A heritage of dust
For most ordinary folk, the fate of old buildings is of little concern. Why fret over crumbly structures gathering rodents and illegal settlers when they can be torn down to make way for, say, a new mall, a parking lot, a wider road? Which might explain why the Department of Public Works and Highways thought nothing of tearing down 33 old houses, some a century old, to give way to a road-widening project in Palo, Leyte.
The houses and the municipal library—also earmarked for demolition—have historical significance, the owners of the threatened houses said in their appeal to the DPWH. Thankfully, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has intervened, issuing a letter to the DPWH that cited the library’s importance as a cultural property. But while the library has been spared, the houses would have to be torn down for encroaching on the right of way of the road-widening project, according to the DPWH.
What would it take for the DPWH to appreciate the significance of heritage houses and sites to a country’s identity? Why the haste to obliterate the past, as if it must be scrubbed out before we can move forward?
It does not help that groups tasked to conserve our cultural heritage don’t even agree on the very definition of historical and cultural significance. Take the Admiral Hotel on Roxas Boulevard, now reduced to ruins because the NHCP had not researched its response thoroughly when asked about the building’s significance. In its letter-response last January, the NCHP said the building had no historical significance but suggested that it be developed for adaptive reuse. Another letter and, later, a cease-and-desist order came in late September from the NHCP, acknowledging “the Old World charm of the building that might be found worthy of conservation or protection.” But by then, the Admiral Hotel had already been gouged on orders of the Manila City Hall. Dismaying was the finger-pointing that ensued among the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the NHCP, and the National Museum on the question of what is the head agency responsible for heritage sites and buildings.
Under such ambiguous terms of accountability have centuries-old structures, Art Deco buildings and other heritage sites been reduced to dust, when it is precisely culture and character that stoke community pride and, not incidentally, bring in the tourists. (New Orleans’ French Quarter, Kyoto’s preserved wooden shop houses, and Vigan’s cobblestone streets easily come to mind as immediately evoking another, more genteel, time.) We rant and rally whenever a building rife with history comes face to face with the wrecking ball, with the government coming in too late to confront private interests touting progress and development.
This was how the Jai Alai building, one of Asia’s finest Art Deco buildings, came to grief on orders of then Mayor Lito Atienza, who had promised a Hall of Justice in its place. (Nothing came of that promise.) The Mehan Garden, parts of the Arroceros Forest Park, the movie houses on Escolta have also kissed the dust.
But whoever said that heritage and progress are irreconcilable? One need only look at Vigan to see how adaptive reuse has turned its Antillean houses into charming shops that bring in the tourists and extra income to the town. As well, Intramuros’ Walled City provides a historic setting to new buildings in the area that, according to a local ordinance, must be designed to conform to the architecture of the era.
And why leave the initiatives to the private sector? Government agencies, especially those tasked with overseeing cultural properties, also have a leadership role to play. Start with defining each agency’s turf to prevent overlapping of responsibilities and the subsequent blame game when things go wrong. Give them enough funds and resources to visit threatened heritage sites and assess their cultural values before developers cast a moist eye on them. Revisit the National Cultural Heritage Act, and check if the agencies enforcing it have enough teeth to go after big developers and other public officials who may have sanctioned demolition jobs. Educate the public on how heritage and history bring a distinct character to a community and a certain charm that could, in turn, revitalize the local economy.
Pride of place and having visual reminders of previous glory also stitch a community together. A tour of old buildings and an overview of their significance can be a good way to jump-start cultural and national pride among young students, instead of those now-usual field trips to malls. On a pragmatic and ecological level, preserving old structures means saving on construction cost and trimming down our carbon footprint. Why cut down more trees for lumber when you can repaint or spruce up standing structures?