The entire Torre de Manila debate pits history against commerce but it could have been averted if the chief protector of the Philippines’ historical heritage had done its job.
The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) paved the way for Torre de Manila builder DM Consunji Inc. by reading its own guidelines so narrowly, setting a very low standard of protection for Philippine heritage, and then concluding that the builder fully satisfied that standard. It was a classic case of hugas kamay—a bureaucratic setup so that it can turn a blind eye to an obvious violation, enabling DMCI to do an end run around the Manila City Council’s finding that the Torre was “a repulsive eyesore, [and was] aesthetically offensive.” The council declared that the DMCI construction was “in gross violation” of zoning regulations, and called for a stop of the construction until an “acceptable design” satisfies NHCP standards.
It was NHCP Chair Ma. Serena Diokno, a University of the Philippines history professor, who effectively gave them a way out. The opposition to DMCI had argued that the Torre will “ruin the background view of the Rizal Shrine.” And what was the NHCP’s response? The Torre “is outside the boundaries of the Rizal Park and well to the rear of the Rizal National Monument, hence it can’t possibly obstruct the front view of the [Rizal monument].”
Wait a minute. That wasn’t what the opposition was complaining about! It said that the Torre “ruins the background,” and the NHCP replied, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t “obstruct the front view.”
Worse, the NHCP’s own “Guidelines on Monuments Honoring National Heroes, Illustrious Filipinos and Other Personages” do not confine the NHCP’s zone of protection so narrowly. Diokno said their mandate is “to preserve the prominence and dominance of monuments.” To do this, their guidelines say that they must keep the “vista points and visual corridors to monuments clear for unobstructed viewing appreciation and photographic opportunities.”
The guidelines further urge the “use [of] strong contrast between the monument and its background [in order to] enhance the monument as a focal point of the site.” The “setting” of the monument “is not only limited to the exact area that is directly occupied by the monument, but it extends to the surrounding areas ….” Finally, it says: “To give prominence to the monument, the immediate areas should be simple and unobstructed.”
By the NHCP’s own standards, it doesn’t matter that the Torre stands outside the boundaries of the Luneta and is in the background, not foreground, of the Rizal statue.
And then Diokno closed by saying that “to prevent a recurrence of a similar dilemma,” the NHCP will recommend new legislation. What more authority does it want? It assumes a mandate to preserve history, and now plays possum.
These are mere guidelines, for sure, but the Manila City Council conditioned the continued construction on “proper compliance with the standards and policy guidelines set by the NHCP.” The NHCP’s enforcement powers are not the issue, just its administrative power to determine whether the Torre meets NHCP standards.
Thus, the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order was a most prudent measure to ensure that the problem does not grow any bigger in the meantime. But the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry criticizes the TRO for causing “harm” because it will make the country “a great investment risk [due to the] instability of the rule of law.”
Suffice it to say that from the outset, the Manila City Council, in calling for the suspension of construction, already warned about the problems of lost investments by the builder and its own condominium buyers if the construction continued. The “instability” lamented by the PCCI must be laid at the foot of the NHCP, which knew about the Manila City Council’s warnings and yet chose to look the other way.
The parsing of language and legalistic hocus pocus are lamentable enough had these come from your usual attorney, but it is certainly unworthy of a historical commission whose past members came from the ranks of Filipino historians like Teodoro Agoncillo, Cesar Ajib Majul and Renato Constantino. Their names today form part of the nation’s struggle to know itself through its past. The Rizal Monument is the quintessential public and historical monument in our country, celebrating the life of, in the words of Leon Ma. Guerrero, the First Filipino. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines should be the first to protect him from what the Inquirer has called the “photobomb[er] at the Rizal monument.”
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