If Walls Could Talk

With built heritage in the Philippines growing more endangered than ever, there is added urgency to advance the dialogue concerning preservation and progress

Introduction Miguel Llona
Images Gio Abcede, Dominic Galicia, Patrick Kasingsing, Rachelle Medina, and Caryn Paredes-Santillan

The recently-demolished Philam Life Building by Carlos Arguelles, Header: The Folk Arts Theater (Tanghalang Francisco Balagtas) by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin; This pioneering open-air theater is slated for demolition to be replaced by a two-story performing arts venue with a 1,000-seating capacity.

“Heritage dies in the dark.” These were ominous words shared by architect and heritage advocate Dominic Galicia in our interview, and they’ve rung true in the Philippines for years. There is indeed a darkness that enables the destruction of our heritage structures, and they come in many forms—public ignorance, government negligence, or willful disregard of the law.

A new darkness has loomed recently, casting a shadow over heritage structures already in danger of demolition—the COVID-19 pandemic. The fear is a number of parties would take advantage of this period of long lockdowns and imposed curfews, and push through with their plans to tear down culturally relevant but old buildings to make way for new developments. One building has already fallen—the Philam Life Building by Carlos Arguelles, dismantled last June even after the developer who had bought it in 2013 promised to preserve it.

The Philam Life Building won’t be the last casualty of modernization and progress, and it doesn’t matter even if you are a National Artist. Months ago, Leandro V. Locsin & Partners (LVLP) has been asked by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to submit drawings of three administrative buildings it designed; the Philippine Center for Population & Development, Nutrition Center, and SWADCAP DSWD buildings. While the DOTr’s request doesn’t specifically say that these buildings will be demolished, previous cases already have us steeling ourselves for the worst. For their part, LVLP has decided to adopt a neutral stance regarding the issue, and “leave the determination of the cultural value of these works to the citizenry and mandated arbiters of the country.”

While the destruction of heritage is always a sad affair, the other side of the equation is not always as soulless as it is often painted. Several questions abound on how buildings should be preserved, and whether they deserve such treatment. What should be done if the building’s design or dimensions are no longer fit for modern-day use? How can old buildings be repurposed in a way that doesn’t alienate the public? How can we balance preservation and development in this era of “build, build, build?”

Kanto reached out to a number of people from varying age groups and disciplines—Caryn Paredes-Santillan, Gio Abcede, Rachelle Medina, and the aforementioned Galicia—to get their thoughts on the issue of preservation versus development in light of the three Locsin buildings in danger of being torn down. The objective of the interview isn’t to take a hardline stance on either side, but to foster dialogue on how we can balance preserving heritage and progressing towards the future. As our four interviewees attest to, dialogue is needed now more than ever, because if the works of renowned post-war architects such as Leandro Locsin or Carlos Arguelles could die in the dark, none of our modernist built heritage is truly safe; once these walls come down, there is no bringing back its stories, significance, and soul.

Clockwise, from top left: Dominic Galicia, Caryn Paredes-Santillan, Rachelle Medina (photographed by Cyrus Panganiban), and Gio Abcede

How much do you know about National Artist for Architecture, Leandro Locsin? Can you share with us the interactions you’ve had with his spaces?

Dominic Galicia, architect and former president of ICOMOS Philippines: My interactions with his spaces are perhaps similar to those of people who grew up in Manila in the 1970s. The Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Folk Arts Theater were part of the cultural landscape of our youth: foreign symphony orchestras at the CCP, Alice Kamatis, and Sorcar the Magician at the Folk Arts Theater. The Ayala Museum was a treat, since the dioramas were so detailed, plus its presence on Makati Avenue suggested another world, if not something from another world. I remember going there by myself as a kid from Quezon City. The Mandarin Hotel for a long time seemed to stand alone in the landscape, or at least in my imagination, as a stoic tower, strong and indomitable. 

I remember a writing assignment in high school Spanish class under Señora Dolores Roux, in which I wrote an essay on the Mandarin. I was also reading The Fountainhead then, and I thought that the Mandarin seemed like a building that Howard Roark would design. It reinforced my fascination with architecture and my commitment to becoming an architect. When I did eventually become an architect, one of my first projects was the renovation of the funeral chapel in Magallanes Church, converting it to an Adoration Chapel. After the church was destroyed by fire a few years later, I was selected to rebuild it. I was grateful for and inspired by the intellectual integrity of the original imprint, and the new church became very much an organic reality that was educed from the ruins of the Locsin church. So compelling were those ruins that when the opportunity arose for us to demolish those ruins, start from scratch, and build something that would be entirely of my authorship, I refused. I believe that the result expresses a richer narrative, which in turn is a tribute to the greatest narrative ever told.

Caryn Paredes-Santillan, Pedagogical Lead, College of Architecture at University of Santo Tomas: One of the first jobs I had was at the old Ayala Museum, where I was an Exhibits Designer under Dr. Florina Capistrano-Baker. It was a fun job and it allowed me to examine the building both as an architect and as a user. As an architect, I was really fascinated by the building form and how it was put together, which made me interested in Locsin’s architecture.

In 2007, I successfully defended my dissertation titled “A Study of Bipolarity in the Architecture of Leandro V. Locsin” for my Ph.D. at the University of Tokyo. The study lasted three years and included site visits and photo documentation of Locsin’s buildings. In total, I collected data for around 80 buildings.

Rachelle Medina, interior designer, and freelance writer: I’m quite old, so I have visited many of Locsin’s buildings in my youth, and as an associate editor of BluPrint many moons ago, I have assisted in featuring his projects for the magazine and interviewing Andy Locsin. One of my earliest memories of a Locsin building is that of the old Ayala Museum. My father used to take me there as a child on Saturdays in the early 1980s.

I remember entering the dark lobby [of the Ayala Museum] that was punctuated with bright, natural light in the middle because beyond the turnstiles on the other side was the entrance of the former Aviary of the old Greenbelt Park. So there was this dark, cold lobby, and there was this warmth and brightness coming from opposite sides of it. As a child, I liked sitting there for a few moments before going in, as I would watch the birds from the park occasionally fly into the lobby! (The public spaces, as I recall, were open-air). I can even remember that the lighting for the exhibits of the old Ayala Museum was more dramatic—tiny spots of light focusing on a single prehistoric object in the middle of a vast, dark room.

Gio Abcede, virtual tour designer, architectural designer, and VP of the Heritage Conservation Society: I know Leandro Locsin for his iconic contributions to the modern movement in Philippine architecture. His architectural legacy is what I’d most often associate with brutalist architecture in the Philippines. His architectural works that first come to my mind are those of the early Makati CBD office buildings, such as the Makati Stock Exchange, and those in the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, and the PICC.

National Theater/Tanghalang Pambansa by Leandro Locsin, 1969, Pasay City, Metro Manila, Source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_LC0969-001-017 / CC BY-SA 4.0
The Makati Stock Exchange Building by Leandro Locsin, 1971, Makati City, Metro Manila

How would you describe your interactions with a Locsin-designed space? What qualities or adjectives would you use to define the experience? Were there design elements or flourishes that resonated with you in particular?

Galicia: My most profound interaction with a Locsin-designed space was, as I mentioned earlier, the project to rebuild Magallanes Church, now more popularly known by its official name, St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Church. What resonated with me was the elegance and integrity of the architectonic expression, a discipline of reticence, which in turn inspired our own efforts to be straightforward, which, in turn, helped reinforce our understanding of the relationship between the pragmatic and the poetic. 

There is one particular design element in the Magallanes Church project that resonates with me because of the way that, to my mind, it reinforced my conviction that what we did in using the ruins—integrating them into the new reality instead of demolishing them—was the right thing to do. You realize that you’re doing the right thing when the karmic rewards of design begin to present themselves. The visual language of the original Magallanes Church consisted of a heavy volume resting on and projecting beyond a series of angled buttresses, similar to the image of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theater, and other buildings in Locsin’s oeuvre. The heavy volume was in actual fact a deep roof parapet, which we preserved as the visual base for our new series of arch roofs. The angled buttresses were ornamental and mostly empty, except for the vertical columns contained within which carried the roof and the parapet. Our new series of arch roofs were to be carried completely by new vertical columns. The structural engineer Carlos Villaraza suggested that, in addition to those new vertical columns, we provide a structural redundancy that provided an additional response to the lateral or sideward thrust of the arch roofs. How to do that? By filling the voids in the buttresses with gravel, soil, and rubble in order to give them mass that would make these ornamental buttresses actual, meaningful structural elements. This was a seminal and rather profound moment for me because it was an experience of augmented meaning.  

The karmic flow of the design process composed of straightforward steps of honest, sincere, and respectful response to the patrimonial context rewarded us with a new reality of new significance, new meaning. It was an experience of the deepening of narrative, the density of content, the enrichment of the city, which would not have happened if the original Locsin context had been eliminated. The respect was rewarded with grace.

The renovated Magallanes Church by Dominic Galicia Architects, photographed by Takuya Wakabayashi

Paredes-Santillan: When I was doing my study on Locsin, I had to collect data and do visual surveys, which entailed visiting the site, experiencing the spaces and forms, and documenting them. In addition, I also collected plans and drawings, analyzed objects, space, and form, interviewed some of the partners of LVLP, and studied publications on Philippine architecture.

When I was analyzing my initial data, I noticed that Locsin’s work was filled with tension and movement. And upon further analysis, I found that this was because he incorporated a lot of opposites juxtaposed against each other—massive and light, open and enclosed, and alternating spatial characters. So in my study, I singled out bipolarity as a recurring theme in Locsin’s architecture. I was able to identify four examples of bipolarity in his architecture: (1) floating quality; (2) grounded flight; (3) enclosed openness; and (4) alternation of opposite spatial characters.

But then I asked myself, why bipolarity? So I further correlated this with how the Filipino psyche was essentially a mix of East and West. During the time that Locsin was practicing, exploring the Filipino identity or character was a recurring theme with writers and artists, given that we had just been granted independence. This quest for our identity was expressed in literature, visual art, and architecture. And so, Locsin expressed what he deemed as the elusive Filipino quality in his bipolar forms and spaces.

Abcede: From my interactions with his works, I could say that Locsin’s spaces are characterized by massive forms, clean sleek lines, and a strong yet raw sensibility with the material choices. All of these ties together to evoke a sense of gravitas. His mastery with the use of volumes and voids, along with the use of concrete or wood accents is evident in each of the buildings he designed.

The Philippine Center for Population & Development by Leandro Locsin, 1972, Taguig City, Metro Manila

Locsin’s Nutrition Center under construction

We have heard reports of the uncertain futures of several government buildings created by Locsin: The Philippine Center for Population & Development, Nutrition Center, and SWADCAP DSWD buildings. Were you able to visit any of these buildings? What were your impressions of it? What would you say are qualities that it shares with other Locsin buildings you have previously visited and what qualities do you think are special or distinctive to it?    

Paredes-Santillan: The Population and Nutrition Centers were part of my visual survey in 2005-06. Both buildings were in very good condition when I documented them. The Population Center was originally intended as a base for “managing the growth of the country’s population through fertility reduction or family planning” (Source: https://pcpd.ph/). But when I visited, it was being partially used as a school for children with special needs. It was a large, sprawling building and it was very cool and breezy under the wide eaves. The building has a deep setback from the street, so if you don’t have transportation, it’s a bit of a walk. The setbacks of the building allow one to go around and observe it from different angles. You access it through a wide, low canopy very reminiscent of the PICC, and in the open-air lobby, there are molded concrete seats similar to those you would find in the CCP. The stairs also gave the illusion of being suspended and I think it may have had an ornamental pool at the base, just like the stairs in the lobby of the Monterrey Apartments in Makati.

The massing of the Nutrition Center, with the slanted buttresses and single floating volume, reminded me strongly of the Folk Arts Theater. However, when I went inside, I was greeted by the wide expanse of lobby that seemed a humbler version of the main lobby of the CCP Theater of Performing Arts. The floor of the lobby was depressed and was finished in terrazzo, while the ceiling was coffered. On one side of the lobby was a beautiful stairway, whose curved edges and floating form were strongly reminiscent of the one in the CCP. During my visit, I was able to meet Dr. Florentino Solon, who was the first Executive Director of the Nutrition Center. He showed me old photos of the building and told me about the programs of the Center, which included feeding programs and the famous Nutribun. Dr. Solon and his staff were very proud of the Nutrition Center and how it contributed to making sure that generations of Filipino youth were well-fed. According to him, the lobby was sometimes used as a common workspace, for repacking and disseminating supplies.

I was only able to visit the SWADCAP DSWD (formerly known as the Asian Center for Training and Research for Social Welfare) in 2014 while I was working at the NCCA as a Project Manager. We were asked to evaluate the site because they planned to retrofit the offices, so Ar. Dennis Marcial and I did an ocular survey and took photos. The massing of the building was very similar to the Population and Nutrition Centers, with the slanted walls and deep eaves. The entrance also had the distinctive low canopy. The base of the stairs may have once been depressed and used as an ornamental pool, but at the time of our visit, it had already been filled in with concrete. According to the people who guided us through the building, the site was prone to heavy flooding and a lot of the offices on the first floor showed water marks and slight deterioration.

Locsin’s architecture was built during a period of experimentation and economy, a period marked by rampant volatility as the world inches itself away from the previous world war. While his skill and precocity in his chosen art are unparalleled and befitting his being named National Artist, his best works were done behind the shadow of a brutal regime and still elicit polarizing opinions because of this. Why should Locsin’s work be preserved?

Galicia: Narrative content has always been seen as a significant part of architecture. By narrative content, I refer to the story-like aspects of the project, things like the purpose or program for which the project was built, the characters involved such as the client, the architect, the affected community, atmospheric aspects such as the zeitgeist, mindset, or values that prevailed when the project was being built. Narrative content marries creative intent to result in the design of the form. The offspring of this marriage is architecture. I suspect that in the final analysis and the realm of architecture, the narrative content fades away. What we are left with and all that we need, really, is architecture, which lets the light of the sun caress it, inside and outside, in a way that inevitably touches us deeply.

Paredes-Santillan: The simplest reason is because Republic Act 10066—also known as the Heritage Law—states that works of National Artists of the Philippines be protected. Architecture has always been and always will be innately political in nature. It takes talent to design buildings with a very strong character, but it takes willpower and vision, as well as funds, to be able to make these designs into reality.

The Population Center, the Nutrition Center, and the Asian Center are part of the assemblage of government projects that Leandro V. Locsin and Partners (LVLP) took on in the late 60s through the 70s. And just like the CCP Complex, these three buildings form an ensemble of government buildings with similar characters. The CCP Complex was meant to be a stage—raising up Filipino culture and artistry for the whole world to see—and this is evident in how the large rectangular volumes seem to float. It’s like the buildings are saying, “Look at us! We have something to be proud of!” The Makati ensemble of buildings also utilizes floating volumes, but these are more rooted to the ground, more evocative of their bahay kubo roots. They are humbler and built for service. Their angled forms hint at stability—a good quality for a government focused on nation-building. They also bear formal similarity to another government building, the Manila International Airport (now known as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport). The NAIA however, inverts the forms of the Makati ensemble, with the wider edge at the top, making it seem like a receptacle or funnel. This is a fitting symbol of a structure that is essentially the gateway of the international community to the Philippines.

Medina: I am aware that some parties believe that since Locsin buildings represent the “Edifice Complex” of the Marcos era, these should go; but this should not be the case. Yes, these structures were built for the purpose and representative of the dictatorship, but why not change the purpose of the buildings instead?

I’ll give you an example of an edifice complex that had a complete turnaround: Benito Mussolini’s EUR district in Rome. He openly had it built in the 1930s to celebrate, very bluntly, the 20 years of fascism in Italy—no subtlety there! It was designed as a modernist, 1930s version of a Roman Imperial town, but with fascist ideology. Now, EUR has been converted and adaptively reused as convention centers, concert halls, and museums. Yes, the fascist murals are still there inside, but they are kept to remind the public of an era that is long gone and should not be revisited again. The decapitated heads from Mussolini’s statues are now kept in the basements of these buildings, amidst the boiler rooms, far from the sight of the public. The same can be done to all these types of structures locally.

Abcede: I think that Locsin’s work is a subject that can and should be viewed beyond having been built during the rough political climate that we are well aware of. The value of his buildings goes beyond that association, as it is also attributed to other positively received cultural activities in the decades that followed.

It is still incredibly important to acknowledge the sociopolitical history it was tied to in the past—not to glorify it for this purpose at all, but rather to be viewed as a hurdle that was overcome. The identity of his works, most notably the CCP Complex of buildings, is now more positively associated with important milestones in Philippine dance, theater art, and music.

The meaning and importance of his architectural masterpieces outgrew the dark history it may have been previously associated with, and instead carries with it a renewed sense of cultural significance.

In your opinion, in what ways can these Locsin structures be reused and integrated with current redevelopment plans that may forever alter or wipe the spaces from existence? What examples/best practices in the realm of adaptive reuse and heritage activation are worth emulating?

Galicia: I am not familiar with these particular Locsin structures nor with the new subway that threatens their existence. In response to the question of what best practices in the realm of conservation can be applied to this specific situation, the best and paramount practice is to want to conserve these structures in the first place and in the same place. Begin with that end in mind, not with the end of those buildings in mind. Let not the exercise be about finding reasons to demolish the structures, but about ways of conserving them and making them part of the new reality of the subway project. Consider our experience with Magallanes Church, of how creating a new reality was not about eliminating an existing reality but about interacting respectfully and creatively with it in order to create new, deeper meaning.

Paredes-Santillan: The safest answer is that these buildings would benefit from a Conservation Management Plan. This would give us an idea of the proper valuing of the significant elements within the buildings. Conservation Management Plans help us answer the questions: (1) Why is it important to conserve this structure? and (2) What exact elements in the building should be conserved? This kind of knowledge would aid developers and planners in planning for future infrastructure and development.

But off-hand, since these buildings basically served as offices for government agencies, they can still serve as such. I think with the new normal, social distancing is still very relevant. A lot of the public spaces in these buildings, such as halls and lobbies, are naturally ventilated. So perhaps some government offices could be decentralized and branch operations could be opened there.

Medina: From an interior designer’s point of view, I can understand that some of the interior spaces of a Locsin creation that were built in the 1960s-70s may be considered unfit for present-day use (not generalizing here—just an observation of the ones I’ve personally visited), and the present owner would deem it more economical to raze the entire building rather than painstakingly retrofit it for the current climate. Take, for example, the individual conference rooms and galleries within the upper floors of CCP. Yes, there is breathtaking grandeur and openness in the main, public areas, but when you get to the individual rooms, there is a bit of a challenge in terms of flexibility and openness that is needed for current conferences and exhibits.

Conference and meeting rooms these days are usually open-plan, flexible, transparent, breathing; whereas those in the CCP are enclosed rooms, and few of them can be extended to fit more occupants. In the case of their use as art galleries, the enclosed rooms don’t have adequate lighting and paneling (not to mention, the ceilings are quite low) to mount a dynamic art exhibit; usually, the equipment and panels are brought in by the organizers or exhibitors. Many of these interior spaces had further additions through the years that were more permanent than temporary, and thus altered the original appearance and feel of the spaces.

I’ve been to the depths of some of CCP’s backroom spaces a few years ago at the behest of one of its resident dance companies and the changing rooms and common restrooms have not been maintained since. The electrical wiring and the plumbing of the area also needed massive updating. The company offices were subdivided (from the looks of these, the additions were made in the ‘80s) with high cubicles that created a warren of tiny rooms and the narrowest of hallways with confusing dead ends. I’d like to note that since then, these specific areas were renovated in terms of fixtures and layout.

Abcede: The aforementioned buildings still carry the signature look of a Locsin structure with the form and elements on their façades. Given this, the degree of adaptive reuse of such structures could be that of insertion—where new design elements would fit the existing envelope. While keeping most of these unique elements on the exterior intact, there is opportunity to explore using non-intrusive interior design elements and fixtures to (1) accommodate office spaces for flexible start-up groups, and (2) have a dedicated area to house libraries or galleries which can hopefully pay homage to the previous use of the building.

Inside the National Theater

The choice between ‘development’ and heritage preservation is one that more and more rapidly-growing cities are facing with increasing frequency; can a balance be struck between the two?

Galicia: Of course. That is the intelligent thing to do, and requires creativity and sincerity to do it.

Paredes-Santillan: Definitely, yes. We can see examples of these in many cities that have listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Contemporary structures can co-exist with heritage buildings as long as they are respectful of the latter’s Outstanding Universal Value.

However, urbanization is indeed a problem. A lot of the sites on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger are there because of proposed urban developments that downgrade the value of the listed property. There is a need to make developers, the government, and the general public more aware of the value of these buildings, what exactly needs to be conserved, and why.

Abcede: It is absolutely possible to achieve the balance between heritage and development. Other cities in countries not too different from ours (Hanoi, Vietnam, or Yangon, Myanmar) have been taking steps to highlight their built heritage in their tourism plans within their localities. We have to recognize the cultural significance in the existing spaces we have and build upon that. There are several neighborhoods in Manila that are rich in character and could be used as vehicles for proper adaptive reuse. Old and abandoned banks, theaters, office spaces can be converted into libraries, start-up business incubators, bazaar spaces, or cafes—all while paying homage to what the space once was.

For the uninformed, what qualities does a building need to have to merit preservation?

Paredes-Santillan: Ultimately, it needs to have continued significance or value. This comes in many different forms—historical, social, technological, and aesthetic, to name a few. These values need to be understood and studied before any conservation decisions are made because significance guides conservation actions. Also, significance evolves over time, so what was important then may not be as important today, or may have changed to something else completely. For example, a building that once had high political value may have also acquired a strong social value over the years. So people who use the building now only appreciate the new value, rather than the old one, and that’s alright. But basically, to merit preservation, a building needs to possess continued significance.

Abcede: A building should be preserved if it is considered culturally significant; this could be through exhibiting notable aesthetic, historical, scientific, or social value. Aesthetic value takes into consideration the building’s architectural style, materiality, texture, color, scale, and uniqueness in form. Historical significance refers to the structure’s relationship to historical events or historical figures. Scientific significance notes the association of the building with scientific progress or innovation, through the use of notable building systems or technology for its time. Social value refers to its impact to communities whether on the local, regional, or national scale.

Some of the most common traits to consider are if the building is an exceptional representative of its epoch, typology, or the historic figures associated with its narrative (most often National Heroes or National Artists).

When is it time to let a building go?

Galicia: That is case to case. There is no clear-cut answer. Why does it have to go in the first place if it is a building of significance?

Paredes-Santillan: Essentially, when it no longer retains the significance it once held. This is why heritage conservation is not only about architecture—it needs to sustain the identified tangible and intangible values within a building. And this is why the specific architectural elements need to be assessed for their appropriate level of significance.

Medina: I believe the only time a building can be let go is if its current owner decides to let it go. A building, at any stage of deterioration, can be resurrected or rebuilt. The next steps of a heritage building really are in “the eye of the beholder.”

Abcede: I think the only time we can truly say we can “let go” of a building is in either of these two cases: The first, which cannot be argued, is when it becomes a structural hazard that is beyond repair. The second, which is in contrast the most argued issue with built heritage, is if it is considered to have no cultural significance to justify its existence in the modern-day. This significance is not only something that can be given by a specific agency or group without the holistic consultation with stakeholders: from the owners, heritage researchers, and consultants, to the community that surrounds the area.

The now-demolished Benguet Center by Leandro Locsin, photo from idiotscanblogtoo.blogspot.com

Locsin’s firm is letting the government and public, for whom the facilities were designed, decide the fate of these buildings. But one notes that in the Philippines (and elsewhere), there is a lot of public apprehension and uncertainty regarding built heritage; along with the wide age gap, examples of built heritage also often suffer from being cordoned off public life, either as a fragile thing or as a pariah that needs to be avoided for safety. What are the ways we can educate the public and private sector about the importance of built heritage and which sector/s do you think should be at the forefront of this charge?

Galicia: Discussions like this are important, fostered by both public and private sectors. It keeps the issue ventilated and illuminated. The tagline of the Washington Post is “Democracy dies in the dark.” Heritage dies in the dark too. This discussion is one of many necessary ways of providing ventilation and illumination to this issue.

Paredes-Santillan: People often have the misconception that heritage structures are old and need to be treated as artifacts. It generally depends on the structural condition of the structure, but I think that architecture is meant to be used by people. This is one of its basic purposes. This is how you keep its significance alive—with people’s lives and memories entangled within its foundations. However, like in any relationship, understanding and respect is the key to harmony.

So yes, education is key. People need to understand why these buildings are considered heritage structures. They need to be aware of the issues and challenges in maintaining and conserving it. Through understanding and awareness, we become more accepting of the responsibilities of protecting our heritage. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it can be done. I think the challenge here is how to properly educate and reach out to people. I think information campaigns also need to evolve and be more innovative—the use of social media, short videos, infographics, and alternative means of instruction should be utilized. We also need to start making our children aware of their heritage. Because ultimately, we are preserving it for them and they should understand why.

Abcede: There is a lot of potential in empowering the local government units in claiming ownership of their communities’ built heritage. To decentralize the authority on policies on heritage is a concept that is currently being lobbied, and it would be promising to enact. Stakeholder consultation and focus group discussions directly tapping the locals would make a positive impact in strengthening their understanding of their role and relationship with their heritage.

Another impactful sector would be to better engage the students, most importantly university or college communities that are situated in heritage districts. To integrate heritage interpretation into related courses would equip the youth in voicing out their opinions on heritage conservation issues, through healthy dialogue and project proposals with their mentors.

Would you say that the value we ascribe to works of National Artists for Architecture like Locsin as of late is reflective of the general mindset Filipinos have about Filipino-designed spaces now, in the face of widespread globalization and foreign competitors?   

Galicia: The question of National Artists for Architecture in our country contains a cruel irony. With one hand we salute the National Artist with all pomp and circumstance, but with the other we wield the “maso” or sledgehammer to demolish the work. It is a monumental hypocrisy. It is also a monumental idiocy, because these demolished buildings all combine to express in the strongest terms that we can create world-class architecture. Of course, if the current architectural production was generally of a higher level, we would not be so dependent on these lost buildings to make the case that we can produce world-class architecture.

Paredes-Santillan: Sometimes, this is indeed the case. It is sad that a lot of Filipinos often do not appreciate what their countrymen have been able to produce. Instead, they look toward the West, seeking inspiration and affirmation from cultures they deem more advanced than ours.

We have to tell ourselves: we are important too, our work matters. For me, these buildings are tangible examples of how we, as an independent nation, built ourselves up from the ravages of war and centuries of colonial rule. These buildings are examples of how we are rooted in our heritage, both pre-colonial and colonial, and yet are hopeful for a better future.

Abcede: There still seems to be room to grow with the general mindset Filipinos have when it comes to acknowledging late 20th Century heritage, especially modernist or brutalist architectural works. The focus has mostly been on Spanish Colonial-era heritage, followed by some American Colonial-era structures. The recognition of post-war built heritage is still in its infancy, at least in our country. The loss of the Philam Life Building is a notable example of this issue.

PHILCITE Building (now Star City) by Leandro Locsin, Pasay City, Metro Manila, Source: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_LC0969-001-006 / CC BY-SA 4.0

What do you think needs to be done by the government, public and private sectors to champion the cause for future-proofing cities while also respecting the foundational wins and knowledge from the past that has gotten us where we are today?

Paredes-Santillan: I think it all starts with spreading awareness and seeking dialogues. And this should not only be within the private sector, but also government agencies, especially those involved in infrastructure planning and construction. They should be made aware of the need for Heritage Assessments way before projects are planned and mobilized. Our understanding of heritage and preservation should likewise evolve. We need to communicate more, be open to compromises, and incorporate innovations when possible.

Abcede: Both public and private sectors can strengthen guidelines on zoning. There have been disagreements on what classifies as heritage districts or protected areas. Hopefully, this can be spelled out more clearly to avoid these issues.

It would also be beneficial to strengthen processes in fleshing out a building’s cultural significance values before implementing redesigns or demolition. This should allow designs to consider adaptive reuse as a more viable and sustainable option.

Galicia: To future-proof our cities, we need to fool-proof them first. We need to free them of the fools who are us. In other words, we need to free ourselves from our own insipid ideas of how buildings and cities evolve. The threats that assail buildings like these Locsin structures are rooted in and fueled by fear, prejudice, and intellectual indolence. First, we need to eliminate the draconian notion that the work of a National Artist can no longer evolve in order to adjust to contemporary needs, that its meaning and significance are no longer able to deepen. It is a mindset that the work of an architect, once declared National Artist, must forever remain unchanged. This is why so many of them have been demolished. Second, we need to realize that a work of architecture, unlike a painting or a sculpture, has a hierarchy of significance that needs to be established and understood. Some aspects or spaces are more significant than others. It is those less significant aspects that can be sacrificed so that the structure can accommodate the contemporary reality. By the way, I say this only in regard to our 20th-century heritage. Our Spanish colonial heritage is another matter entirely, because in those cases, time—more precisely, the patina of time—is also of the essence. •

Miguel Llona is a writer who has written for numerous print and online publications. He was a former editor at BluPrint magazine, and served as a marketing consultant for an interior design firm. 

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