Doing a Pilate on Rizal
President Benigno Aquino III was photographed early this week in front of Jose Rizal’s monument—an iconic moment framed by bright blue skies. Ironically, the picture was taken, not in front of the real thing at Rizal Park, but in front of a replica in Spain, at the Las Islas Filipinas stop of the Madrid metro. Had it been taken at Rizal Park, careful angling would have been needed to produce a clear shot without a condominium construction blocking the view.
Yet DMCI Project Developers, the builder of Torre de Manila, tells us that it holds all the necessary government permits for the project. And indeed the record bears it out.
The debate thus far does not bode well for other historical sites that are similarly endangered, because it shows that those tasked to protect our cultural patrimony are inclined to wash their hands of the responsibility. It appears that when it comes to protecting our built heritage, no one is minding the store.
The City of Manila’s chief building official has said he has no ground to suspend the permit. Even after the Manila City Council asked him to stop the construction pending its investigation, he refused to do so: “I can only enforce the National Building Code, nothing more, nothing less.” (The building code is concerned with more mundane matters, like safety from fire, earthquake and faulty construction.) Yet if all he wanted was a technical ground to disallow the Torre de Manila, subsequent findings show that its design exceeded the allowable “floor area ratio” and deviated from the original height limit of what is now proposed as a 49-floor structure.
Moreover, no less than the chair of the National Historical Commission, the gatekeeper for the protection of our historical patrimony, has written DMCI: “Your project site is outside the boundaries of Rizal Park, and well to the rear of the national monument. Hence it can’t possibly obstruct the front view of the monument.” She noted that the structure is 450 meters away from Rizal Park.
The NHC seems to have a very narrow sense of its duty to the history it is entrusted to preserve. Contrast its stance with the broader remit of the Manila City Council’s concern to ensure that the “vista points and visual corridors of the monuments must be clear for unobstructed viewing appreciation and photographic opportunities,” or with cultural activist Carlos Celdran’s lament about the “desecration of the city’s sightline” of the Rizal monument.
In other words, our government regulators are acting more like bureaucratic lawyers than custodians of the public faith. Worse, in protecting our patrimony, it fell upon the NHC to alert us to possible ways in which a builder may impair or degrade our monuments. It so confined its duties to clear the way for DMCI to proceed with the project. Many years ago, the NHC was silent when the Manila Hotel was sold to a Malaysian company, the winning bidder for the controlling shares over the hotel. It was left to the Supreme Court to nullify the award after the fact, when the bids had already been opened. The Court made an amateurish determination of why the Manila Hotel belonged to our historical patrimony, and awarded it to the Filipino bidder without safeguards to preserve its design and historical authenticity.
Other heritage sites are similarly in danger.
Gemma Cruz-Araneta, former tourism secretary and current chair of the Heritage Conservation Society, has warned about threats to the Manila Post Office, the
Manila Metropolitan Theater, and old Binondo structures like El Hogar Filipino and the house of Gen. Antonio Luna. More recent are reports on the gutting of the Army-Navy Club facing the Luneta Grandstand.
Apparently, the builder of Torre de Manila has reached a modus vivendi with the Manila city government that would accommodate its demands: redesign of the building facade “to complement the Rizal shrine,” planting of trees in the monument’s backdrop, construction of a waste disposal system, and employment of Manila residents when the building becomes operational. Other opposing parties have filed suit in the courts.
The courts can still order that the Torre de Manila be torn down or that entire floors be chopped off. The lesson is that neat and friendly arrangements with government regulators are no match for public outrage. (The uncertainty alone is already costing DMCI plenty.) Looking the other way when our historical heritage is diminished is unworthy of government agencies that should know better.
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