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The Monuments Men

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Escuela Taller is teaching Filipinos in construction and conservation—for our country's most precious heritage sites.

Photography by
Geric Cruz
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They call it the Wedding Capital of the Philippines. But I didn’t know that back then. I do remember of my first visit to San Agustin Church that the sun was at its peak, and that the air inside the old church was thick and heavy with a musky blend of humidity, old wood, flowers, sweat, and frenzy. I can’t remember whose wedding it was, but I can vividly remember how massive and mysterious everything looked inside.

I was seven; I remember how I clambered up the stairwell and how daunting the dome ceiling and grim, dark paintings were to me. I remember how I slinked through the halls and rushed past walls of gargantuan paintings until I spotted a small, dark corridor at the end of the hall. The light showing through the door pierced through the darkness, and I knew I’d reached the choir loft that overlooked the entire church.

Up there, able to view the massive ceiling from a closer vantage point, I realized that the intricate designs were not carved, but instead were masterful trompe l’oeil paintings. I was transfixed. God knows how long we stood there—He was there, after all—with my mouth hanging wide open, staring high up at the ceiling as though I had just seen heaven.

As I grew up, I’d wonder if this was the intention behind the opulent architecture of the old Catholic churches: to evoke an overwhelming sense of awe so transcendental, one can’t help but think that maybe some divine power really has a hand in the whole experience.


THE OG OF CATHOLIC HERITAGE

The first version of this grand old church was built from nipa and bamboo in 1572. Just a year after Miguel López de Legazpi sealed an agreement with Rajah Sulayman and built a Spanish settlement within a 64-hectare citadel and trade center, the Roman Catholic Religious Order of St. Augustine built the first church and monastery in Luzon. But after a succession of fires and pirate raids, the Agustinian friars commissioned Juan Macías to rebuild the church out of stone. It would take two decades to complete, as funding was slow; the adobe stones had to be sourced from Guadalupe, Meycauayan, and San Mateo; and lime processing was tedious. Juan Macías died before the church was officially ready in 1607 as the Iglesia y Convento de San Pablo. It would keep this name for over 350 years, until 1945, when it was rechristened the Immaculate Concepcion Parish after surviving WWII.

Escuela Taller’s headquarters doesn’t seem like your typical skills training center.

Fr. Pedro Galende published a book on the heritage architecture of Agustinian churches in the Philippines titled Angels in Stone: “One cannot but wonder at the grandeur of San Agustin,” he wrote, “which, in spite of the scarcity of material resources, skill workers, architects, expert lime and sand mixers, stands as a magnificent monument, imposing for its solidarity and not lacking in art.”

Today, at four hundred years old, it is the OG of Spanish churches in the Philippines. As one of the country’s four Baroque churches on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it’s heavily protected by international charters and Philippine laws such as the Heritage Law (Heritage Conservation Act of 2009 or RA No. 10066) and Presidential Decree 375 declaring it as a National Historical Landmark.

But it has survived more than just the onslaught of time and enemies; in addition to wars and earthquakes, the church has also endured several restoration attempts within the last century, which was revealed to have caused more damage than repair. Those who’ve been visiting the church for the last three or four decades might still remember the striking paint color on its facade, or how the latex paint was used to paint over the iconic trompe l’oeil mural on the church’s ceiling had disintegrated due to the high humidity.


Unexpected Protectors

So, when news spread that a non-profit construction school for out-of-school youth would be restoring the mural and the choir loft in 2015, many were surprised, maybe even skeptical.

Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation was a relatively young organization comprised of historians, architects, engineers, and conservation specialists. Funded by the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Escuela Taller was incorporated in 2013, with a couple of projects and a small pool of graduates under its belt.

The seat of the Immaculate Concepcion Parish, San Agustin Church’s official name, is dubbed as the Wedding Capital of the country. Due to the high volume of bookings, reservations can take up to a year in advance.


We have laws for protecting our built history. In accordance to RA No. 10066, for example, the NCCA requires rigorous assessment processes complying with international heritage laws and standards before any sort of restoration work can even begin. But when it comes to restoration, the work speaks for itself. Earlier projects, such as the garden of Revellin de Recoletos in Intramuros and Our Lady of Remedies Parish Church in Malate—another Agustinian Baroque church and Escuela Taller’s most comprehensive restoration project to date—served as testimonies for the team’s skill and expertise.

Headed by a technical team of conservation experts, Escuela Taller commissioned restoration artist Guy Custodio to restore the trompe l’oeil mural painting on the ceiling of San Agustin Church. He had a lot to contend with, as previous restoration attempts had only served to damage the paintings further.

For this project, Custodio used the fresco-secco technique, in which pigments mixed with lime are applied onto dry plaster. For the choir loft and the 68 hand carved choir stalls, Escuela Taller sought the assistance of conservation experts from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños to identify the type of wood used for the sillera. The work also involved recreating the intricate marquetry work, as well as reinstating missing components such as backrests and armrests.

Since the first batch, the Woodworking curriculum has been teaching its trainees the skill of wood carving, under the tutelage of master wood carver Willie Layug. To recreate the intricate marquetry of the silleras, the trainees practiced relentlessly with the help of online tutorials until they mastered the skill.

The project took almost three years to complete, beginning in 2014 and ending in 2017.

Escuela Taller offers out of school youth from marginalized communities to learn the skills required in construction and conservation work, such as carpentry, masonry, woodwork, metalworks, painting, plumbing, and electric work.

Tucked within the walls of Intramuros, Escuela Taller’s headquarters doesn’t seem like your typical skills training center. For one thing, it sits on an actual ravelin—hence the name Revellin de Recoletos—built in 1771 “to strengthen the defense of the curtain wall between Baluarte de Dilao and Baluarte de San Andres.”

But then, Escuela Taller isn’t a typical training center. The name itself means “workshop school,” offering free on-the-job training to young adults from 17 to 25 years old, and hailing from some of the poorest communities in Manila. The scholarship also covers uniforms, workshop materials, lunch, and transportation. It’s the first of its kind in the Philippines, modeled after its pioneer institution in Spain and counterparts across Latin America.

What is the value of these churches and buildings if the very community around them is not involved in the task of preservation?

When recruiting voluntary candidates to the program, Escuela Taller partners with the barangay councils and local Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) offices in the communities where these youngsters hail from, such as Tondo, Paco, and Baseco Compound. Many who sign up are former gang members and drug users, seeking help for reformation and another chance for a better life.

Paolo Nuñez (better known as “Pao-Pao”) used to loiter around Luneta Park, sniff rugby, and get into trouble for picking pockets and other crimes in order to feed himself and survive. About eight years ago, he learned that the DSWD was recruiting young adults in his neighborhood in Baseco Compound to join a skills training school, free of charge. He seized the opportunity and signed up to be part of Escuela Taller’s first batch of scholars. Today, he is an assistant instructor for the Masonry workshop, helping other kids find their way towards a better future. Communications and Special Projects Officer Philip Paraan shares, “We have a covenant here at Escuela: When you join, you commit to change.”

Bong Bong Cancillar leads the Woodworking workshop at Escuela Taller
Bong Bong Cancillar, the son of a furniture maker, leads the Woodworking workshop at Escuela Taller and imparts his love for wood carving to his students.


Everyone enrolled at Escuela Taller commits to 12 months of intensive training in traditional construction techniques and modern methods in the areas of masonry, carpentry and woodworking, painting and finishing, metal works, plumbing, and electrical works. The training methodology subscribes to the “learning by doing” concept of teaching, wherein trainees partner with graduates in a “buddy system” to participate in hands-on restoration projects. The program also aims to cultivate a deeper and more holistic development within its trainees.

“Apart from the skills training, they study Values Education, and Culture and Heritage Appreciation to position themselves properly on why they are restoring old churches,” Paraan explains. “They need to prepare their sensibilities and mindset to handle the work.”

After completing the 12-month program, graduates can take the National Certification II skills assessment examination to merit a TESDA certification in construction trade and works. This qualification would open doors and boost access to the labor market, otherwise improbable as an out-of-school youth without credentials.

“We have a covenant here at Escuela: When you join, you commit to change.”<callout-alt-author>PHILIP PARAAN<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

With eight years, seven graduations, and more than 300 trainees to its name, Escuela Taller is taking its mission beyond the churches and walls of Intramuros with projects in Batanes, Pangasinan, and the Visayas Region. A satellite branch is currently operational in Bohol, mainly as a training program for Traditional Masonry Construction and Restoration works to restore numerous heritage churches that were destroyed by the 2013 earthquake.

Taking on more restoration projects across the country also means more communities to reach, more wayward youngsters to help, thus expanding the reach of their mission to raise awareness on heritage preservation.

“Especially for the graduates who have done several projects, they understand why we do this and their appreciation for heritage deepens,” Paraan explains. “The goal of Escuela Taller ultimately is to use the projects and training to advocate for heritage. While we fix buildings, we conduct education campaigns, seminars, workshops in communities around the country. This is the language of conservation all over the world today; in any heritage conservation project, the community should be involved.”


It Takes a Village

Escuela Taller is making great strides in its effort to save our country’s rapidly diminishing built heritage while addressing unemployment, especially in the marginalized sectors. However, preserving our long and complicated national history takes more than just a handful of institutions and organizations, no matter how determined they may be.

Architect Jeffrey Cobilla, Head of the ET Technical Team
Carpentry instructor Elvin Alexon Ferrer
Left: Architect Jeffrey Cobilla, Head of the ET Technical Team; Right: Carpentry instructor Elvin Alexon Ferrer


As happens with many issues, true and lasting change in the area of cultural preservation needs the commitment of the people around it. What is the value of these churches and buildings if the very community around them is not involved in the task of preservation? How can a community feel compelled to take ownership and responsibility if they are not aware of the value of these structures?

Intramuros is recognized as a historical site and a UNESCO Heritage Site buffer zone, and therefore protected by global charters and national laws. Anyone who’s visited the city and walked through its cobblestoned streets in the last three decades might agree that these policies are the only thing that’s keeping the place—or its history—alive. Left without the guard of laws and mandates, Intramuros would’ve already gone the way of many other old districts that traded history for commercial progress and modernity.

“The goal of Escuela Taller ultimately is to use the projects and training to advocate for heritage."<callout-alt-author>PHILIP PARAAN<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

The Intramuros Administration (IA) has implemented a task force that enables the participation of the city’s 5,000 residents and 800 families in its five-year development plan that aims to revitalize the old city while preserving its historical value. This time, the IA is consulting directly with each of the nine communities within its jurisdiction.

“We’ve been engaging with the informal communities and letting them know that we recognize the fact that they are living here [in Intramuros],” says Atty. Guiller Asido, IA Administrator. “We’re making sure everyone is part of the process in deciding on the rules, projects, and changes that we propose. Whether it’s with the pedicab drivers about parking and traffic rules, or organizing the street vending zones with the vendors. Because the vendors here in Intramuros actually have their own organization: Samahan ng mga Magtitinda sa Intramuros. For the plan to be effective, it’s important that we work together and recognize them as partners.”


I decide to pay a visit to the IA office, where Atty. Asido tells me about an ongoing project. In line with IA’s conservation management plan, it aims to resurrect Intramuros’ creative heritage and catapult the district as a thriving hub for the arts and design thinking, quite like its neighbors who’ve been enjoying a reemergence of sorts in the recent years.

Together with the Creative Economy Council of the Philippines, the IA has been working to rehabilitate and transform the Maestranza Complex into a creative hub, foregoing the hasty route of using the building for commercial purposes. As Atty. Asido shows me a 3D model of the 40-chamber structure which overlooks the river, it becomes clear to me that all these plans, these projects, and these policies, are driven by a vision. He calls it urban regeneration. Paving a path in heritage conservation entails much rebuilding, figuratively and structurally. At the heart of all these plans and projects, lies the greater challenge: to make Intramuros a liveable and thriving community for its residents, who, in turn, are empowered to feel they are part of its history and its future—that Intramuros is truly theirs to save.


“It’s a living community so we have to recognize that they have a valid stake inside the district,” explains Atty. Asido. “It’s not just heritage for the conservationists, it should be heritage for all. And that can only happen once the people feel involved, once they feel that it’s really part of them.”

What can our relationship with our built heritage tell us about how we identify with our collective past? We Filipinos are a sentimental bunch; we are hardwired to draw inspiration from nostalgia, from deeply emotional associations with symbols and memories that mold our sense of place and identity.

But perhaps the steps we need to take don’t necessarily always have to be wide leaps and mad sprints. Maybe it will take several weddings, baptisms, and other ceremonial traditions to forge a new collective memory in our social fabric. By empowering marginalized communities and a new generation to feel that they have a stake in the preservation of our heritage, maybe, just maybe, these structures will cease to be mere remnants of a colonial past but from a shared history that we can truly call ours.

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This story was originally published in GRID Volume 06.

  • Due to health and safety restrictions, Escuela Taller’s regular training programs are currently on-hold. However, the foundation's work continues; in Pampanga, a team of 24 artisans are working on Angeles Church (Holy Rosary Parish). The foundation also continues to support its out-of-school youth by adapting a blended-learning system in its approach. Visit their website to learn how you can support Escuela Taller.