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Vibrant passage through Manila history

Roel Hoang Manipon



The centerpiece of the Lagusnilad Underpass is the mural created by NCCA and Gerilya.

Passageways — tunnels, underpasses, bridges — have become spaces for commerce and, recently, for recreation and culture.

Otherwise regarded as structures to pass through, these utilitarian spaces, such as those in Manila, have become decrepit and dank for many years. The Lagusnilad Pedestrian Underpass, for instance, have been congested with all sorts of stalls like in a market place.

Built in 1963, the Lagusnilad Pedestrian Underpass, which connects Manila City Hall and Intramuros, is one of the oldest underpasses in the country, along with another nearby underpass, which also leads to Intramuros from the Metropolitan Theater of Manila and Mehan Garden. Lagusnilad primarily refers to the nearby vehicular underpass, that branches out to Taft Avenue and Padre Burgos Avenue.

The Lagusnilad Underpass became part of Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Domagoso’s cleaning, beautification and rehabilitation efforts for the historic city, particularly the Lawton area that includes Manila City Hall and several prominent structures.

In spite of the controversy it gained, the underpass was cleared of vendors and stalls, and cleaned. The rehabilitation began in November 2019 and cost P5 million — the amount said to have come from donations from private companies like Boysen Paints, as well as government agencies such as the National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA).

The renovated underpass was unveiled on 24 August in a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Moreno and Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna. It is in a modern style accented by Spanish colonial elements, designed by architect Antonio Toledo. Vertical gardens near the entrances greet passersby. Directions in the signage glow with light, translated in the Old Tagalog abugida or . The walls feature large, lit photographs of Manila tourist and historic spots such as the Santa Ana Church, the San Sebastian Cathedral, the Manila Post Office Building, and the Rizal Monument.

The underpass redevelopment was designed by architect Juanito Malaga, John Benedict Fallorina, Sean Patrick Ortiz and Leon Centeno Tuazon, all alumni of the University of Santo Tomas, in collaboration with Manila’s Department of Engineering and Public Works.

Raven Angel Rivota of the Far Eastern University, Edrian Garcia and John Leyson created the signs.

Aside from the design, persistent issues such as flooding have been addressed by the National Capital Region branch of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Security and vagrancy are handled by the Manila City Security Office and Department of Tourism, Culture and Arts of Manila. CCTV cameras were installed and are connected to the Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office command center. An interactive information desk has also been set up.

Vendors are not allowed in the underpass, but a section has been reserved for Books from Underground, a popular and beloved stall of second-hand, inexpensive and even hard-to-find books. The bookstore was closed down during the clearing operations in July 2019, much to the chagrin of many people. It is returning in a renovated space to continue catering to book lovers, teachers and students.

The centerpiece of the refurbished Lagusnilad Underpass is a mural called Masigasig na Maynila (Vibrant Manila). In partnership with the City Government of Manila, Against All Ads, and Boysen Paints Philippines, the NCCA, through its Arts in Public Spaces program led by visual artist and former head of the NCCA National Committee on Visual Arts Egar Talusan Fernandez, commissioned the art collective Gerilya to create the artwork for the underpass.

Gerilya was formed in 2008 by Jano, Kube and Zap from the College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City. The group is involved in various art endeavors and experimental ventures such as comics, street art, graffiti animation, fine art exhibitions and illustration commissions, and their works often highlight Philippine culture and history, political issues and themes of national identity, often using popular culture mediums and inspirations.

Gerilya members Marianne Rios, Jano Gonzales and Ianna Engano worked on the mural for three months. Their work aims to be a flowing panorama of Manila’s history.

Masigasig na Maynila is heavily inspired by National Artist Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco’s monumental oil-on-canvas mural Filipino Struggles Through History, especially its visual narrative technique of overlapping images. Also known as History of Manila, the series of paintings was commissioned by then Manila Mayor Antonio J. Villegas, created from 1962 to 1971, and was installed at the Bulwagang Katipunan, now Bulwagang Gat Antonio Villegas, at Manila City Hall. Declared a National Cultural Treasure, the mural was restored by the National Museum of the Philippines and has been on view at the Old Senate Session Hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts at the Old Legislative Building since 2018.

For Gerilya, making Masigasig na Maynila “is an opportunity to retell the rich history of Manila and that of the country by highlighting important points in the development of the city and the larger history of the nation from the pre-colonial times to the present.”

Accented with cultural symbols, the selected scenes from history are often the tumultuous ones — the pre-colonial times with images of an Islamic kingdom and trade with the Chinese; Spanish colonization; the execution of Jose Rizal; the Philippine-American War; the Japanese occupation; the First Quarter Storm and the struggles against the Marcos dictatorship; and the present day showing street scenes, the Malacañang Palace and doctors, nurses and other front-liners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is important to impart to the next generations of Filipinos to have public art such as this. It will help them understand their roots, their sense of being and hopefully influence their becoming,” the art group said.

“One of the charms and delightful specificity of this space is its sense of utility and the variety of people making use of this passageway. It also reflects the diversity and the radical spread of its users — students, professionals, merchants, working class and Manila residents, tourists and transients all trying to survive the chaos, bustle and demands of modern life and thrive in this megacity,” explained the NCCA.

“With their artworks rendered in comics imagery, they always try to engage the sense of popular, immediate accessibility and what is known as pang-masa. Besides being a liminal space between two points, it also evokes a sense of fixity and fleetingness, and other contrasts that exist here much like the rest of the whole city. The tensions of the old and new, order and chaos. These are the spaces that appeal to Gerilya to create art: the busy and bustling places where people from all walks of life converge, linger and move together.”

With Masigasig na Maynila, the oft-ignored passageway transforms into a path of cultural enrichment.