The Metropolitan Theater, designed by Juan Arellano, is a fusion of Art Deco, Philippine motifs, and modern structure. Photograph from @nccaofficial on Instagram
Culture Spotlight

Panic at the MET: where is the theater we’ve all been promised?

We’ve all grown up with glorious stories of the Metropolitan theater—one of the country’s last few surviving Art Deco buildings. Now eighty-eight years old and due for its fifth opening, it’s a heritage project that’s fallen on hard times. Who’s to blame?
Barbara Mae Naredo Dacanay | Mar 22 2019

When the Metropolitan Theater—the MET to all of us—opened on December 10, 1931, it was a spectacular marriage between Paris and Manila. Influenced by the Art Deco movement which was set into motion during the Paris Exposition of 1925, the MET made use of Filipino designs by architect Juan Arellano and designers Arcadio Arellano and Isabelo Tampinco. When these giants put their heads together, they wanted to assert their own cultural independence from the US colonial era. This meant something done in a different vein from the neo-classical structures so prevalent at that time. This wouldn’t be another Legislative Building or Post Office. This wouldn’t be another structural symbol of US rule and ideology. It would marry a new movement with a native sensibility.

The MET façade has tall Angkor Wat-inspired minarets at the edge of curved walls. Four parapets boast Hindu-inspired bronze sculptures by Italian sculptor Riccardo Monti. Its front side walls – at left and right - have furling ferns and fire-like batik patterns that borrow from the region’s Muslim countries. The façade’s lower middle portion - a mini-arch with rows of small finials – frames a big rectangular stained-glass panel by Kraut Glass.  Light comes into the lobby through the glass panel. Moldings and sponge-applied multi-colors decorate the walls. Wrought iron gates with leaf and bird of paradise motifs— done in the Art Deco style—festoon front and side entrances. Pavilions surrounding the building cover secret gardens that are seen from the lobby and the auditorium. We know it as the MET, but its other name is marvel.     

The Met during the height of its restoration work. Image from the METamorphosis page on Facebook, courtesy of Gerard Lico.     

The MET was initially refurbished with help from the Reparation Act of 1946 and the P1 million fund raised by the Metropolitan Theater Company after World War II. It was given a third life by former first lady Imelda Marcos with a P30 million loan from the Government Service Insurance System in 1978.   The MET was opened four times: in 1931,1946, 1978, and 2010. It is now awaiting its fifth opening.

From its last renaissance to now, it’s fallen into disrepair and shady hands.

Architects, artists, and conservationists are now asking: When will Filipinos see the MET in all its former glory again?

 

A new form but the same old characters

The Philippine government’s P 266.77 million project to conserve Manila’s 88-year old Art Deco marvel has been plagued by delays and in-fighting—not to mention the slow implementation of proposed alterations, the firing of two sets of compliance-seeking professional consultants, and a possible re-organization that could relegate the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA)—the project’s sole funder—from a lead role to a mere management body.

The MET facade during the restoration. Image from METamorphosis page on Facebook, courtesy of Gerard Lico.

“We are in the process of reviewing the project,” says NCCA chair Virgilio Almario. He heads NCCA’s nine-man powerful board which was created before the Met project began in 2017.

 

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“It’s Topsy-Turvy Here,” says NCCA Executive Director Rico Pableo

Bringing back the Met’s splendor for the third time, with NCCA’s loaded budget from the Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts, could “go to waste without regulatory measures,” say the architects and engineers of NCCA’s six-man Professional Management Team (PMT). They were hired between 2017 and 2018, for check and balance measures, and to provide  assistance to NCCA executive director Rico Pableo (who signs check payments). They were fired last February 15, 2019.

One of them, Architect Nino Mata—NCCA’s assistant construction manager starting Oct 2018 – requested Ombudsman Samuel Martires to investigate government officials for allegedly “manipulating, (and) conniving with the (Met’s) contractor.” This refers to the 401 Development and Construction Corporation, in joint venture with RR Encabo Construction Inc. It is alleged that the conservation project has been stalled due to contractor coddling and “alleged corruption.” So reads Mata’s two-page letter to the Ombudsman.

Five of the six-man Project Management Team of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), who lost their jobs on February 15 based on a board decision. This after National Museum Director Jeremy Barns did not get the approval and implementation of his preferred design – to place the Met’s air-conditioning system at the auditorium’s back area for a wide open garden. This occurred because of his failure to submit a written proposal, as ordered by NCCA Executive Director Rico Pableo in November 2018, a requirement for board action and contractor’s guidance.

Requested for investigation were NCCA chair Almario, board member; Rev Fr. Harold Rentoria. board member and head of NCCA’s Sub-commission for Cultural Heritage; Jeremy Barns, board member and Director of the National Museum; Rene Escalante, board member and Chair of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP); Atty Lucille Karen Maitlong-Isberto, legal office of the International Council on Monuments and Sites; NCCA Deputy Director Marichu Tellana, signatory of the contract between the NCCA and 401 on December 29, 2016; and members of NCCA’s bids and awards committee from 2015-2016. Rentoria, Maitlong-Isberto, and Barns double as head, vice-head, and member, respectively, of NCCA’s seven-man Technical Working Committee (TWC).

Last January 21, after the board decided to end the budget and services of all architects and engineers of NCCA’s PMT, Almario transferred all documents of the Met project to Escalante, a board member and head of NHCP, an agency attached to NCCA, for a “fruitful collaboration.” It meant taking away the direct management of the Met project from NCCA Executive Director Pableo, a board member who was once on top of NCCA’s TWC and PMT, a source explained. Pableo was appointed NCCA’s second top leader in March 2017.

When asked how he is adjusting to the changing of the guard at the Met project, Pableo says that “it’s topsy-turvy here. I have a challenging post. I feel alone. The memorandum of agreement between the NCCA and the NHCP will be signed soon, following board approval. The NHCP is creating its own PMT. I want my own PMT for check and balance since payment is coming from the NCCA.” When asked about NHCP’s expertise, Pableo says, “The NHCP was in charge of the conservation of 10 old churches in Bohol, central Philippines. Which were destroyed by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2013. The contractor was 401. The NHCP and 401 seem to have sweet memories.”

Detail of the ceiling during the restoration work. Image from METamorphosis Facebook page courtesy of Gerard Lico

 

Design Alterations and Firing of Professional Consultants

The alterations of Met’s design have resulted in a pattern of firing of architects and engineers. From Nov to Dec 2017, (nine to 10 months after the project started), Barns of the National Museum wanted to demolish the dance and music halls that Mrs. Marcos built at the side of the auditorium in 1978. He wanted to revive the old grand courtyards that architect Arellano established around the auditorium in 1931. At the time, other architects, including Consultant Architect Gerard Lico suggested glass atria on the open gardens to block street noise and heavy downpour during the rainy season. The board approved the proposed alterations in Jan 2018. The dance and music halls were demolished in Nov 2018, 10 months after the proposed changes were approved, and 22 months after the Met project started. In a design done by Consultant Designer Schema Konsult Inc, in late 2016, the two halls were to be transformed into Blackbox Theater and Cinematheque.

In Jan 2018, (11 months after the project started), Barns proposed to place the Met’s air-conditioning system at the back area of the auditorium to widen the courtyard and reclaim its beauty. But Lico and Architect Michael Manalo (of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites (NCMS) insisted it should remain as designed earlier by Schema - at the auditorium’s middle area “for efficiency and long-term maintenance.” Five months later, in June 2018, the NCCA board did not renew the contracts of Lico, including Architect Paolo Josue and Engineer Bjorn Commendador who were PMT members. Commendador was re-hired as PMT member in Aug 2018. Architect Maria Rajelyn Busmente, who requested not to renew her contract in June (in sympathy with Lico and company) was re-hired as project coordinator in September 2018.In November 2018, five months after the ouster of first set of architects and engineer, Barns renewed his preferred place for the Met’s air conditioning system. Pableo advised Barns to write the proposed change, for board approval and contractor’s guidance. In January, 2019, there was no approval and implementation of Barn’s preferred design because of the absence of a written proposal. Then the board decided instead to end the services of professional architects and engineers, effective Feb 15.

Despite the rude roads that could derail the Met project, Pableo vowed, “I will see this project done properly—with good governance and architectural integrity—within the year.” Nostalgic Filipinos are keeping their fingers crossed.

 

Click on the image below for slideshow

Photos taken by the author during a site visit on February 12, 2019

Metropolitan Theater's dance and music halls that First Lady Imelda Marcos added on the side wings of the auditorium are demolished in November 2018, to reveal interior gardens that once surrounded the auditorium, as designed by Architect Juan Arellano in 1931. The alteration proposed by National Museum Director Jeremy Barns means giving up a planned 2016 design to transform the halls into a small theater and a cinema. 

A shop's facade is not yet restored at the side pavilion of the Metropolitan Theater, whose renovation has been delayed. It builder, the 401Development and Construction Corporation in joint venture with RR Encabo Construction Inc., has billed the National Commission on Culture and the Arts for 44 percent project completion. But NCCA's Project Management team (PMT) has assessed 33 percent completion. 

Metropolitan Theater's auditorium has a tall side wall filled with bas reliefs.

Detail of bas relief at the Metropolitan Theater's auditorium. 

Metropolitan Theater's piece de resistance: the plaster of Paris (escayola) bas relief of bananas, mangoes, and foliage, hand-painted by designer Arcadio Arellano in 1931, which adorn the auditoriumís rows of ceiling panels. 

Metropolitan Theater's attention-getting bas relief on the ceiling of its auditorium has undergone metamorphosis from plaster of Paris to fiberglass during the refurbishment project of former first lady Imelda Marcos in 1978. 

Some portions of the old plaster of Paris bas relief of the auditorium’s ceiling (under the balcony), are restored with the use of concrete and Styrofoam pellets.