Heritage in the big city

In light of what’s happened recently in Bohol, where a number of heritage churches were either destroyed/severely damaged by the recent quake, I’m sharing an old article I wrote in 2011 about heritage and its place in a rapidly developing city like Manila.

Manila Bulletin, May 2011

MANILA, PHILIPPINES—Last World Heritage Day, I was invited by heritage conservationist Augusto Villalon to join a Pasig River Heritage Cruise sponsored by UNESCO and the ICOMOS Philippines Committee.

Directions were given to the Sta. Ana ferry station, but I managed to live up to the stereotypical image of a female driver anyway by getting lost. I ended up missing what would have been an enlightening lecture on the heritage of water, but what made the experience worth the wasted fuel, however, was seeing Manila—really “seeing” Manila. I was wading through traffic along Taft Avenue and I noticed how beautiful the buildings were, taken individually. Had it not been for the eyesore that is the old LRT station built right smack in the center of the boulevard, Taft Avenue would have looked like a similarly thriving street you see in Singapore, Hong Kong, and even the United States.

It turns out there are still pleasantly surprising places deep within the innards of Manila. In my failed attempt to get to the Sta. Ana pier on time, I ended up going on an impromptu tour of the older districts of the metro, even finding myself in Paco Park and Villa Peñafrancia, the old residence of the late Jose P. Laurel. It was nice finding these little reminders of Filipino heritage. “There’s still a lot of these places in Manila,” shares Augusto Villalon when we finally meet days after the Pasig Heritage Cruise. “They say it’s ugly in Manila, and that’s partly true, but there are still bits and pieces that make it worthwhile.”

Sustainability and cultural heritage
In the country where one of the major challenges facing our generation come in the form of global warming, companies are slowly shifting toward sustainable urban development. The days of building for today without thought to tomorrow are less common—more and more developers are realizing the need to use sustainable materials, technologies and practices to help minimize the impact to the environment.

But the question is how much do these “sustainability-oriented” developers value heritage?

One of the most common misconceptions about progress is that in order for a nation to move forward, it needs to leave the past behind. Urban development, especially in Metro Manila, has often focused on maximizing space and utility at the expense of cultural heritage. “The first thing a developer wants to do is take everything down and build 50 storeys up,” shares Villalon. “Sad to say, the main problem is really a lack of awareness about heritage. What they don’t know is that if you keep heritage intact, it can become a resource for the local community to improve their lives.”

Such heritage conservation practices are perfectly illustrated in the Ilocos region, home to three out of the Philippines’ four World Heritage Churches, as well as the World Heritage City of Vigan. Villalon shares that other countries are actually adopting the community-centered conservation in places like Ilocos as Best Practices. “The idea is that you start with a community and work your way up,” he says, “because it takes much longer to start with the national government and work your way down.”

According to Villalon, more heritage efforts are done outside Manila. “People outside the city are more conscious of who they are and they’re more willing to help out,” he shares. “You can’t do a heritage program if it’s only government and somebody doing all the work—it has to be equal, the community has to respond. And communities outside Manila respond easier. You see it in places like Palawan, Cebu, Ifugao and Batanes.”

Sustaining heritage
Sustainable construction practices are slowly being adapted around the metro, from using locally sourced organic materials to minimize carbon footprint, to the introduction of energy-saving solutions and greener practices. But more than sustaining the environment, sustainability also means sustaining the identity of the nation.

Many residential developments fail in this regard by upgrading traditional architecture and introducing foreign models and foreign “architectural themes” for their developments. While residential developments in The Fort, for example, are good for what they are, Villalon says,  “What we need are developments that respect ‘the downtown’ and there haven’t been many good examples of that yet. We spend so much money to go to Hong Kong or Europe or farther to see all these things that we have here. We just haven’t taken good care of it, and they do.”

Even in terms of a city’s disaster preparedness, sometimes finding the solution is just a matter of looking within the country—to the sound architectural models and practices of the past. Villalon shares: “If you look at the bahay kubo and the Spanish version of the bahay na bato, these were made to survive earthquakes. It’s just that nobody took the engineering and architecture of these buildings into account—they wanted something more modern, and they looked at outside examples which are not always applicable here.”

Given that the Philippines has had a long colonial history, it’s quite hard to pinpoint exactly what defines the Filipino identity. But Villalon points out that it’s always been how the Filipino has put together all these cultural influences and makes it his own. We are Asians who don’t think like Asians because when you have a western religion, it imposes a western mindset. I think in English, but I can speak in Tagalog and Bisaya and understand what little I’ve studied of Chinese. Villalon shares: “It’s the same reason why Filipinos can exist very well as executives and OFWs—it’s the mindset. Filipinos can go to Europe and adapt to the European way of thinking. Even in the Middle East. If you’re not Filipino, that’s difficult to do.”

Hopefully, today’s urban planners and developers will realize that being Filipino is actually a marketable concept. Indeed, the Philippines has a rich cultural identity and heritage that’s much to be proud of. Sustaining heritage goes beyond preserving old buildings—it is about upholding the identity and soul of a nation, and while preserving this may turn out to be costly at first, it can actually be a big resource for the development of communities.

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