The ghost of old buildings

May 30, 2016

All in three rooms, the Philippines’ historic debut at the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia tells the world the story of our public spaces and structures, their past, their present, and their possible future, as well as ours.


This year’s architecture biennale opened last Friday in Venice, Italy, the 15th since it started in 1980 as an offshoot of the famous Venetian art biennale, and the Philippine Pavilion opened the door to its three-room exhibition on the third floor of the Palazzo Mora on Strada Nuova to serious questions on how architecture should be integrated into our conversation about who we are, where we have been, and where we are headed.

The Philippine exhibit is mounted on the theme “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City,” which highlights the fact that “a thoughtful mind builds not just for today, but also to meet the needs of the future we can only predict.” Muhon is a derivative of the Spanish word for monument or place-marker.

Architect Edgardo Ledesma, Jr. of the Leandro V. Locsin Partners’ curatorial proposal was chosen among the 13 submissions by a panel composed of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Legarda as well as architects and visionaries of international renown.


Featuring nine worthy specimens of architecture from Manila that the curators describe as an “adolescent city,” the built environments that make up the three-room exhibit—Kilometer Zero, Pandacan Bridge, Binondo, the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), the now torn down Mandarin Hotel, the Magsaysay Center, Pasig River, the Makati Stock Exchange, and Tahanang Pilipino or the Coconut Palace—are presented, first, in the their historical context, second, vis-a-vis the present-day issues confronting them, and finally in their possible role in marking the future of Philippine architecture.

Present at the launch was Senator Loren Legarda, the visionary behind the Philippine participation in the Venice Biennale in both art and architecture, who has of late been advocating the recognition of culture and the arts as major building blocks to nation-building.

With Legarda at Palazzo Mora to open the show were the NCCA officials, representatives from the Department of Tourism (DoT), the curators Leandro Y. Locsin, Jr. with architects Sudarshan Khadka, Jr. and Juan Paolo de la Cruz, and the nine participants the curators tapped to represent the specimens of Philippine architecture from the perspectives of art and design, namely Poklong Anading (KM 0); Tad Ermitaño (Pandacan Bridge); Mark Salvatus (Binondo); Eduardo Calma (PICC); Jorge Yulo(Mandarin Hotel); 8×8 Design Studio Co. (Magsaysay Center); C|S Design Consultancy (Pasig River); Lima Architecture (Makati Stock Exchange); and Mañosa & Co. (Coconut Palace). Philippine ambassador to Italy Domingo P. Nolasco also graced the occasion.


“First, I must commend the curatorial team for their sensitivity, their sensitivity to concepts in Philippine history and on present-day, contemporary issues,” said Legarda during the previews. “Second, I must commend them for reaching out to artists, to design teams, and to architectural firms big and small, corporate and independent. This is really a collaborative, concerted effort of the Filipino people. Our heritage, both tangible and intangible, is constantly under threat of extinction. We have already lost some of our historic structures from natural catastrophes and long years of neglect. With every instance in which our built heritage has been toppled down and turned to rubble, we lose a part of our identity and that unifying element that binds us as a nation.”

Among the issues being raised by the Philippine exhibition is the country’s penchant for destroying old things to give way to new things. One of the questions it poses is “Are we demolishing buildings before we have had the time to fall in love with them?” Locsin argues further. “We are here in Venice, where everything is preserved, while in the Philippines we tear down everything that is not even 50 years old.”

Buildings 50 years old or older in the Philippines are supposed to be protected by virtue of the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property under the National Cultural Heritage Act or Republic Act No. 10066, signed into law on March 25, 2009 in response to the demolition in 2000 of the 60-year-old Manila Jai Alai Art Deco building, designed by American architects Welton Becket and Walter Wurderman.


But what’s to stop developers from tearing a built environment down before it comes of age? The Mandarin Oriental Manila’s iconic building was 38 years old upon its full closure in 2014. It is now under demolition stage. Another landmark building, the Hotel Intercontinental Manila was four years short of 50 years old when it was closed onDec. 31 last year. Incidentally, Republic Act No. 10066 protects works of art by National Artists, such as Leandro Locsin, National Artist for Architecture, who designed both the Mandarin Oriental Manila and the Hotel Intercontinental Manila buildings, “two of his finest works,” according to the Heritage Conservation Society.

“The true test of architecture’s value is in the way it endures through time and the manner in which it resonates with people on many deeper levels,” said Locsin, the National Artist’s son. “It may take a generation for society to appreciate the value of a building beyond its novelty as a product of its time, susceptible as architecture may be to the whims of changing needs, interests, taste, and fashion.”

The 15th Venice Architecture Biennale, which runs in Venice until Nov. 27, has 63 national pavilions in the Giardini and Arsenale, and in the historic city center of Venice. Aside from the Philippines, other countries participating for the first time are Nigeria, Seychelles, and Yemen.

Source: Manila Bulletin