Ah, Manila. The Philippines’ capital city, the “Paris of Asia” in the late 19th century, teemed with pride and promise in its prime. Its close proximity to the ports made it an accessible, buzzing commercial center that people flocked to for its shopping meccas, entertainment houses, and business opportunities.
Manila’s cobblestone streets were lined with Art Deco-style buildings and European-inspired structures—from department stores and ice cream parlors to specialty shops and cinema theaters. It was a sight to behold and a popular destination not only to Manileños but also to tourists and expats who found reasons to keep coming back.
And then came World War II in 1945. The beautiful city was ground zero for the Battle of Manila, with irreparable damages that led to its demise. Manila never fully recovered. Attempts at reviving and restoring the physical structures and the energy that once kept the streets alive were short-lived and futile.
Still, the efforts to reclaim what was once a resplendent city continue to this day. Here are a few of the frontrunners leading the preservation of Manila’s history and ultimately, the Filipino identity.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE PHILIPPINES
Padre Burgos Avenue
Open from Tuesdays to Sundays, 9am to 6pm
“I’d like to describe museums as keepers of memories and creators of contemplation,” begins Jorell Legaspi, National Museum’s deputy director-general. “Our mandate is to spread knowledge, awareness, and develop new ways of learning about our heritage and understanding—yung pagexplore kumbaga ng ating pagkatao bilang Filipino,” he explains. “Through our various collections, we’re able to tell stories that demonstrate the richness of our culture. And this could be through fine arts, architectural art heritage, as well as anthropological areas such as archaeology or even our maritime underwater cultural heritage.”
Cases in point are its recent shows: the National Museum of Anthropology’s Indio-Genius: 500 Taon ng Labanang Kultural exhibit by National Artist Kidlat Tahimik, which opened in October 2022 and is set to run until December of the same year. There was also Michael Leyva’s fashion show titled “Hiraya: Isang Dekada ng Aming Pagmamahal at Pangarap” held at the National Museum of Natural History last October 10, 2022. These events, Legaspi points out, are examples of creative endeavors that can be explored within the museum. They are also a testament to the ”diversity in a museum setting” that allows for various forms of expression.
In the coming months, and with the help of the local government units that inform the museum of the community’s needs, the National Museum will continue to expand its public programs for natural history, anthropology, and fine arts. The development of the museum park complex, slated to be a multipurpose space, is also in the works. Such efforts are expected to bring in more students, especially now that restrictions for out-of-classroom activities are more relaxed.
A former educator himself, Legaspi stresses the importance of “imagination and creativity” as “essential for survival,” especially in times of crisis such as the pandemic. He likewise explores the idea of “museums as places for therapy.” “It’s a great opportunity for young people to seek refuge in… to feel that they’re in a safe space for contemplation and expression,” he adds.
1919 GRAND CAFÉ
117 Juan Luna Street, Binondo
Open daily from 7am to 9pm
It’s a nice surprise to find an elegant café among the banks and corporate offices on Juan Luna Street in Binondo. Built on a 100-year-old structure that used to house the HSBC headquarters, the 1919 Grand Café greets diners with cozy interiors that mix the old and the new, set in a sprawling floor space with high ceilings. Its top-notch, multicuisine offerings are prepared and served fresh by its accommodating staff.
“Matagal na itong na-abandon. Naging warehouse din,” relates Rudy Gan, who owns and manages the restaurant with his brother Jim. “Hindi mo maiisip kung anong itsura nito dati. Yung tambak ng basura, inabot ng twenty-plus na truck. Even sa vault may baha, sobrang tagal napabayaan.” The marble floors had to be thoroughly cleaned and the original wooden ceiling carefully restored. Gan adds, “Yung I-beam, na-preserve din yung old design, pero may cracks na sa lindol kaya binalot namin ng stone.”
If [our built heritage] is not preserved, how can our youth know of the glory days of Philippine architecture... and how it reflected the aspirations and self-respect of our people?
It took them twenty months to complete the renovation. Investing in the old building was a gamble, Gan admits, and it would’ve cost him less time and resources had he decided to just forego any preservation efforts. “Para sa akin, sobrang [premium] nitong building. And yung may history na ganito, hundred plus years, sa old city mo lang makukuha.”
The café officially opened in 2018, its name an homage to the year the structure was first built. However, it hardly had any customers on its first year, and Gan would’ve closed it down if not for the support of the city government. “Nakita nila na may ganitong café-restaurant dito, nanghinayang sila kasi maganda, pero walang tao…kaya prinomote nila kami,” Gan recalls.
The gamble paid off despite the initial hiccup. Today, 1919 Grand Café is a place that not only serves good food, it’s also a space where customers can appreciate the beauty and value of heritage buildings.
FIRST UNITED BUILDING
413 Escolta Street
“If it is not preserved, how can our youth know of the glory days of Philippine architecture in the early 1900s and how it reflected the aspirations and self-respect of our people?” asks Lorraine Sylianteng, who owns and manages the First United Building (or FUB) with her husband Roberto. Yet she is also the first to admit that her family was not readily aware of the value of the structure formerly called the Perez-Samanillo Building and the legacy it signifies. In fact, her father-in-law purchased the building in 1979 to primarily keep their business, the Berg’s Department Store, afloat. The original owner, German entrepreneur Ernest Berg, sold the store to the Syliantengs in the ‘50s.
“We were slowly educated about its significance’ and further got deeper into conserving and preserving,” reveals Sylianteng. A 1928 Art Deco structure designed by architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, FUB has remarkably withstood damages caused by the war, natural calamities, and years of neglect for 94 years.
To continue passing on FUB’s rich history to its new audience, the building administration has set up a museum and a tour. “I’ve heard many stories of people who have visited the museum and have felt energized in their lives, in their careers, to rise up. The museum tour tells the story of hope and the overcoming of adversity of Andres Luna de San Pedro and the tragic [yet] inspiring life of Mr. Sylianteng,” the owner narrates.
[A museum's] mandate is to... develop new ways of learning about our heritage and understanding—yung pagexplore kumbaga ng ating pagkatao bilang Filipino.
Today, FUB is a hip and happening creative space. It houses The Den, a coffee shop-cum-art space; Escolta Coffee Company, a coffee roaster that opened its doors last August; and HUB Make Lab, an artist-led space for creatives and grassroots entrepreneurs. “We believe that having artists is a good way to revive an area,” adds Sylianteng.
The buzz created by these new “residents” led to an increase in building occupancy, although the pandemic gave it a pause. “We are starting to pick up again,” says Sylianteng. “We look forward to more cooperation as our artist groups continue to create activities to enliven Escolta.”
THE METROPOLITAN THEATER
Padre Burgos Avenue corner Arroceros Street, Ermita
Open from Monday to Thursday, 8am to 4pm.
Inaugurated in 1931, the Metropolitan Theater (or the MET) was proclaimed a national cultural treasure and a heritage site protected by law. It holds a long survival story—from its glory days to its eventual post-war decay as well as the multiple times it has closed and reopened.
Finally, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) took ownership of the MET and spearheaded its restoration project in 2015. “A conservation policy had to be set,” says Aaron James Veloso, consultant for the MET and the NCCA. “It indicates that anything from the original 1931 structure had to be retained. Of course, the facilities in the theater had to be updated to standard.”
After four years and pandemic-related delays, the MET reopened its doors in 2021 with the theatrical production Lapu-Lapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan. “The feedback has been overwhelming,” Veloso recounts. “Most, if not all, of our shows, parating overbooked, and kapag may traffic dito, it’s most likely because there’s a show happening in the MET.”
“This year is about celebrating and commemorating the works of our National Artists, as 2022 is the 50th year since the ordinance was established,” he adds. Recently, the NCCA, together with the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) and the ABS-CBN film restoration program, hosted a screening of Mga Hiyas ng Sineng Filipino, which opened with Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982) starring National Artist Nora Aunor.
In the gallery is a fashion exhibit called Imagining/Imaging, putting on display the important works of National Artist Salvacion Lim Higgins. Come December, the MET will be hosting Puso ng Pasko, slated to be the next Christmas classic of the Philippines that features choreography and music by National Artists Alice Reyes and Ryan Cayabyab, respectively. All the programs and exhibitions at the MET are open to the public for free. This is made possible by the national government’s funding. “We have a regular schedule of free theatrical performances, concerts, and stage shows here,” says Veloso. “We want to push forward the idea that art is for everyone, art is for the masses.”
RAMON MAGSAYSAY CENTER
1680 Roxas Boulevard, 1004 Malate
In busy Malate stands the iconic Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural gem of brutalist trappings through and through. Designed by architect Alfredo Luz, the complex is magnificent as it is simple. Ramon Magsaysay Center, or RM Center, was formally opened in 1967. It was named after the seventh president of the Philippines, Ramon Magsaysay. The building is a two-part complex consisting of an 18-story commercial tower and a two-story building that houses a foundation. The center has become a choice venue for many art exhibitions, musical concerts, and other celebrations since its inception.
Fifty-five years later, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) decided on a revamp. It collaborated with the design students of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde through a competition. The winning teams were selected for their innovative design proposals in elevating the key areas of the structure: the Magsaysay Laureate library and mini-museum, its mid-century plaza, the Ramon Magsaysay Hall, the function rooms, the innovation hub, and the library cafe.
The library, known for its quiet, elegant design in a loft layout, will incorporate a lift for PWDs. Meanwhile, the museum will showcase rotating art exhibits, with the inclusion of technological advancements that will allow for creative multimedia executions.
The RMAF function rooms will stay true to the building’s original appeal, albeit the addition of colors and architectural details that will add vibrant, new energy to the spaces. The grand hall will retain its grandiosity while weaving distinctly Filipino materials and patterns into its design. It will still accommodate up to 250 people with partitions for smaller-scale gatherings in keeping with COVID-19 protocols.
The plaza, which is a public amenity, will include a seating space and a mural with a focal point and a functional space for greenery. Meanwhile, the proposed innovation hub imagines a tranquil space that aims to foster creativity, ideas, and privacy. The overall design is futuristic without sacrificing the structure’s brutalist roots.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the 2022 print issue of Made in Manila, commissioned by the Department of Trade, Culture, and Arts of Manila (DTCAM) for the City of Manila. Edits were made for the GRID website.