Getting Our Heritage To Survive The Ages

(By: Augusto F. Villalon)

The year 2001 was when heritage conservationists flexed their muscles, forged partnerships with environmentalists to protect heritage, and tested the effectiveness of Philippine law in preserving the nation's cultural heritage. It was a positive year for heritage. The National Museum declared 26 churches as National Treasures, starting a major restoration program by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Nielson Tower in Makati received an honorable mention in the prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards. The UNESCO-Arirang Prize donated by the Republic of Korea was bestowed on the Hudhud, the traditional Ifugao harvest chant, as one of 10 examples of "Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” The year ended with the inscription of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras on the World Heritage in Danger List by UNESCO. It was also the year when the Ramon Magsaysay Award was given for the first time in recognition of cultural heritage: for lifelong efforts of Ikuo Hirayama who traveled from Japan along the Silk Road to preserve its treasures.

The useless demolition of Manila's Jai Alai building in June 2000 was the catalyst that opened Filipino eyes to the fragility of the remaining symbols from our past. The intense protest to save the Jai Alai ended in a negotiation process between conservationists and city officials. However, before the process with Manila Mayor Lito Atienza could come to conclusion, he issued the order to demolish the Art Deco Manila landmark designed by the internationally renowned Los Angeles architect Welton Beckett in 1939. It felt like a helpless situation. With the Jai Alai building gone, the threat to national heritage became clear to a greater number of Filipinos and getting it to survive the ages required increased effort.

Why survive? Getting our heritage to survive the ages keeps alive the collection of cultural markers that set Filipinos apart as a unique people. They show our future generations what our shared Filipino identity is, establishing a sense of national pride so necessary to keep us centered during the current globalization process. Therefore, it is essential to keep the total heritage picture alive, an entire range of cultural markers produced by Filipino culture over the ages in the literature, music, painting, sculpture, and decorative arts, running the extent of life expressions including the cuisine that is uniquely ours.

Architecture is part of the heritage picture. Its scope spans the clusters of bahay kubo villages through the bahay na bato in Spanish colonial towns, to the American period Beaux-Arts urban planning of Manila and Baguio that became the model replicated in many Philippine cities, including present architecture which is the heritage we are leaving our future generations.

Although the awareness for heritage preservation has been increasing in the past decade, cultural heritage is still mostly unappreciated by a nation whose narrow view focuses on the present. Little realization exists that looking to the past to understand, to remember, and to preserve heritage is the groundwork for planning for the future of the country. The paradigm exists that a country still in the development struggle has no place or budget to preserve the old, the traditional, and the historic.

Progress is achieved at the expense of removing everything old to give way to the new and modern, a theory presented in 1942 by the German economist Joseph Schumpeter in his book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy . The 1942 mindset is still the rationale for many of the setbacks that plague heritage conservation in the Philippines. It provides the convenient rationalization that scarce national resources should be allocated to meet the needs of the here and now rather than being wasted on elitist efforts to preserve the old. Events in the past year brought out the need to resolve the clash between "creative destruction" and the more current view that conserving heritage is the basis for sustainable urban development and for establishing a sense of nationalism.

The conservation issue of 2001 was the announcement by Manila Mayor Atienza of his plans to construct the Park and Ride, a three-story bus terminal and parking building on the north end of the Mehan Garden. The second part of the plan was the proposal to transfer the City College of Manila from its present location in the former Philippine National Bank building on the Escolta to the south end of the garden. The mayor and his City Council's response to the protests was that the protesters stood in the way of progress.

To save Mehan Garden, the conservation circle expanded to include various artists" and environmental non-government organizations, signaling that heritage conservation is a multisectoral concern. They launched a joint protest with a "Picnic in the Park" on World Environment Day, June 5, 2001. For the picnic, the Winner Foundation opened the gates of its Arroceros Forest Park, a thriving Central Manila mini-forest in the improbable location at the foot of Quezon Bridge between the Pasig River and Arroceros Street.

The morning picnic under the leafy shade was proof of how green spaces renew the quality of polluted city air and provide the rare inner-city open spaces that Manila lacks. In a serenade to Mehan Garden, three tenors sang "I Never Thought I'd See a Poem as Lovely as a Tree," the Bayanihan danced, and Alejandro Roces, former secretary of education and current head of the MRTCB, reminisced about the Mehan Garden of his youth.

Subsequently, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) responded and revoked the Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) for the Park and Ride. The DENR further issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the grounds that necessary permits were not previously obtained from the National Historical Institute and the National Museum. Because of its declaration as a National Historical Site, Presidential Decree 260 states that the NHI must approve any changes to Mehan Garden. By virtue of the National Museum designation of the area as an archeological site, clearance from the museum must precede any construction. City Hall admitted ignorance to the NHI and National Museum laws. City authorities ignored both the TRO and the P50,000 a day fine imposed by the DENR, continuing construction until the illegal structure was completed in December 2001.

The construction of the City College of Manila was delayed, pending the identification of suitable alternate locations by a search committee which identified the Avanceña High School in Quiapo, the Veterans Bank Building on Arroceros, and the site of the former Ateneo de Municipal in Intramuros. The Intramuros site was chosen as the best of the alternatives. Negotiations with the Department of Tourism, the owner of the Intramuros site, began and remained unresolved at year's end.

With Mehan Garden setting the precedent, similar cases where the NHI and National Museum laws were ignored in favor of development projects were reported to the Heritage Conservation Society: Fuerte Concepcion Inmaculada del Triunfo in Ozamis City, Huluga Caves in Misamis Oriental, Fort San Pedro in Cebu City, Balayan Church in Batangas. DENR intensified its cooperation with the heritage sector by requiring clearances from the NHI and National Museum before issuing ECCs.

The existing laws for the protection of heritage were tested in the courts. The Heritage Conservation Society pursued its case against Intramuros Administrator Dominador Ferrer Jr. for the illegality of the contract with Overseas Construction and Development Corporation that allowed leasing portions of the Intramuros walls for development.

It was a year that saw many conservation conferences. Far Eastern University organized an international conference on urban planning and heritage conservation. The Instituto Cervantes lecture series included lectures on heritage by Javier Galvan, architect and director of the Instituto Cervantes who spoke on the endangered Spanish colonial architecture, Fr. Guillermo Tejon, OP, on "Padre Valverde, Urban Planner and Road Builder,"Dr. Jaime Laya on homes of the Spanish period.

The Cultural Heritage Program of the Ateneo de Manila and the Heritage Conservation Society conducted "Manila's Heritage from Past to Future in Quiapo" that recognized "a clear appraisal to our right to culture and our right to protect evidence of such a culture."

The National Museum declared 26 Spanish colonial churches as National Treasures: Bacong (Negros Oriental), Balayan (Batangas), Betis (Pampanga), Boljo-on (Cebu), Calasiao (Pangasinan), Dupax (Nueva Vizcaya), Guiuan (Samar), Jasaan (Misamis Oriental), Jimenez (Misamis Occidental), Lazi (Siquijor), Loboc (Bohol), Luna (La Union), Mahatao (Batanes), Magsingal (Ilocos Sur), Majayjay (Laguna), Maragondon (Cavite), Masinloc (Zambales), Pan-ay (Capiz), Romblon (Romblon), Rizal (Cagayan), San Joaquin (Iloilo), Tabaco (Albay), Tanay (Rizal), Tayabas (Quezon), Tayum (Abra), and Tumauini (Isabela). The NCCA responded to the declaration by initiating a project that provides technical assistance by qualified conservation practitioners for the churches.

There were more opportunities to experience heritage in 2001 than in previous years. The monthly Heritage Walking Tours series sponsored by the Heritage Conservation Society offered members and guests visits guided by respected historians and architects to places normally restricted to the public: San Beda Chapel, Far Eastern University campus, and the University of Santo Tomas campus. Private homes in Taal (Batangas), Malolos, Malabon, and San Miguel (Bulacan) were opened for visits. Of special interest was the tour of four turn-of-the-20th-century fire stations in Manila in Tanduay, San Nicolas, Paco, and Intramuros. Walks around the Luneta, the Escolta, and the Intramuros walls were so well-attended that they are now given regularly.

The irony of it all is that despite local apathy towards conservation, Philippine efforts in heritage conservation received international notice in 2001. After receiving the NCCA Alab ng Haraya award for heritage conservation, UNESCO awarded an honorable mention to the former Nielson Tower, now the Filipinas Heritage Library. Built in 1937, the Art Deco structure was one of the earliest airports in Asia. It ceased functioning as an airport in 1948. Its two runways became the anchors for the present-day Makati Business District, Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas. In 1949, it housed the offices of the Integrated Property Development Corp and the Ayala police detachment. From the late 1970s to 1994, it was as a fine dining restaurant aptly called Nielson Tower. Its present makeover was in 1994 when Architects International and Leandro V. Locsin and Partners reworked the heritage structure into the Filipinas Heritage Library.

The NCCA cited the Nielson Tower for "being a remarkable illustration of cultural conservation through adaptive reuse manifested in the architecture of the library" and for "elevating people's understanding of the need to preserve and study the nation's heritage and has stood as clear proof of the power of foresight."

The UNESCO citation read: "The impressive conversion of one of Asia's earliest airports into a heritage library represents a major achievement in preserving an important era of Manila's history. Historical events and architecture are exemplified in the legacy of the structure and in the excellent choice to continue its livelihood as an educational facility. In a time of rapid urban development and expansion, the Nielson Tower is an excellent model for others to follow on how to appropriately re-adapt historic structures in the community."

The other entries for the UNESCO award in 2001 manifest the high quality of preservation or adaptive re-use in the Philippines: the Balay Negrense in Silay, the Fule-Malvar Mansion in San Pablo City, the Orchid Garden Suites in Manila, and the Zaragoza Residence in Vigan.

The last heritage milestone of 2001 was the inscription of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the first "continuing cultural landscape" inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in the "World Heritage in Danger" list. It signaled that the international community supports the Philippine government in increasing conservation efforts for the threatened site.

2001 was a year of setting precedents. It established that the concern for our heritage is multisectoral. Nielson Tower proved the viability of adaptive re-use within the context of valuable Makati real estate, an example that the new need not be at the expense of building over the old.

Hopefully, the heritage events of 2001 will crystallize the Filipino's vision of himself, of the importance that his culture survive the ages to form the basis of national identity and national development. The trashing of Philippine cities exemplifies the national neglect of our heritage and the cavalier disregard of authorities for existing preservation legislation. People cannot be expected to take care of their surroundings if they have no understanding and love for them, without having any knowledge of their value and meaning. The battle for heritage to survive the ages gained much ground in the past year.

*From Sanghaya 2002, a yearbook on Philippine arts and culture, a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.


**AUGUSTO F. VILLALON is one of the country's leading experts on heritage conservation. Aside from being the principal architect of A. Villalon Associates, he has served as technical advisor for UNESCO and UNIDO. He is a member of the Committee on Monuments and Sites of the NCCA and the Philippine World Heritage Committee secretariat. He is also a columnist for Philippine Daily Inquirer.