Don’t disregard heritage
The debate between heritage conservation and modern development is raging once more, this time in a heritage zone in Manila where one of the country’s most historical churches has stood since the 1700s.
At the center of the issue is Sta. Ana Church or the Our Lady of the Abandoned Parish, declared a historical building in 1936. The area surrounding the church within a 200-meter radius was declared a heritage zone in 2014 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), which means that under Republic Act No. 10066 or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, the local government needs to ensure that the “Appearance of streets, parks, monuments, buildings, and natural bodies of water, canals, paths, and barangays within [the] locality shall be maintained as close to their appearance at the time the area was of most importance to Philippine history.”
Sta. Ana Church is significant as it was the first settlement to be established outside Intramuros by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1578 with its original structure made of nipa and bamboo. A stone structure was built around 1720 and finished in 1725—where it stands today as the site of two national cultural treasures (NCTs): the Camarin dela Virgen (dressing room of Our Lady of the Abandoned) and the Sta. Ana Site Museum. The church has survived several disasters and World War II, which burned down the rest of Manila.
The latest threat to the church’s existence is the construction of three 36-story condominium buildings 170 meters away, well within the church’s 200 m heritage buffer zone. Sta. Ana’s parish priest, parishioners, and heritage advocates have voiced concerns that the ongoing construction of Suntrust Ascentia, which started in March, will cause irreparable damage to the NCTs due to the heavy pounding and pile driving. The fresco paintings on the ceiling of the camarin depicting scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus have started to chip off, the complainants said, because of the impact of the construction work nearby—a claim that was denied by the developer who said the problem is due to aging and has been there as early as October 2021. There are also allegations that the developer’s permits were not authentic, have expired, or were based on wrong information.
The bigger picture shows how the preservation of heritage structures like the Sta. Ana Church, including implementing laws and allocating budget for preserving them, appears to be a very daunting responsibility for the government. We have seen it in the way many of the country’s historical buildings have fallen in the name of development, among others: Avenue Theater in 2006 to accommodate a parking lot; Capitol Theater in 2017 to give way to a high-rise building; Benguet Center, designed by national artist for architecture Leandro Locsin and inspired by the Banaue rice terraces, transformed into a parking lot in 2011 and where part of The Podium mall now stands. Just last May, the Manila Central Post Office, which has been in a state of neglect and disrepair for years, was ravaged by fire.
There are suggestions to restore and transform the post office building to serve the modern world’s needs while retaining its original facade and foundation. This is a model that is worth pursuing, possibly through public-private partnerships, if we want to protect what remains of our heritage buildings: by converting and reusing them for more relevant purposes. Some of the world’s most unique structures were literally built on the past such as Antwerp’s port authority headquarters that used to be a derelict fire station; Singapore’s Space Asia that was built within and around two former homes; and L’École de Musique et de Théâtre in Louviers, France, that was built over the ruins of a monastery, just to cite a few examples. This has been done locally, too: The Luneta Hotel, built in 1919, was relaunched in 2014; and the Nielson Tower from the 1930s is now the setting of a fine dining restaurant.
Old structures need not be treated as an eyesore or barrier to the Philippines’ pursuit to become a developed country. While there is no stopping modern technology and industrialization, the demands of a growing population, and the need to keep up with the rest of the world, there should also be merit in preserving our culture through heritage buildings. It certainly is not a cheap undertaking—the repair and maintenance of archaic structures are certainly costly. But the government can start by giving the NHCP more budget: the commission asked for P134 million for its historical asset preservation and management program next year, but it was cut to P127 million.
If the government could funnel funds for the overseas travel of our public officials to promote our country and attract investors, it certainly can channel more budget to the protection of our heritage structures that give our cities and communities their unique identity. If we lose such important parts of our history, through lack of care and disregard for them, we also stand to lose our national identity.