail establishments, tribunals, colonial theatres all humbled into dust. All these are gone much to the impoverishment of our patrimony and consequently the development of our identity as Filipinos. In its place are blocks of ordinary, concrete high-rises totally unrelated to the city’s historic past.

LOST LANDMARKS

The Paco Train Station, circa 1920
The Paco Train Station, circa 1920

We have wiped out the connection of the city and its suburbs to its antecedents. Preservation of these historic structures would have provided us with opportunities to give meaning and colour to the lessons of our history.

Undoubtedly the demands of development and the exigencies of the bottom line have extracted a heavy toll on historic sites in our urbanscape. Bland, generic skyscrapers have replaced masterpieces by pre-eminent Filipino architects. Urban districts and provincial towns have lost that sense of place because there seems to be a meek acceptance that anything new is automatically better than anything old.

Manila was once described as “the Pearl of the Orient” but very little of its old grandeur exists. Even its landmark boulevard will soon be a back street if the city council succeeds in allowing the reclamation of the waters in front of Malate Church.

The past decades have not been very kind to the preservation of Manila’s historic districts whose structures are increasingly standardised. Most of its architecturally important buildings have bit the dust only to be replaced by homogenous skyscrapers totally out of proportion to the size of the property and narrowness of the streets.

Works by famous Filipino architects from Andres Luna San Pedro to Leandro Locsin have fallen victim to the wrecker’s ball with nary a protest from the government or private sector. We have watched the demolition of buildings like the Jai-Alai and the Paco Railway Station, completed in 1915 by William Parsons. The consulting architect to the American colonial government, Parsons also designed the Manila Hotel, Baguio Mansion House, Philippine General Hospital, and the Opera House where the first Philippine Assembly was inaugurated in 1907.

We have seen the disappearance of the Ideal, Avenue, and State theatres designed by prominent architects Juan Nakpil and Pablo Antonio. Countless 19th-century bahay na bato (architectural style native to the Philippines, with main features like a stone ground floor used for storage and a hard-wood second floor for residence built with wrap-around capiz windows to withstand tropical heat and floods) have been torn apart, sold for scrap, and effaced without regard for their historic significance.

Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines, circa 1909
Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines, circa 1909

ERASING HISTORY

Streets in historical districts are endlessly renamed in honour of persons (usually politicians) who had done nothing for the area and whose claim to fame is usually their relation to an incumbent government official or a connection to City Hall.

Changing street names is a favourite pastime of city councils and congressmen. The streets of Malate/Ermita, the first subdivision in the country created by an American called Henry Jones, were named after the states of the Union. There were Georgia, Florida, California, and Arkansas; there were also quaint ones such as Maytubig and Cortada, Plaza Militar and Cuarteles. Today we have a street named after our family doctor among other nonentities.

The fate of Manila, sadly, is being repeated throughout the country. Not only the scent of pines in Baguio is gone but its landscape has been totally altered. Its rolling hills are covered in shanties and the cityscape of simple green and white wooden cottages replaced by humongous structures and Dasmariñas village-style houses in South Drive. At the same time, famous landmarks such as the view of Taal Lake with its deadly little volcano is now obscured by the construction of tall buildings so that the vista no longer belongs to the Filipino public but to a select few.

Even parish priests without architectural backgrounds impose their misguided renovation of centuries-old churches. In Argao, Cebu, one particular priest painted all the centuries-old images on the central altar in gold. When questioned, he defended his actions by claiming no thief would steal them now that they were worthless! Some churches like an Augustinian Recollect church and monastery in Cebu were demolished to make way for a school, the antique contents sold to collectors.

Our old provincial towns were designed according to the Ley de las Indias, or the Law of the Indies, dating back to the reign of Philip II. Filipino towns were easily recognisable with the church as a focal point fronting a plaza where the principalia built their ornate bahay na bato. You could call it the first attempt at city planning, guidelines towards the design and development of communities. This was a tradition dating back 500 years.

When, therefore, local governments decide to convert the plaza into a basketball court as in Bacolor or a market as in Lingayen, tremendous damage is inflicted on the collective memory.

Malate Church in 1905, one of the earliest churches built by the Augustinians in Manila
Malate Church in 1905, one of the earliest churches built by the Augustinians in Manila

PROTECTING THE PAST

Preserving the legacy of the past is now seen by many to be as important as saving the natural environment of forests and rivers; in many countries the built environment is considered a part of the larger environmental movement. Once thought of only in terms of structures, heritage today includes the space around buildings and monuments. If we think about it, no building stands on its own but is related to its surrounding and to other buildings around it. Actually even the route to them should be protected.

Had we preserved our patrimony properly, Filipinos would have absorbed a sense of orientation from their historic and cultural foundations. The preservation of historic structures would have given meaning and colour to the lessons of history and helped us understand significant events in our country’s past.

This did not happen when the Alberto house, the ancestral home of Rizal’s mother Teodora Alonso in Biñan, Laguna, was sold and relocated to Bagac, Bataan. A similar fate befell the Yaptinchay house, also in Biñan.

No one will deny the need for progress in today’s competitive world. But when badly conceived developments disfigure and transform areas beyond recognition, obliterating urban traditions inherited from centuries of history, civic leaders should speak up in defence of patrimony and fight for an inheritance willed from our forefathers.

The destruction of the urban fabric has largely continued in silence. No member of the Senate or Congress spoke up to prevent the demolition of the Jai-Alai, although this building by Weldon Becket was ordered by President Manuel Quezon and its architect chosen personally. The Statues of the Furies by Francesco Monti on the façade of the old Meralco building in San Marcelino are in danger of disappearing when McDonald’s puts up its fast-food eatery with the ubiquitous letter M.

Mehan Gardens in 1914, an open space established by Spanish colonial authorities as a botanical garden
Mehan Gardens in 1914, an open space established by Spanish colonial authorities as a botanical garden

In most countries, including some of our Asian neighbours, it is claimed that these structures inform us of the ideals and aspirations of past generations and the physical environment created to meet their needs. The reason for preserving them, aside from their architectural value, is that they embody our values, our cultural identity and historic continuity. Protecting our patrimony helps remind people of their historical roots and identity and can serve to bind the nation together.

This is not to say that we should convert our urban areas into museums or that every single old building must be preserved. But in many instances, the process of renewal should not have meant the destruction of our built heritage.

How many of us, for example, are aware that the Philippines established the first botanical garden in Asia? Tragically, Mehan Garden has been buried by the steel and cement of a city college whose design has no particular claim to distinction. Ours is a tropical country with tremendous biodiversity. It stands to reason that we should have a botanical garden both for educational purposes and for people just to breathe some clean air.

Symbols and values expressed in the national heritage underlie and give direction to our humanity. In their past, people find strength, richness and durability.

Preservation at its best serves people and appeals to the values of Filipinos of many backgrounds. A sense of time, of place and of continuity is valued by people everywhere. People cherish the craftsmanship, human scale, and excellent design of old buildings and communities as well as the environmental qualities of historic rural areas. They value heritage as a means to understand their identity, and they seek authenticity to gain an honest picture of our diversified past.

If the real meaning of heritage is inheritance—that which past generations have handed down to us as stewards of the country’s collective memory—then like the foolish steward in the Bible parable, we have chosen to flitter it away for 30 silver coins.

  • Photography Filipinas Heritage Library

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