Torre de Manila: Flap repeats itself
“What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
The controversy around Torre de Manila and how it would affect the sight line and integrity of the Rizal Monument in Luneta is not new. More than half a century before anyone dreamed of this 49-story condominium, a similar storm of public opinion swirled around plans to have the monument updated by Juan F. Nakpil (1899-1986), first national artist for architecture.
Fresh from the success of his reconstruction of the Rizal house in Calamba, Laguna province, which was inaugurated in 1950, Nakpil was asked to design a National Theater on a site 286 meters behind the Rizal Monument to become its dramatic background. The plan for a National Cultural Center, or the Rizal Cultural and Educational Center, included a building to the right of the theater to become the National Library, and another to the left, to become the National Museum. The project was to be implemented by the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission (JRNCC) created by President Ramon Magsaysay in 1954, to plan and oversee the nationwide celebration of Rizal’s 100th birthday in 1961.
But the plan never materialized due to the lack of funds. Instead, a proposal from the Knights of Rizal to establish a National Cultural Center in Manila was seriously considered, with Wallace Field, then a vacant lot behind the Rizal monument, chosen as the project site.
Donate a day’s pay
After an appeal to government employees and the general public to donate a day’s pay for the construction of the Cultural Center in Luneta, President Carlos P. Garcia on July 4, 1958, laid the cornerstones for the National Theater, to be designed by Juan Nakpil & Sons; the National Library by Francisco Fajardo and Associates; and the National Museum by Felipe Mendoza and Associates. Later, the library and museum commissions were awarded to a collaborative group called Hexagon Associated Architects, represented by Jose Ma. Zaragosa (posthumously named National Artist for Architecture in 2014).
Then as now, opposition to the proposed Cultural Center was raised on the premise that “construction of the project would desecrate the ground where 158 martyrs, including Jose Rizal, were executed.” Lawyers even argued that while the JRNCC was given administration of Wallace Field, this did not include authority to build on the site. Several solutions were floated, among them converting the agriculture and finance buildings, farther to the back of the Rizal Monument by Taft Avenue, into the National Museum and National Library, with the Metropolitan Theater to become the National Theater.
Studying the master plan, Nakpil noted that while Rizal Monument was the focal point of the proposed Cultural Center, it became an anachronism in a modern setting. The monument would also be dwarfed by the Cultural Center. Nakpil decided to revisit the concrete pylon in the Art Deco style he had used for the Nakpil family plot in the Cementerio del Norte, and planned a modern stainless steel and aluminum pylon to be built above the Rizal monument to raise its height from 12.7 m to 30.5 m.
The gleaming steel would update the bare granite obelisk of the existing monument and make it conform to the scale of the Cultural Center that framed it in, he thought.
Richard Kissling gave the title “Motto Stella” (Guiding Star) to the Rizal Monument he had designed, so Nakpil took this literally and envisioned a light atop the pylon that would guide incoming ships at Manila Bay and direct people within the city to Kilometer Zero, the geographic navel of the nation.
But violent public reaction greeted the completion of the modernized Rizal monument in 1961. The steel pylon installed on the granite obelisk of the monument drew attention to itself rather than the bronze figure of Rizal, people said, describing the updated monument as a rocket ship about to be launched. The pylon was criticized as an eyesore that elicited such colorful adjectives that included “carnivalistic,” “monstrous,” “nightmarish” and “hideous.”
Future National Artist Napoleon V. Abueva defended Nakpil, saying that the monument needed improvement in proportion by raising its vertical height. He suggested as well that the public suspend judgement and allow the pylon to remain for 10 years to let time age the shaft. He was, however, mistaken in this assumption, as the pylon was made of stainless steel. Howled one artist: “Don’t wait 10 years. [It’s] too long to inflict such a monstrosity on the sensitive soul of the nation.”
In 1962, Education Secretary Alejandro Roces and National Library Director Carlos Quirino, (another future national artist), had the pylon removed, acting during Holy Week to avoid a temporary restraining order from a court that shared Nakpil’s aesthetic sense. Roces proposed that the Kissling monument be moved to Calamba and a new monument in consonance with the spirit of the 1960’s and the setting of the National Cultural Center be erected on the exact site of Rizal’s execution.
Battle is about us
The pylon cost the government P145,000 and was recycled into a welcome sign on Roxas Boulevard, marking the physical boundary between Manila and Pasay City. It was dismantled again in the 1990s and its whereabouts unknown. Only the National Library on T. M. Kalaw, inaugurated on June 19, 1961, was built from the stillborn Rizal Cultural Center. The JRNCC was dissolved, its property and functions later turned over to the National Historical Commission.
Then and now, the battle for the Rizal monument, its physical integrity and its setting, has nothing to do with Rizal who did not want a monument at all. The battle is all about us and how we want to project our memory and respect for the heroes martyred at Bagumbayan. Nakpil in 1961 and the Torre de Manila in 2015 are points where we judge between old and new, between clinging to a nostalgia for the stillborn Burnham Plan in the early 20th century, and the changing times and needs of the early 21st century.
Both sides have valid points, and a compromise between them defines not just what the US colonial administration wanted Filipinos to be in the early 20th century, but how Filipinos want to be in the 21st century and beyond.
(Editor’s Note: The columnist is the former chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, then called National Historical Institute.)