Beautiful Manila in the past tense
“Heritage rape in Manila” was the main story that greeted readers of this paper’s Arts and Books section on the first Monday of the new year.
The report took note of the latest historic building in the capital to fall to the wrecking ball — the American-era Philippines Free Press building at the corner of Avenida Rizal and Soler in Quiapo, Manila, used by the pioneering news weekly from 1922 to 1942 — and another one slated to share the same fate — the Uy Su Bin Building on Rosario Street in Binondo, one of the last art deco buildings in the city that once glittered with a profusion of them before World War II destroyed old Manila forever.
Heritage advocate Ivan Man Dy said the building — most likely built during the Commonwealth period and thus presumed to be an important Cultural Property under Republic Act No. 10066, the National Heritage Act of 2009, quite apart from its being a “superb boutique apartment” — is set to be demolished and replaced with a modern structure, most likely another high-rise.
Of these developments, Isidra Reyes of the Heritage Conservation Society could only sigh in a Facebook post: “It is always an uphill battle trying to save our significant heritage buildings!”
And a battle it is, as Manila has seen loss after loss of whatever had remained of its prewar glory. “By far the most beautiful of all cities in the Orient” was how New York Times reporter Russell Owen described the Philippine capital in 1932.
But that beauty would be irreparably disfigured by the horrific Battle of Manila in 1945 between the Japanese and American forces.
On top of the human casualties (over 100,000 Filipino civilians alone), “the combination of Japanese demolitions and burnings coupled with American artillery” would flatten “613 city blocks, an area containing eleven thousand buildings, ranging from banks and schools to churches and houses,” according to James M. Scott in his recently released book, “Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila.”
Still, from that soul-crushing destruction, vestiges of old Manila had survived — graceful buildings and historic architecture here and there that reminded residents of the spirit and splendor of their vanished city.
A succession of increasingly philistine administrations at Manila City Hall, though, would pay scant heed to the peerless national patrimony of heritage, history and culture in their backyard, and proceed to help hasten Manila’s transformation into just another common city of blunt malls, concrete blocks and sprawling urban blight.
In the most controversial case, in 2000, then Mayor Lito Atienza demolished the landmark Jai-Alai Building, which had survived the Battle of Manila, over the fierce objections of heritage conservationists; the building had become unsound, he said, and on the lot would be built a new Hall of Justice.
Nearly two decades later, the Jai-Alai lot still stands empty; the law’s implementation, meanwhile, appears more patchy than ever.
Since 2013 alone, Manila has seen the following historic buildings reduced to rubble and memory: the old Meralco building, the Admiral Hotel, the old Philippine National Bank building, the Capitol Theater, the Philippine Su Kuang Institute building and the Philbanking building.
In 2012, the Heritage Conservation Society lamented how “prewar landmarks such as the Art Deco Laperal Apartments on C.M. Recto Street and the old Juan Arellano-designed Meralco headquarters in San Marcelino Street were bulldozed early this year.”
Looming threats to other structures and spaces remain. The 83-year-old Rizal Memorial Sports Complex was recently put up for sale by the current mayor Joseph Estrada, though the prized property’s disposal has been halted by court action for now.
Another is the proposed Chinese-funded Binondo-Intramuros Bridge across the Pasig River stretching from Binondo to Plaza Mexico in Intramuros near the Bureau of Immigration building.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has warned that the planned bridge would encroach on the “buffer zone” of the San Agustin Church, a World Heritage Site, and could lead to the church being delisted from the World Heritage List.
“Why is it that when we talk of Manila as a beautiful place, we only do so in the past tense?” asked historian Ambeth Ocampo in his column in this paper last Friday.
It was a rhetorical question. The unremitting defacement and despoliation of Manila makes it tragically, indubitably clear why.