Earlier today, conservation architect Gerard Lico shared photos of the Philam Life Building at the corner of United Nations Avenue and Maria Orosa in Manila. “I had the rare privilege to have the last look at the iconic Philam Life Building, a mid-century opus by Carlos Arguelles, prior to its ongoing transformation,” his caption to the photos reads. Showing the many details and elements of the structure, particularly of its storied theater, Lico’s photos gave followers privy to his wall a glimpse and idea of why it was renowned for its elegant design.
Lico reminds everyone that the building was acquired by SM Development Corporation (SMDC) back in September 2012, and that the developers vowed to preserve its cultural history. Its theater, which seats 780, was famous for its top tier acoustics done by Bolt, Beranek & Newman, the same group behind the acoustics of the Sydney Opera House. “The theater was decorated with continuous panels of carved wood relief and lacquer 1,536 cm long that depicts episodes drawn from Philippine life and folklore. Executed by wood carving maestro Jose Alcantara, the wall relief was transferred to the National Museum in 2019.”
Once called the Philam Life Auditorium, the building opened its doors in 1961 as part of the corporate headquarters of the insurance company. In its half-century history, it served as the home of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Philippine Educational Theater Association, and has hosted performances by Italian lirico-spinto soprano Renata Tebaldi, American contralto Marian Anderson, Israeli-American violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, and our own classical pianist Cecile Licad. Ukrainian pianist Sofya Gulyak and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO) were its performances, in a concert titled “Elegantly Brahms” played to a sentimental audience in 2013.
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That same year, former PPO music director Olivier Ochanine started a petition months after its SMDC acquisition in order to rescue the performance hall, which the petitioners said was up for demolition. In response, the developers reiterated then that it was aware of the heritage of the site and its cultural importance to Filipinos. “SMDC intends to build a condominium complex that includes a world-class, state-of-the-art theater that will be the future home for orchestras, cultural events, school recitals, and the like,” the developers’ 2013 statement read.
“I consider the building a fine specimen of Philippine modernism which navigated the language of the International style and context of tropicality,” Lico explains in an SMS interview with ANCX. The structure has come to mean more to the architect after doing a documentary video series featuring the works of Arguelles titled “Masterbuilders.” “It is a building that speaks about optimism and progress of rebuilding after the WWII, employing curtain wall, steel aluminum and the plastic potential of concrete—the latest technology of the mid-century.”
Lico says that SMDC must strive to maintain the property’s authenticity and significance in giving new life to it as a mixed use development. “Whatever they add on to the host structure, be it a residential or corporate tower, must be compatible and preserve the character-defining elements of the building,” he says. “It should still be legible and recognizable to the people in the light of adaptive reuse.”
Photographs courtesy of Architect Gerard Lico