S & D in Binondo

Published May 30, 2018, 10:00 PM

by Mario Casayuran and Vanne Elaine Terrazola

Gemma Cruz Araneta
Gemma Cruz Araneta

By Gemma Cruz Araneta


With indelible dismay, Filipinos who cherish heritage and history feel that Manila, the capital of this Republic, has become a “free-fire zone.”  Last 28 May, significant heritage edifices protected by a presumptive clause of RA 10066 were almost reduced to cinders: The Neo-classical Juan Luna E-Services building by the Pasig housed during its life time the Pacific Commercial Co., the International Banking Corp., and the First National City Bank of New York; it was built in 1923.   The Land Management Bureau Building was originally the headquarters of the Insular Life Insurance Company at Plaza Cervantes; designed in 1930 by no less than Andres Luna de San Pedro, Juan Luna’s son, it had a mighty eagle on its pinnacle. The fire spread to two other heritage structures, the Moraga Mansion and the Bank of the Philippine Islands, also at Plaza Cervantes.

You may have noticed that there have been so many fires in the city of Manila. It did not use to be like that; my friends who live there say, in jest, that “search and destroy” (S&D) operations are going on in certain areas of the city, like Binondo. There is a search for heritage structures that are targeted for destruction.

There are unscrupulous people who skulk about local government offices offering their skills at demolishing “old” structures for factitious reasons.  To them heritage is decrepit, useless; they have never heard of adaptive re-use, retrofitting, or the layering of the old and new. One of the favorite targets was the former PNB building on the Escolta, which Mayor Alfredo Lim converted into the City College of Manila after the bank transferred to Makati. He paid no attention to all those offers to demolish; it was a handsome, solidly built edifice designed by the eminent Architect  Carlos Argüelles. Lamentably, it recently was put to torch by unknown hands, probably to give way to yet another anti-aesthetic high-rise eyesore.  Another  building at the Anda Circle, a gem by Architect  Jose Ma. Zaragoza, is suffering the same fate.

My suspicions about S & D may not be too far-fetched. The head of  Manila’s Fire Protection Bureau, Chief Senior Inspector Reden Alumno, shared his misgivings with the media. He said the fire started at past midnight after a weekend which is when arsonists usually strike; there are few guards on duty during those wee hours. In fact, at the Land Management Bureau where tons of land titles went up in smoke, there were only four guards on duty. Chief Alumno added that strange sounds were heard from the 7th floor before the sudden burst of flames, which, curiously enough, took a downward path to the lower floors. Chief Alumno said that happens only in wooden structures, the LMB is “made of purely concrete materials.”

Then came the heart-stabbing news that the National Archives of the Philippines had moved its administrative offices to the Juan Luna E- Services building because they were digitalizing archival material from the Spanish and American colonial periods.  We lovers of history felt unsustainable pain and horror at the thought of losing not only four significant heritage icons, but the very history of our nation – and those vintage maps that are evidence of our territorial boundaries.  That was the full pathos of the situation,  in the space of 24 hours we suffered irretrievable losses including ournational memory.  With evidence of our past destroyed and reduced to ashes, how can we now face the future? Not only was it S & D, it was scorched earth of the cruelest kind.

At this writing, Director Inno Manalo of the National Archives has assured the public that nothing valuable was lost in the fire, that his staff was able to move all those crates of documents in the nick of time. Be that as it may, he should now be extra careful about pilferage, the termites in his agency will surely use that fire as a handy cover-up.

During the Battle for Manila in 1945, the districts south of the Pasig River were bombed to smithereens, but many areas in the north, Binondo included, were spared. Lamentably, this seemingly unstoppable, new type of S & D will soon destroy whatever survived World War II.

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