Dear councilors of the City of Manila

Published November 11, 2020, 4:46 PM

by Gemma Cruz Araneta

LANDSCAPE

Honorable ladies and gentlemen, many of you do not know me because you were not yet in office when I was working for the late Mayor Alfredo S. Lim. If memory serves, some of you I already know like Councilors Josie Siscar, Lou Veloso, Roberto Asilo, Uno Lim, Joel Chua, DJ Bagatsing, Mon Yupangco, Pablo Ocampo, and Raffy Jimenez. Whether or not we know each other, allow me to walk you backwards into the future.

Natives of Manila (like yours truly), those who studied in its institutions or established businesses in its bustling districts, are alarmed that the city we love is losing whatever remains of its fabled personality. Despite Mayor Isko’s energetic efforts at beautification (the Jones Bridge, Anda Circle, Carriedo Fountain, Arroceros Forest Park, to name only a few), Manila is beset by a maelstrom of issues. Even if it is one of the most congested cities, its skyline continues to be punctured with high-rise buildings that contribute to environmental degradation evident in traffic congestion, pollution, and lack of living spaces and gainful employment. The new structures which claim to be ineluctable signs of progress are bereft of aesthetic qualities and are often constructed at the expense of heritage gems that tell the history of the city.

Let us peep over the parapets and look at Escolta. I am sure that Councilor J. Chua knows that one of the oldest streets in Manila is found in his district (3rd), Escolta has existed since 1594. Originally, it was a place where the “escolta” or escort cavalry of Spanish colonial officials used to park their horses. Grass grew abundantly at the mouth of the Pasig River and along its banks and natives would collect these and sell them as horse fodder. A certain Ciriaca de los Santos of Cavite married to a Spanish officer surnamed Gorricho made a fortune selling grass. As a result, she began land banking and bought practically the whole Escolta which soon became prime commercial property. Two of her daughters married Pardo de Tavera brothers.

Because of its strategic riverine location, the “zacatera’s” real estate holdings became a bustling center of commerce lined with shops selling goods from three continents during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. By American colonial times, Escolta was home to fashionable shops and restaurants, The Manila Stock Exchange was located in the first ever air-conditioned building, the Crystal Arcade, designed by Architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, the only son of Juan Luna and Paz Gorricho Pardo de Tavera.

Unfortunately, the Crystal Arcade was destroyed during the war and never completely rebuilt. Spectacular as it was, the Crystal Arcade was an ill-advised business project which caused the ruin of the Tavera-Luna company, in which the architect invested what he had inherited from his mother. Two others survived the war and recent corporate greed — the First United Building formerly Perez-Samanillo, and the Regina building. The PNB building rose in the place of the Crystal Arcade, an amazing structure with brise soleil by Arch. Carlos Arguelles, but it was shamelessly demolished by then Mayor Joseph Estrada.

Honorable Manila councilors, two weeks ago I wrote in this space a letter to Mayor Isko, bringing to his attention the plight of Andres Luna’s Perez-Samanillo building, now First United and owned by the Sylianteng family who are faced with cascading uncertainties. There are two urgent concerns: Another heritage building behind it, the former American Chamber of Commerce has changed hands. It was given a demolition permit; a new edifice of 40 floors is being constructed. The piling of foundations is so deep that it is affecting the integrity of the First United building and the others in that area. As you know, constructing along the Pasig River is a geological problem. Piles have to be thrust deeply because of the water level. That was the main problem of Arch. Andres Luna’s Crystal Arcade even if it was only four stories high. Please, honorable councilors, instruct the city engineer to look into this grave problem.

The second request is for a tax rebate for owners of heritage buildings in Manila who are painstakingly maintaining their buildings by giving these historical structures adaptive reuse. I am aware that there are city ordinances which state that buildings with commercial use are not entitled to tax rebates, but how can the owners cover the cost of the maintenance of a heritage building if they are not allowed to give it remunerative adaptive reuse? Just consider its value in tourism receipts and as a didactic tool for a younger generation of aspiring architects and engineers.

As you know, Architect Andres Luna was the city architect of Manila from 1920 to 1924. He was the 15th registered architect of the Philippines by virtue of the Engineers and Architect Law of 1922. He also had quite a prolific private practice, first in association with Architect Juan Nakpil, then with Architect Jose Cortes, until he decided to go it alone. He designed commercial buildings, institutional and educational edifices. His mansions, villas, bungalows were flights of fancy, unbridled expressions of his eclectic style. Most werelocated in Ermita, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Escolta. He also designed mansions for the sugar barons of the Visayas and the residence of a former governor of Tayabas, in Sariaya. The chapel of St. Paul’s College which miraculously survived the bombing of Manila was his handiwork as well as the chalet of Gen. Paciano Rizal in Los Baños. He also designed the Bonifacio monument in Balintawak and the mausoleum for veterans of the Revolution. In his lifetime, he won a plethora of first and second prizes. He passed on in 1952.

All his works, lost or extant, are worthy of wonder. I propose that the Manila Council honor him with a bust or plaque, at least, in the premises of the City Hall and include a study of his works in faculties of architecture in educational institutions in Manila and, of course, in the Manila Museum.

Thank you for your kind attention.

([email protected]) (gemmacruzaraneta.com)

 
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