A home looking for a purpose
Yesterday the Senate announced it had approved the design for its new home: pleasant, unthreatening, and bland (resembling the architectural love child of Aura mall had it mated with a white-enamel-painted 1960s clothes hamper). Slated to be built in Taguig and completed by 2021, it is a resounding vote of confidence in itself—and its future—by the Senate. But for an institution that has been, by constitutional design, meant to be the exponent of a national perspective in policy and problem-solving, this latest move reveals how the Senate is not immune to being short-sighted.
To be sure, the Senate has been housed in quarters that were separate from the House of Representatives for much of its history. When it was established in 1916, its first few years (aside from its first session in the Goldenberg Mansion) found it sulking in the spartan corridors of the Intendencia building in Intramuros, while the House, as the older body, held its sessions in the famed Marble Hall of the Ayuntamiento beside the Manila Cathedral. It moved to the Old Legislative Building in 1922, and remained there until it was abolished in 1935, and was slated to return there when it was restored in 1941, but World War II broke out. When the Old Legislative Building was destroyed in 1945, the Senate shared a converted schoolhouse on Lepanto Street with the House (the House met in the morning, the Senate in the afternoon), until it decided to squat in Manila City Hall until the Old Legislative Building was rebuilt and reopened in 1949. Then the Senate was padlocked in January 1973.
Symbolically, in 1987, the Senate returned to its former premises until it was asked to leave to give way to the National Museum, moving in 1998 to the truly awful premises it currently occupies. At the time, it could have, sensibly, moved to the Batasang Pambansa Complex, and restored what has always been meant to be: Both chambers of Congress operating in close proximity to each other, but the usual reasons of economy (and more likely, convenience) were rolled out to justify the Senate being in Pasay. Of course, the Senate could have decided to finally move to the Batasan but perhaps the House, too, is tired of living cheek-by-jowl with the public, and prefers more manicured spaces; so the Senate could give it a reason to move, too.
With the Supreme Court deciding it should stop 70 years of squatting and be close to the big law firms in Taguig by building a new home there, this tells us that the time may be appropriate to stop being temporary and ad hoc about government haunts, and decide, once and for all, where our national capital should be. (The Supreme Court had gained a permanent home in the Ayuntamiento in the late 1930s but it was destroyed in 1945; since then, its homes have been temporary, ranging from what is now known as Mabini Hall in the Malacañang complex to the former main library of the University of the Philippines in Manila.)
Ferdinand Marcos put an end to Quezon City as the national capital in 1976, but oddly enough, seemed unfocused on what he wanted in its stead. In 1978, he established the National Capital Region and built as much in Quezon City as everywhere else. A case can be made, I think, that this revealed the essential capriciousness of the dictatorship, where the assiduous accumulation of power and resources is what mattered, and all outcomes were actually secondary and even accidental on the whole. After Edsa, the tracts of Quezon City were given over to informal settlers, ending their possible use for a national capital planned on a rational basis.
Only President Fidel V. Ramos seemed bothered that the country, after the postwar failures (due to half-heartedness and commercial accommodations) of Quezon City and the shotgun approach to Metro Manila, lacked a cohesive capital, with government still renting many of its buildings and the public unable to conduct its business with the government in one place. The money from the privatization of Fort Bonifacio may have disappeared as far as its allocation for the Armed Forces was concerned, but the development there included zones for government and the diplomatic corps. This capital-by-stealth seems to be proving itself two decades on; it is in these spaces that, slowly, the government seems to be migrating to in Taguig. But there is still a difference between an ad hoc migration, and an actual, deliberate, cohesive, design.
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