Preserving historic cultural buildings

September 15, 2020 | By: Arch. Benjamin K. Panganiban, Jr. (as published in The Manila Times last September 15, 2020)

MUCH has been said about the Philam Life Building along United Nations Avenue in Ermita, Manila, from the time it was sold in 2012 to its recent dismantling works by its new owner.

We can include the cries and petition to preserve this iconic structure by heritage advocate groups way back in the past up to the present. I can only assume most logically, a brand-new mix-use commercial complex or a new condominium may soon rise on this location.

Completed in 1961. This structure was designed by one of the prominent and progressive architects at that time, Carlos Arguelles. Its significance was the design followed the international architectural style of glass and concrete exterior covering with aluminum horizontal sun bristles or what I call sun-breakers to deflect the light coming into the building. This building had an auditorium or a theatre for the cultural arts way before the Cultural Center of the Philippines was built. It was called the Philam Life Auditorium.

The building was the office of the Philippjne American Life and General Insurance Company in the 1960’s and its theatre served as the venue of the rich and famous, and the musically and arts- inclined populace for concerts, theatrical and cultural presentations. In fact, the 780-seat theatre had wonderful acoustics well-suited for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and various musical groups.

These excellent acoustics were made by Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the same group that did the wonderful acoustics of the famed Sydney Opera House in Australia.

However, this piece of cultural heritage property may soon be gone in favor of commercialization. Some of the important architectural features of the building such as the murals and reliefs are now with the National Museum for conservation. and the original stained glasses are at the new Philam Life building in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig.

Also, portions of the Narra-made 1,536 meter relief wood carving by Filipino sculptor Jose Alcantara were also on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts.

While this property was bought by “the good guys” in 2012, they had also “stressed that the complete theater including all its elements, most especially its acoustics, will be preserved. This will be done in close consultation with the country’s music, acoustics and design experts,” the company said in a statement in 2013.

A thought had crossed my mind before and during the early years when the previous owners intended to transfer their headquarters to BGC. Why could they not just have saved this iconic structure and its auditorium then? They could perhaps transform it into something that would be beneficial by adaptive re-use of its architecture on the building.

They could be saving this structure from demolition and preserving its history and culture.

They would have done the Filipinos a great service on cultural preservation and heritage!

But it had also crossed my mind that it was those that bought the property that even proposed to preserve the Philam Life Auditorium and incorporate it into its grand design of the place. Would you believe that! Coming from those that bought the property is a relief that they were conscious of preserving our culture and heritage, or just maybe to appease the government agencies and our conservationists on historical preservation. I guess the bottom line here would mean good business acumen and economic commercialization.

In every place around the world, one’s culture and heritage represents their identity and way of life. That is why it is important to preserve the Filipino cultural heritage because it gives us a purpose and meaning of our lifestyle then and now. It showcases our beliefs and traditions; gives form and shape to our values, customs and aspirations; and mold and ensure our identity as Filipinos.

So, is the Philam Life building a Filipino cultural heritage building that needs to be preserved? I browsed over the Philippine Cultural Heritage Act or otherwise known as Republic Act (RA) 10066 and my interpretation here is that the Philam Life Building could have been considered a cultural heritage building. Browsing over the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property once more, I could not see any listing of the former Philam Life Building in Manila as a cultural heritage building, although this agency is tasked to preserve historic buildings over 50 years old as mandated by RA 10066. I even had a look at the purpose of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) of identifying historical sites with the sole purpose of important contributions of establishments such as the Philam Life Theatre but did not find any there.

However, reading through RA 10066, which is “an act providing for the protection and conservation of the National Cultural Heritage, strengthening the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and its affiliated cultural agencies and for other purposes,” I came across its declaration of policies and principles that “the State shall foster the preservation, enrichment and dynamic evolution of a Filipino culture based on the principle of unity in diversity in a climate of free artistic and intellectual expression. The Constitution likewise mandates the State to conserve, develop, promote and popularize the nation’s historical and cultural heritage and resources, as well as artistic creations. It further provides that all the country’s artistic and historic wealth constitutes the cultural treasure of the nation and shall be under the protection of the State, which may regulate its disposition.”

Reading further, “In the pursuit of cultural preservation as a strategy for maintaining Filipino identity, this act shall pursue the following objectives: (a) Protect, preserve, conserve and promote the nation’s cultural heritage, its property and histories, and the ethnicity of local communities; (b) Establish and strengthen cultural institutions; and (c) Protect cultural workers and ensure their professional development and well-being.”

“The State shall likewise endeavor to create a balanced atmosphere where the historic past coexists in harmony with modern society. It shall approach the problem of conservation in an integrated and holistic manner, cutting across all relevant disciplines and technologies. The State shall further administer the heritage resources in a spirit of stewardship for the inspiration and benefit of the present and future generations.” Such strong words, I would say.

In fact, there are portions of this law that “speaks on protecting a cultural property against exportation, modification or demolition, and is considered an important cultural property” unless declared otherwise by the pertinent cultural agencies. Such cultural agencies may be the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the National Archives that can declare structures and documents, respectively dating back at least 50 years old. Yet, there is also a provision in that law that states “the property owner may petition the appropriate cultural agency to remove the presumption of important cultural property which, shall not be unreasonably withheld.” So there you go. Now you have it and now you do not.

The question people would want to know is if the Philam Life property is an important cultural property in question that should be declared a national cultural treasure. Consider the following: 1) the impact this building contributed just after the Second World War to the Philippine development and infrastructure, 2) the international architectural style coupled with marvelous features of other allied professions complementing the structure making it to world class standards, 3) the more than 50 years of existence, 4) its “first” significant authentic theatre, 5) and the profound changes it has given to the community. I believe the answer here could be a yes. But since I have not known or seen of any government support or funding for protection, conservation and restoration on this structure, then obviously the answer is a negative.

Going over a letter I picked up which was posted in the net just recently dated Aug. 11, 2020 from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to Atty Mark Richard Evidente, president of the Heritage Conservation Society (HSC), it has confirmed that “this government office together with the National Museum of the Philippines could not grant the request of the HSC to declare the former PhilamLife Building along U.N. Avenue, Ermita, Manila as an important cultural property for failing to meet the necessary criteria for historical and/or cultural significance. Moreso, it is not also a work of a National Artist and also not located in a declared heritage zone.” So there you have it!

The Philam Life Auditorium had its last curtain call in 2013.


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