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Losing our heritage





Issues on heritage conservation continue to hound the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Manila’s Ermita district, the impending demolition of the Philam Life Building, a 1961 modernist structure by architect Carlos Arguelles, has riled heritage advocates, with the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) petitioning the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) on 5 August for its declaration as an Important Cultural Property for having “exceptional cultural, artistic, and/or historical significance in the Philippines.” The group also petitioned for the issuance of a cease-and-desist order against its redevelopment.

In the Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, the scholar Rodrigo Perez III described the building as “one of the country’s best examples of the International Style” with a “distinct tropical character.”

“Completed in 1961, it opened a new era in Philippine architecture, marked by the marriage of architecture and technology,” Perez wrote.

Unfortunately, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), to which the HCS letter was forwarded, declined both petitions, saying it, together with the National Museum, is constrained in approving the request.

In a letter dated 11 August to HCS president Mark Evidente, it said the structure failed “to meet the necessary criteria” for the significances enumerated in the HCS letter.

The NHCP also said the Philam Life building is not a work by a National Artist and not located in a declared heritage zone; thus, it cannot “require from the property owner the total preservation of the entire structure.”

The historical commission likewise informed the HCS that a development plan was approved in early June this year which would incorporate significant elements of the building to the new high-rise, mixed-use structure.

This is “the integration in the new building of the original five-storey, mid-century modern architectural features, such as its clean simple lines, original horizontal brise soleil, use of the support pipes and the mullion of the facade including the concrete porte cochere, to reflect the memory of the building.”

HCS, however, maintains the building should be declared by the NCCA, not the NHCP, for its artistic and architectural significance.

FILE photo of the Spanish-era house in Abesamis Street in Tayabas Quezon which was recently demolished.

In Binondo
Also in Manila, the National Museum has given its go-signal to demolish the historic 19th century Chan Uanco Sunico (also Sunico-Herras) House at the corner of Jaboneros and Barcelona streets in Binondo, Manila.

The house is also where the foundry of famed 19th century to early 20th century bell caster Hilario Sunico was located.

Heritage advocates have criticized this move, saying the house should be preserved for its historical and architectural significance. It is one of a few remaining bahay na bato structures in Binondo. This house is a National Museum-registered cultural property.

Advocate Maria Cecilia Sunico said the decision is “a clear and willful violation of the law.”

Binondo is also losing its character because of these demolitions, she said.

National Museum director Jeremey Barns said a complexity of reasons led to his agency’s decision.

“For several different reasons and circumstances specific to this one case, we have decided that off-site preservation of the significant elements is the best option,” he said.

Philam Life Building.

Paco market
Another heritage issue in Manila is the American-period Paco Market on Pedro Gil (formerly Herran) Street. The structure, a presumed Important Cultural Property under the Heritage Law, is undergoing renovations.

These renovation project has affected the integrity of the structure built in 1911.

When asked about the issue, NHCP chairman Rene Escalante said he is not aware of the ongoing renovation project at the market.

Meanwhile, the Manila’s Tourism, Culture and Arts department has not yet issued any statement on both the Sunico House and Paco Market issues.

Tayabas house
In Tayabas, Quezon, a heritage house was recently demolished and local heritage advocates are raising concerns on the redevelopment of its public cemetery located in front of the Cementerio Catolico.

Local heritage and historical group Tuklas Tayabas Historical Society has condemned the demolition of the house it described as an important cultural property of the city.

“It seems that we will only see this house — believed to be built in the 1880s — in old pictures,” it said.

This house located on Abesamis Street is one of only few Spanish-era houses that survived the Second World War in Tayabas.

The city’s heritage arm, OST Tayabas, lamented the demolition but said “it is privately owned and us, as heritage advocacy groups, don’t have the right to control them unless if there’s an ordinance that will give them assistance for them to able to restore from its original structures.”

The city government has not issued any statement on concerns raised on the public cemetery redevelopment which will result to the demolition of American era niches.

Oton Municipal Hall
In the town of Oton in the province of Iloilo, the NHCP expressed its opposition on the redevelopment of its post-war municipal hall building, saying it is a presumed important cultural property and “one of the remaining heritage structures in Iloilo (that) must be conserved.”

It recommended the reintegration of the arcaded facade of the municipal hall to the new building since “it is part of the architectural character” of the former.

“We are aware of the necessity of the LGU to expand their office in order to augment the required spaces and to accommodate transactions of their constituents,” said the NHCP letter in March and signed by NHCP chair Rene Escalante.

“However, alongside with this concern, we strongly recommend the conservation of the heritage structures such as old government buildings, integrating it to the new development,” it added.

Oton Municipal Hall.