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08:56 PM August 25th, 2011

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By: Ambeth R. Ocampo, August 25th, 2011 08:56 PM

“Sanctuary of the Filipino Soul,” the vision-mission statement of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), was attributed to its founder Imelda Romualdez Marcos. In the past, you would read this text on a wall leading to the escalators when you entered the main lobby and turned left. It disappeared during the Cory Aquino years, and I haven’t noticed if it has since reappeared.

CCP has been in the news recently because of one piece of shock-art by Mideo Cruz (which, critics say, is a pseudonym for “mediocre”) in a group show of artists from the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas to commemorate Jose Rizal’s 150th birthday this year.

While everyone is arguing over art, aesthetics and freedom of expression, I wonder why nobody is asking about the role of media in this controversy. The exhibit had been shown elsewhere and didn’t attract much attention. As a matter of fact, if media had not sensationalized this one work in the group show, the exhibition would have closed as scheduled with no fanfare. While the CCP gallery is indeed a public space maintained by public funds, it is not Luneta or Rizal Park, also public spaces maintained by public funds. When media played up this work by Cruz, wasn’t it meant to shock the narrow-minded and get them to react in a narrow-minded way? Isn’t this yet another example of media generating so much heat, but little or no light?

That said, we can revisit the CCP as a physical space designed by the late National Artist for Architecture Leandro V. Locsin. CCP is an icon, a landmark that should be declared “Important Cultural Property,” at least. It is a building that blends both form and function, it is so important that some kulang-sa-pansin individuals have tried to downplay Locsin’s achievement by insinuating that it was “copied from an American design.” This half-truth is unfair because if Locsin did plagiarize, he copied from himself!

The original design for the CCP was for a Philippine-American Friendship Center that was supposed to be built in Quezon City. But Imelda stepped in and convinced the people involved to relocate it to the newly reclaimed area of Manila Bay. This is the area that we know today as the CCP complex. On the drawing board, both the un-built QC Phil-Am Friendship Center and the CCP are basically the same with the latter being bigger and raised from the ground. Locsin explained in a comment in one of Paulo Alcazaren’s daily Facebook posts showing Philippine architectural landmarks of the last century:

“Notice that the original scheme had the building on the ground level. The eventual relocation to Roxas Boulevard at the CCP and the adaptation to a program for a theater for the performing arts necessitated a redesign—lifting the building up off the ground with a plinth to accommodate a full orchestra pit within the reclamation area. This lifting of the entrance to the piano nobile level and the subsequent ramp were in fact technical responses to having the pit sit above the alarmingly high water level of the reclamation area and not, as some have injected into the equation, a move to symbolize some elitist notion of arts and culture. Together with the wide sheltering cantilever, these were pretty early ‘green’ moves that took stock of the building’s site and climate conditions—quite prescient in view of today’s hot-plate issues of climate change and disaster preparedness. And so the design endures…”

Few “modern” buildings survive the fickle and rapid changes in taste. Many “modern” buildings of the past 50 years are now dated. What was  cutting-edge or trendy before is baduy today, but not the CCP.

The CCP is best seen at night dramatically lighted, with the fountain throwing water upward, to as high as a two-story building, providing an interesting play of light and shadow on the huge floating block of white travertine finish. According to Rodrigo Perez III, this is reminiscent of a traditional Filipino house of light materials on stilts but reborn in reinforced concrete, yet creating and maintaining a “visual lightness” characteristic of Filipino architecture.

Completed in 1969, the CCP was the first building to rise on the reclamation area whose jurisdiction and taxes were contested legally by Manila, Pasay and the CCP. Designed basically as a center for the performing arts, the CCP also houses a library, a museum, art galleries, administrative offices and, at one time, a restaurant called Silangan, from where one could get the best view of the Manila Bay sunset. More than a physical space, the CCP is one of the cultural agencies of the Philippine government. Its mission was re-configured during the Cory Aquino presidency, such that it became more than a venue for performing arts. This explains why its administrators, led by Emily Abrera (chair) and Raul Sunico (president and artistic director) were summoned to the Senate to explain their mandate of providing a space for free expression, even if that happens to be something that some people find disagreeable or—in the case of Mideo Cruz—something that aspires, but fails, to be art.

Next time you visit the CCP, take the time to notice the details, the sculptural elements of the structure ornamented by the best of Philippine art. As an art space, and if the CCP must continue to serve as a sanctuary of art and expression, it should be allowed to fulfill its mandate.

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