Two sides of the heritage coin
Lost in the maelstrom of the P10-billion pork barrel scandal is a name rightly or wrongly associated with heritage preservation in the Philippines. News pundits are probably raring to pin him down because he is the brother-in-law of the “little president.
Rodolfo Lozada Jr. alleged that in 2009 a deal was hatched between Philippine Forest Corp. (which he used to head) and New San Jose Builders Inc. (NSJBI) for the latter to develop 2,000 hectares of land in Busuanga, Palawan. His spin was that undue benefit was given to someone who is related to a Malacañang official. NSJBI is owned by Jose “Jerry” Acuzar, whose wife is the former Theresa Ochoa, sister of President Aquino’s executive secretary, Paquito Ochoa. It turns out that the deal was axed by the Palace in 2011, complete with a notification of contract termination.
Acuzar is actually also known for something else most Filipinos have yet to waken up to. That is, hundreds of our old houses built in the 1800s and early 1900s are being lost to oblivion due to neglect, vandalism, demolition or all of the above.
I myself have not been to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan, and my knowledge of it is nothing but vicarious. An architect who went into the construction business, Acuzar was said to have developed the passion for old houses when he saw how these were being demolished to give way to new buildings. Concerned with what he saw, he opted for dismantling rather than for demolishing them. Then he would transport these to his native Bataan where he built an entire town of old houses complete with cobbled-stone streets.
Among the 40 plus houses in the 400-hectare village are of great historical value. Often cited is the 1867 house of Rafael Enriquez y Villanueva who was art teacher to great notables like Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo, and Carlos “Botong” Francisco. In 1906, his Quiapo house became the first school of fine arts of the University of the Philippines, the Escuela de Bellas Artes. Acuzar said that the house was in a sorry state of decrepitude when he found it. People had forgotten what it once was, its upper floors subdivided into small cells for cramped living apartments that one could no longer make out its once classic interior design. Now it stands proudly inside Acuzar’s Bagac property that in recent years he had opened to the public as a hotel-resort.
Acuzar immediately had his share of brickbats from heritage experts, not the least of which was for his recent offer to acquire the ancestral house of Teodora Alonzo in Biñan, Laguna (but that would be another story). The Philippines has among its people the most educated and articulate heritage experts in the world, some of whom are stalwarts in the International Council on Monuments and Sites that chiefly advises the Unesco on world heritage sites enlistments.
Citing the Burra Charter, the heritage literati recall one of its guiding principles: “The physical location of a place is part of its cultural significance. A building . . . should remain in its historical location. Relocation is generally unacceptable unless this is the sole practical means of ensuring its survival.” Heritage experts aver that one cannot take a historic house away from its physical context. For tied in situ are not just its physical existence but also a whole lifeworld of memories of significant human events it had spawned. Teodora Alonzo in Bagac would be, as you guessed it right, out of place there. Yet it is a gnawing reality that in just a matter of time these houses would be gone forever.
Let’s admit it, we don’t have money for heritage conservation. Besides, such undertaking is just not in our hierarchy of values. We now have a law on cultural heritage, but it will take us some time to develop a value for appreciating built heritage. Where other countries have long instituted prohibitions against alteration of old structures, the Philippines has yet to see the preservation of what is old as something not at cross purposes with development.
The contrasting opinion, less purist they say, is held by those who principally cite the Aswan Dam of Egypt as an example. Beginning 1960, Egypt constructed the Aswan Dam to contain part of the waters of the Nile River for flood and drought protection, agricultural production and electricity generation. About 22 ancient monuments were affected, including the statue of Ramses the Great in the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. In 1967, with the help of Unesco, the Egyptian government relocated these important legacies to mankind. Today, Abu Simbel is preserved on the shores of Lake Nasser. In fact, other monuments were turned over to countries that helped in the preservation—the Debod Temple to Madrid, the Temple of Taffeh to Leiden, and the Temple of Dendur to New York.
Closer to home are similar templates of relocation-preservation. Hong Kong’s historic Murray House was once threatened by its burgeoning high rises. The Hong Kong government relocated it from Admiralty and Blake Pier to the Stanley Waterfront where its historic identity is now preserved. Relocation is not demolition. The two are oceans apart in its long-term effects.
If we had stopped Acuzar from relocating these old houses, would we be seeing them now preserved in all of their original glory?
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