Deco Hero

Heritage advocate and passionate Art Deco champion Ivan Man Dy on the roots of his obsession and the opportunities the style offers in reconnecting Filipinos with the past

Patrick Kasingsing
Ivan Man Dy and Estan Cabigas

Hello Ivan, hope you’re doing well! Which art deco landmark do you miss visiting the most now that we are in MECQ?

I don’t miss a specific landmark in particular but I do miss traveling to visit Art Deco sites in cities around the world! 

For our readers, can you recount to us how you fell head over heels with the Art Deco style (as seen in architecture and furniture)? Care to share that defining moment or scenario where you finally decided that this was the style whose cause you will champion?

I grew up in Manila so Art Deco was always around me; it’s just that I never noticed it when I was younger. In grade school, I remember passing by Rizal Coliseum in Malate and finding myself smitten with her streamlined curves. It helps that I’ve been championing heritage conservation since I was in university; I was there picketing with like-minded folks when the iconic Jai Alai Building along Taft Avenue was being torn down back in 1999.

My interest in Art Deco waxed and waned until I got the opportunity to present at the 2015 World Art Deco Congress in Shanghai. It was there when it dawned on me that there was sizeable interest in this design language around the world. 

I noticed a general lack of appreciation of the style locally leading to its under-representation and felt compelled to do something about it. That’s when I decided to pursue this topic vigorously, setting up an online presence through Art Deco Philippines, sharing and spreading the word about Pinoy Art Deco to the international Art Deco community, while also doing intensive research and documentation on the subject. My efforts yielded a book on Art Deco in the Philippines, done in collaboration with architecture scholar Gerard Lico and released last 2020.

Would you say that our strain of Art Deco in the Philippines is unique? What characteristics of Art Deco’s local iteration are special to the Philippines?

There are differences and similarities; as some people would say, same-same yet different. The characteristic design elements are there (zigzags, speed lines, stylized reliefs, ziggurats, etc) but the interpretation is perhaps less flamboyant as compared to the high Art Deco buildings of New York and Chicago. 

There’s also the availability of materials to consider: limestone, terracotta, and polychrome glazed finishes, which I’ve seen in New York Art Deco buildings, find no equivalent in Manila. On the other hand, in the Philippines, I’ve documented tropically responsive, all-wood Art Deco buildings which would probably be rare in the West. 

The scale of buildings here is also nowhere near those in Western countries; ours are often smaller and boutique-sized. For design motifs, our flavor of Art Deco borrows generously from local culture (mangos and capiz shells anyone?) which sets it apart from examples seen in our Asian neighbors and the West.

In terms of sensibilities, scale and form, I observed that Philippine Art Deco relates more with examples I’ve seen in China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. 

The process of discovering the variance in flavors of a single style is what gets Art Deco junkies like me excited!

Ivan’s Art Deco Tour posters through the years

You’ve done a lot of highly successful Art Deco-themed tours; where would you say are the Art Deco architecture hotspots in the Metro? In the Philippines?

The city of Manila is definitely a major AD (Art Deco) hotspot as it has the county’s major and most iconic examples. That said, AD, like other architecture styles, also found its way to various points of the archipelago which will necessitate a bit more effort to visit. Malolos City in Bulacan province is a good day trip and has worthy examples—including what I think is the most stunning AD home in the country, the Don Luis Santos House. A bit further is the town of Sariaya in Quezon province which is home to some interesting specimens. Bacolod and Iloilo are worthy trips given the whole history of the sugar trade and its effect on the cities’ fortunes in the 20th century. I’ve created bespoke tours focusing on this particular aspect of history and its Art Deco legacy.  

Doing bespoke Art Deco tours is a good way to get people to appreciate the finer points of the style and learn about real, local history, the stuff you don’t see and hear about in typical bus tours.  I’ve attended such tours in Xiamen and Shanghai before and it’s lots of fun. I have organized Deco-themed tours in Manila, Malolos, Bacolod, and Iloilo, where I tried to inject the same level of fun and immersion into local history with its participants. 

You’ve also done frequent trips to the Manila Chinese Cemetery. When did you start going there and what did you discover that has made you make frequent return visits? You’ve also done a couple of tours there with locals and foreign guests; what did they make of their visits?

I’ve been visiting the Manila Chinese Cemetery (established in 1879) since I was a little boy as my ancestors are buried there. It only dawned on me how rich the history of the place was when I got into my heritage conservation advocacy. I found the eclecticism of its funerary architecture fascinating. When I ‘unearthed’ examples of Art Deco ‘buried’ there, I was blown away by the variety. It came in a plethora of sizes, from miniature tombs to grand mausoleums. It is the same with nearby Manila North and La Loma Cemeteries, though the really jaw-dropping mausoleums are at the Chinese Cemetery. It appears that in life and death, the Art Deco style was truly embraced in Manila then. 

In fact, there was such a good collection of AD heritage at the Chinese Cemetery that we were able to craft a tour for the Manila Art Deco Weekend event in 2019. Serious Art Deco aficionados were blown away with the tour as Art Deco architecture is something that you usually associate with commercial and industrial buildings, not so much with funerary architecture. It was a revelation for them!

What observations have you made with regards to the local expression of the art deco style in architecture and design and how it relates to the social and cultural climate of the Philippines then?

Art Deco was about expressing modernity in the 1920s and ’30s which of course is contextual to a place’s historical evolution. For example, the Metropolitan Theater in Manila was all about showcasing public modernity but at the same time expressing nationalist sentiments under the American colonial milieu—hence, Filipino cultural elements were included by its architect, Juan Arellano. In Negros Occidental, the Art Deco legacy is tied to the sugar industry where Negrense hacienderos were legacies from the boom (and extravagance) of the era. These historical currents influenced the application and expression of Art Deco in their localities. It is these stories and architectural influences derived from local traditions which also give these structures their fascinating Filipino flavor. 

Mere awareness is never enough to save our built heritage; In your opinion, what makes it difficult for the public to take that leap from being an observer to a believer in heritage preservation?

Because heritage conservation is not ingrained in our psyche as a people. It doesn’t help that local governments always give in to forces of development and are not at the forefront of protecting built heritage. 

The field of heritage preservation in the Philippines has always been fraught; there is a general fear of the past, with heritage buildings often suffering from the lack of integration and attention. As a result, examples of our built heritage are quickly demolished for new condominiums and other developments. You have been heavily involved in organizations and efforts to turn the tide in favor of preserving built heritage; what more do you think the government, private sector, and the community can do to ensure the survival of important built structures?

For the local governments, sana they can show more earnest resolve in the protection of heritage properties. And this is not just about putting cosmetic fancy lights on a street, Its about knowing the value and significance of what they have and taking legal steps to protect important structures from untoward development. In case they have their hands full (as is most of the time), LGUs can work with non-profit organizations such as the Heritage Conservation Society or ICOMOS Philippines who can guide them through the process with alternative, creative and most of all, historically-sensitive solutions. There’s no lack of creative and workable ideas that can trigger regeneration of and help conserve historic properties/districts; what is lacking is general empathy and political will to work on the issue. 

You have your tours, talks, and engagements with various heritage-centric organizations; how do you find the time to do all these things and manage to keep true to your north?

My work as a private tourism practitioner has always been anchored on the advocacy of heritage conservation. Our tour outfit ( was born because we wanted to provide bespoke tour services at the same time be a medium of heritage education on places where we have always felt very strongly about: Manila’s historic neighborhoods. 

It’s both personal (since I’m a true-blue batang Maynila) and professional (since I operate in the city). For example, when the Rizal Sports complex was threatened with redevelopment by Erap’s government, I was with the Heritage Conservation Society who was at the forefront of the issue. To get more people to understand what we were fighting for, we went out to give tours of the complex because, for many, it was hard to understand the issues as they’ve never been inside the actual space. 

Ivan Man Dy’s collaborative research effort with noted architecture scholar Gerard Lico yielded Deco Filipino, published by ArtPost Asia

Here’s a slam book question: can you reveal to us your favorite art deco structure? What makes it special and memorable to you?

In no particular order: The Cincinnati Union Railway Station in Ohio, USA. Truly jaw-dropping in scale and ambition; Tiong Bahru Public Housing Estate in Singapore, for its streamlined simplicity and how it continues to be a relevant (but expensive) residential community in the 21st century; Cathay (today Peace Hotel) at the Bund in Shanghai. All the romance, history, and glamor of Shanghai’s Art Deco era in one glittering hotel. I actually attended a 1930’s themed ball there!; The old  Longtang houses in the old Chinese section of Shanghai. A wonderful expression of vernacular Art Deco: traditional Shanghainese courtyard homes but with Art Deco detailing; Miami Art Deco District in Florida, USA, a place that has conserved and truly milked their Art Deco heritage for the city; There’s the entire city of Havana, Cuba, where there’s Art Deco everywhere, like every corner!

For local examples, there are simply too many to mention but some must-visits include the Metropolitan Theater, of course, the supreme example for Art Deco translated into the Philippine context; Also the Quezon Institute for its streamlined aesthetic and the fact that there is no other specimen of Art Deco in that particular typology in the country; there’s the Neilson Tower in Makati, and of course the magnificent mausoleums of the Manila Chinese Cemetery (they are to ‘die’ for!). For the house typology, two particular favorites are the Santos House in Malolos, Bulacan, a High Art Deco home in tropical hardwood with all the accouterments of a traditional bahay na bato; And finally, the Villanueva House in Bacolod, for its scale, vision, and history.

Adaptive reuse is one way to revive built heritage; any good local examples that you admire and why do you think this is a good example for other heritage building owners to replicate?

Adaptive reuse is a good response to preserving built heritage as it hits many birds with one stone: it conserves a structure and is good for the environment, while also preserving the social fabric of a place and imbuing the structure with a new vitality. The Henry Hotel in Pasay City is a nice example of this, as well as the Neilson Tower in Makati City. I think it has the title of the most recycled structure in the city having had so many reincarnations since it was built back in 1937.   

What is one thing about Art Deco that a lot of people get wrong?

That Art Deco only equals The Great Gatsby. It’s both right and wrong since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a book (and movie) that was indeed set in 1920’s America, with all the usual Art Deco trappings (flapper girl, jazz, and extravagance). The fact is, the Art Deco era lifestyle took on different expressions as it became internationalized; there was no flapper girl culture in Manila, for example. When you talk about fashion, the streamlined 1930’s baro’t saya was the iconic Deco-Era woman’s wear among Filipinas as was the sexy cheongsam (qipao) for the women in Shanghai. There are many different expressions of Deco-era modernity and it would be inaccurate and quite a shame to disregard these various flavors for the version Hollywood has chosen to portray.

If there was one art deco structure from the past you’d like to bring back, which would it be?

There has been an incalculable loss of Art Deco buildings in Manila in the last 75 years. If I could have one structure back, it would be the Crystal Arcade Shopping Center (1932) by Andres Luna de San Pedro. This Art Deco masterpiece was bombed in 1945 and ultimately torn down in the 1960’s. 

Would you say that there is enough of a market or following to promote a city like Manila as an Art Deco hostpot, supported by dedicated Art Deco-themed heritage tours? Just how saleable is Art Deco branding for a city, based on your many travels?

Yes, Art Deco heritage has its own following and attracts a certain type of tourist.  In my travels, I have seen how places have built their tourism branding largely on the history of their 1930’s modernist built heritage. One of the poster boys is the city of Miami in Florida (USA). When they began to fight for and eventually restore their derelict Art Deco buildings in the 1980’s, it put them on the tourism map. Today, people flock there for the parties, weather, and the Art Deco district. I myself stayed there for three days! They even have an event called Art Deco weekend which they have been hosting annually for over 40 years! 

Other places that have marketed their Art Deco legacy is the city of Napier, in New Zealand, which also hosts an annual Art Deco festival. For a week, people dress up in ‘30s attire in celebration of their city’s Art Deco bounty. 

The city of Mumbai now has its Art Deco ensemble listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as is with WHS listings, tourism follows. The annual World Art Deco Congress attracts lots of people. When Shanghai hosted it last 2015, I (and the 250+ participants) stayed there for a week! Imagine the amount it pumps into the local economy. 

The beauty with Art Deco tours is that we don’t just focus on iconic sites but also include a lot of off-the-beaten-track places, which help situate these buildings within its community. When I hosted Manila and Bacolod Art Deco-themed tours, we went to places that you won’t normally see in tourism brochures. We even hosted heirloom meals in private Art Deco homes. It’s as local an experience as you can get. The lesson here is if you conserve and market your built heritage well, the tourists (and Art Deco geeks) will come. 

We have seen in social media platforms the rising number of posts, pages, and campaigns for our cultural and built heritage championed by younger folks; What advice would you give these young people who are fighting to preserve our cultural heirlooms?

Be informed, have the heart to engage proactively and meaningfully, and not just be keyboard warriors. Get involved with community organizations and do your part, within your capacity and in your respective communities. •

Art Deco heritage in the Pearl of the Orient at Art Deco Philippines and on Instagram at @artdeco.philippines

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