You don’t need to look far to find examples of wanton destruction of our heritage structures. How are we losing built heritage – and what we can do to stop it?
Archaeologists and heritage enthusiasts in Belize are angry that one of their most important sites, a two-thousand year old pyramid in a Maya ruin named Nohmul, is being demolished for a construction project. That it is not unusual in Belize is an appalling sign of the disregard of many for the historical value of these sites.
However, Filipinos don’t have to look far to see the same thing happen to the Philippines’ cultural heritage structures. We may not have sites as old, but we have a lot of beautiful (if not magnificent) structures that are left to rot or are in danger of being demolished.
In 2001, the Manila Jai Alai Building, a Streamline Moderne masterpiece which survived World War II was demolished by the city government to make way for a Hall of Justice which remains unconstructed to this day.
In 2010, a real estate developer bought the ancestral house of the mother of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal with the plan of relocating it to his resort in Bataan. The resort was actually a collection of other houses he bought from different parts of the country in an effort to preserve them.
The list of endangered heritage structures goes on and on.
What could be considered heritage structures?
Heritage structures, more commonly called built heritage, can be simply defined as structures from the past that can be passed on in the future which have significance either in the history or culture of the people passing on and inheriting them. The National Heritage Act of 2009 defines built heritage more specifically as, “architectural and engineering structures … and their settings, and landscapes with notable historical and cultural significance.”
This all-encompassing definition is further enlarged under the term “important cultural property” by the same law to include marked structures and all structures that are at least 50 years old, unless declared otherwise by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
There are various reasons why these structures need conservation. Not only do they contribute to the community’s sense of place, they also serve as connections between the past and the present. These homes and buildings help generate people’s interest in history and place their memories in a tangible setting. Tourism is also beneficial but should not be the sole or primary goal of conservation, at least to heritage conservationists.
How we are losing them
The Second World War arguably did the most harm to the Philippines’ heritage structures. In a span of less than five years Manila alone lost a staggering number of churches, government buildings, bridges, and other structures.
While a number of structures were eventually rebuilt in Manila and other areas, the prevailing trend was one of negligence rather than preservation. These structures languished unnoticed despite legislation creating bodies such as the National Museum, Intramuros Administration, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
What the war did not destroy negligence or need for space endangered. For example, the Insular Ice Plant and Company in Manila, among the first structures built by the Americans in Manila, was demolished to give way for the Light Rail Transit line in the 1970s. Many stand-alone movie theaters built in Manila after the war by reputed Filipino architects were either left to decay or used as malls.
Many government structures were also not spared. For example, in Pasig City the first provincial capitol of Rizal, believed to be built in the 1920s, was left abandoned. Meanwhile, the second capitol was demolished following the move of the provincial government to its new capital at Antipolo.
In 1996, the demolition of the old Paco Train Station in Manila was cancelled when it was declared a historical landmark. In 2008, the recently restored provincial capitol of Pangasinan was renovated by the new governor, much to the dismay of heritage conservationists. In 2012, the old city hall of Agoo, La Union which was then used as a museum was dramatically renovated to accommodate a branch of a fastfood chain.
In another sad case, the Metropolitan Theater which was destroyed in the Second World War was reconstructed after the war. It was abandoned but restored in the 1970s. Unfortunately, it has not been used for many years and is slowly decaying.
Conservationists on the move
All is not lost in the fight to save the Philippines’ heritage structures. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Heritage Conservation Society many structures have had restorations or at least adaptive reuse in recent years. Some have been used as museums and restaurants. One ancestral house in Bulacan became a branch office of an electric company while a former train station in Manila was converted into a shopping mall.
In 2011, the municipal hall of Bauan, Batangas was to be demolished to make way for a new one. Heritage advocates pressed the municipal government to preserve its Juan Arellano-designed façade and integrate it to the new structure. Last year, the old GSIS headquarters in Manila which was set to be demolished was announced as the new site of the Manila Hall of Justice. In the same year the Ayuntamiento de Manila which served as headquarters for the Supreme Court and Manila’s city government was reconstructed to house the Bureau of Treasury.
The government has a great responsibility to preserve the country’s heritage structures. The National Heritage Law of 2009 now forbids demolishing structures more than 50 years old without government permission. This law is barely implemented though and the concerned agencies can only send letters to officials.
In many instances, religious institutions must also be involved, especially in the preservation of their places of worship. Sadly in many cases parish priests modified their sanctuaries disregarding values promoted by heritage conservationists.
It is ultimately the people’s interest that will drive them to pursue conservation. We need to appreciate the artistic and historic importance of such structures. Otherwise, they will be lost forever like the Nohmul pyramid.
About the author
Eufemio Agbayani III is a fourth year BA History student at the University of the Philippines – Diliman.