POSTSCRIPT / July 30, 2000 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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The conservationist side on jai alai issue

INSTEAD of the earlier name-calling that generated more heat than light, some members of the Heritage Conservation Society wrote to explain why they thought the jai alai building being demolished on Taft Avenue should be spared.

It’s our pleasure to yield today to HCS member Paulo Alcazaren. Unfortunately, we had to cut his long letter to fit. Still, his piece, which runs up to the end of this column is even longer than our earlier comments. He says:

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I WRITE to say that I enjoy your column and also to comment on the observations you made on the jai alai issue last July 25.

I do agree with the Mayor of Manila, you and most everyone (and this includes the Heritage Conservation Society) that the City Courts need a home. What the HCS and I take issue with are the facts that: (1) another irreplaceable architectural landmark will be sacrificed; (2) the process for choosing and building the new edifice was not public or transparent; and (3) P500 million will be spent when less than half of this would have been needed if only the old GSIS building were adaptively reused.

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YOU said, “Some people seem to think that just because it was designed by an American architect it must be so exceptionally good that it must be preserved at all costs.”

Welton Becket was an American architect of note and went on to design landmarks in Los Angeles, Houston and most of the Hilton hotels worldwide in the sixties. The jai alai is exceptionally good, both aesthetically (the opinion of Filipino architectural historians as well as the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles and the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies of the World) as well as functionally and structurally (it survived a world war and the neglect of the Presidential Commission on Good Government).

The reason it looks bad at the moment is because it and its surroundings have been left by the PCGG to deteriorate. The blight of the city uglifies everything. We all find little to celebrate in this city because we have gotten used to our distopic environment.

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BECKET developed an environmentally sensitive architecture using the wide overhang of the circular canopy to shade the central section. He also used top-hung windows for ventilation and took advantage of the extensive mass of the podium block as a heat sink.

All these innovations would benefit local modern architecture as well as Becket’s own future designs for his buildings in Los Angeles and Houston. Both places required bio-climatic sensitivity and these cities owe much to Becket’s experience here in Manila.

The jai alai and Becket’s work in Manila are of historical and architectural importance. President Quezon invited him to Manila to help design low-cost housing for his “Barrio Obrero” in Quezon City. Becket stayed for two years and while here was commissioned to do the jai alai as well.

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THE project is important because Becket shared the design work with Filipino architects like Carlos Arguelles (who he collaborated with on the Manila Hilton) and Carlos Antonio Santos Viola and Carlos Da Silva.

Carlos Arguelles later designed the Philamlife building and the Carmen apartments, both bearing the influence of Becket. Santos Viola would later develop a Filipinized Art Deco style, which he used in such buildings as the D&E, the Iglesia ni Kristo churches, and the Sulu Hotel. Becket’s as well as Arguelles’ and Santos Viola’s contributions and extant buildings are still the subject of research by architectural historians.

Losing any work would set back Philippine architectural research and deny appreciation by succeeding generations of Filipino architects. Architecture needs to be seen and experienced. Old photos and drawings are not enough. These buildings are the best learning tools for future designers as well as living heritage, if adaptively re-used, for all other students of Philippine art and history.

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YOU said, “He (Mayor Atienza) had scouted around for a suitable site, but could not find any, until President Estrada gave him the fronton area.”

The fact is that the old GSIS (Government Service Insurance System) was offered to the mayor as far back as last year. The building, a landmark by Federico Ilustre, is much closer to City Hall and would be much less expensive to retrofit.

The suspicion is that the GSIS is holding out to be able to privatize the property as it is beside the new SM. Other people suspect that the jai alai’s demolition gives more opportunity for graft as the project cost is higher and would involve many more contracts including demolition.

There are also other sites beside the GSIS as these parcels are all government land up to the Arroceros Forest Park. The park could be conserved while still yielding more than enough land for new buildings or opportunities for adaptively re-using the historic buildings already on site. This area is also convenient for the public as it is right beside the LRT (Light Rail Transit) station.

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YOU said, “I do not see anything aesthetically moving or inspiring about that jai alai den of gamblers and game-fixers. Maybe I would have some sentimental attachment to the jai alai building if I were with Manila’s 500, who held lavish parties there. Or if I were an infatuated girl who had an unforgettable date at the SkyRoom of the building some decades ago. Or I might look upon the old fronton with fondness if I were a jai alai aficionado.”

Manila is the result of several layers of history and culture. This heterotopic character is what gives the city its distinctiveness. All our landmarks and heritage sites hold several meanings to several people at different eras in the city’s history. We seek not to valorize the building for the memories of just one segment or class of society but for the memories of all Manila’s citizens and visitors.

The rich may have partied there, but the structure was built with the labor of immigrants from the surrounding provinces. This is part of the story of the city’s urbanization and the changes in social morphology that shaped our lives in the last century.

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STRUCTURES and sites such as the jai alai’s are an important part of this curatorial narrative that our built heritage must keep intact and sustain.

This is important if we are to discover how much more we have to evolve before we recover a better urbanity. Studies and research in Philippine urban sociology and anthropology are still new and these structures and sites are the artifacts and living laboratories that may give us clues to new social and spatial constructs more helpful than the ineffective government programs based on short-term political goals and driven by vested interests and ever-present graft and corruption.

The member of Manila’s 500, the jai alai aficionado, the grandmother who was a blushing teen when she had her first date at the SkyRoom, as well as the hard-working laborer from Bulacan who made his life in this city after building the jai alai all “own” this building in their collective and diverse memories.

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YOU said, “Or if I were a jobless squatter, I might be willing to carry a protest placard in front of the doomed building and pretend to appreciate its alleged aesthetics and function.”

Not one of the 600 or so protestors pretended to appreciate the building’s aesthetics or function. Not one, as you so mischievously suggest, was paid to hold up a placard. Some of the members even risked their lives to stop the infernal machines from ripping up the façade of the building.

One may well be cautioned against underestimating the protestors. A good portion of the crowd was made up of architectural professors and their students, practicing architects, professionals, NGO leaders, environmentalists and a smattering of writers. The rest were concerned but well-informed citizens.

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FINALLY I will have to agree with you that it is difficult for others, including a good number of columnists and writers, to understand what this is all about. We are not as savvy as say our neighbors in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in matters of urban redevelopment and issues of physical change in their cities.

Few here would understand what the terms — architectural conservation, historic preservation, urban redevelopment, mixed-use projects, adaptive re-use or comprehensive master plan — mean. (Politicians here are also ignorant of the terms long-term, sustainable, environmentally-friendly, transparent, public-participation, honesty, integrity, trust, etc.)

Manila is 20 years behind even our most backward neighboring Asean City. Kulelat din tayo sa areas ng heritage conservation, urban planning and urban growth management. A good part of this conservation and management of physical and social resources in the city relies on the sites and structures of heritage.

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POSTSCRIPT: This is the kind of exchange we want, and we thank Mr. Alcazaren for his response. Still, as we win some and lose some, like Mayor Lito Atienza we won’t mind losing the jai alai building to a new Hall of Justice.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 30, 2000)

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