Quo vadis, conservation?

Published May 8, 2018, 10:00 PM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola

 José Abeto  Zaide
José Abeto Zaide

By José Abeto Zaide


The title is lifted from the 31 July 2017 column of Augusto Villalon, which asked in straight-forward English, “Where is conservation going?” I reproduce below his valedictory, abridged:

  • A long look at Philippine heritage conservation post WW2: Imelda organized the Intramuros Administration in mid-70s to construct new buildings in the “old style.” But remnants of the old architecture were torn down and replaced, (like old lamps for new)?
  • Misconceptions pervaded: Old houses and buildings were confiscated; if restored, they were used as public structures or museums. (If haunted, why conserve?)
  • But hope springs eternal. In 1990s, small band of conservationists morphed into the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS), a powerful group of noisy aficionados who raised the bar for heritage.
  • Win some, lose some. In 2000, while the HCS spoke of conservation with the authorities, the Philistines were demolishing the Jai Alai. This experience led to R.A. 10066 National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009. But city authorities and developers still found loopholes.
  • Revival: Escolta Redevelopment Project is born with youth-oriented craft and curio shops, coffee shops, monthly and weekend festivals. Demolition of El Hogar Building (1911-14), one of Manila’s most ornate, was prevented. Developer’s plans? Abangan…
  • Philippine national committee for International Council of Monuments and Sites (Icomos) reactivated with new heritage professionals (historians, lawyers, architects).
  • Villalon concluded, optimistically: The next generation of conservators now take control of our heritage. The “older” generation of conservationists may sit back as advisors to the young.


Augusto “Toti” Villanon was the man at the right elbow to every Philippine Ambassador to the UNESECO. This conservation architect was made honorary member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) in Paris – a rare distinction accorded to professionals who are global leaders in heritage conservation. He was Commissioner of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and a recognized cultural historian who represented the Philippines at UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Paris. For his indefatigable efforts, he received the Diwa ng Lahi from the City of Manila and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the Ministry of Culture of France.

As Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist, Villalon wrote extensively on architecture and its constellation under his space, “Pride of Place”. He authored several works on Filipino culture and history. Two among his tomes are, “PHILIPPINES. Living Landscapes and Cultural Landmarks (World Heritage Sites of the Philippines)”, and “Lugar” (a very common Filipino word for ”place”). Rodrigo D. Perez III prefaced the book and its author: “An architect with a background in sociology and art history, an engaging writer, and a dedicated advocate in conservation projects …in local [and] international circles… It is hoped that everyone who reads this book will do so not only to be informed, or God forbid, to be amused, but more than that, to become a militant advocate. In a land of endangered treasures, every cry of concern counts.”

Two notable high points of Toti Villalon’s stint at UNESCO are the saving of the Philippine Rice Terraces in World Heritage List in June 2012 and the exhibition “Philippines: Archipel des Échanges (Philippines: Archipelago of Exchanges) at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in April 2013. World Heritage Committee formally removed the Philippine Rice Terraces from being de-listed from its register after we successfully met the Desired State of Conservation. The Philippines restored at least 50 percent of the collapsed terraces; accomplished the required documentation and rehabilitation of major irrigation systems at the site; enforced the policies and laws to preserve the site; restored landscape and conservation; developed community-based land use and zoning plans; and instituted measures ensuring the site’s proper management and its protection from natural disasters.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Vice President Jejomar Binay inaugurated the Philippine Archipelago exhibit, one of the most comprehensive exhibition of Philippine pre-Hispanic artifacts and indigenous art from collections of the National Museum of the Philippines, Ayala Museum and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. The exhibit also included pieces from the Musée du quai Branly; the Leiden Museum of Ethnology (Netherlands); Museum fur Volkenkunde (Vienna); the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Madrid); American Museum of Natural History (New York City; and the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago). It included remarkable objects on loan from important private collections in the Philippines, France, and the United States, and pieces otherwise hidden in museum storage. The exhibit showcased Philippine cultural tradition and our high level of pre-Hispanic craftsmanship.

Toti Villalon midwifed accrediting our Philippine World Heritage Sites: Baroque Churches of the Philippines (1993: San Agustin in Manila, Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur, Paoay in Ilocos Norte, and Miag-ao in Iloilo); The Historic Town of Vigan (1999); Rice Terraces (nearly lost but saved by the successful Philippine campaign in 2012); Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary (2014); Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (1999); and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (1993)

There are 19 more Philippine prospective candidatures for World Heritage Sites, (including Batanes landscapes and seascapes. Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves, Petroglyphs and Petrographs, Chocolate Hills, Apo Reef, Coron Island Natural Biotic Area) But the task is left to the next generation of conservators in whom Villalon reposed much hope and confidence.


After a long lingering illness, Augusto “Toti” Villalon passed away last Saturday, 5 May 2018. His remains lie in state at the Capilla dela Virgen, Santuario de San Antonio. Interment tomorrow, Thursday, 10 May, will be preceded by a 10 a.m. mass at the capilla.


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