SMDC says of Philam Life's storied performance hall, an 800-seater theater with better insulation, computerized sound system and improved acoustics will be in place.
Culture Spotlight

Exclusive: SMDC breaks silence on Philam Life Bldg plans, commits to replicate iconic facade

The property development giant says it is committed to preserve the architectural icon. By JEROME GOMEZ and JACS T. SAMPAYAN

The past few days, heritage conservationists have been saddened by word from the grapevine that another iconic building in Manila will go the way of past heritage structures we lost to big development: totally demolished and replaced by a new one without as much as a wink to the one that came before. 

We are talking about the Philam Life Building, of course, the iconic 60s structure located at the corner of United Nations Avenue and Maria Orosa in Manila, designed by the late great Carlos Arguelles, one of the early buildings in the country envisioned in the International Style of Architecture. 

Following public concern over the project, SMDC says that they are working closing with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to make sure the Philam Life building will be respected.

In the past week, the buzz was that SMDC was planning to restart the redevelopment project, which sparked concern from heritage conservation groups. 

Today, however, ANCX received a statement from SMDC that the corporation is “one with the public in efforts to preserve this architectural icon,” the statement says. “We are committed to pay tribute to and respect the historical and cultural heritage of the building.” 

The statement gives a bit of background on the property’s condition when the corporation acquired the property in 2013: the building’s contents have been removed by the past owner, among them the multi-panel mural by Jose Alcantara which was transferred to the care of the National Museum. 

“As the theater has been closed for many years, its remaining interiors have been destroyed by constant flooding due to the worn-out plumbing of the aging structure,” adds SMDC. 

Now here’s what SMDC has planned out for the redevelopment: it is building a mixed-use development “that will serve and benefit the community and will preserve the memory of this architectural icon.”

Here’s the rest of the statement: 

“We are committed to respect the memory of the Philamlife Building by replicating the iconic facade in our new development, using, as much as possible, the original materials.

Based on SMDC's plans for the property, the facade will be mostly retained.

“We are closely working with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to ensure that we stay true to this promise.

“The Philamlife Building is part of our heritage as a people. We reiterate our commitment to preserve the memory of this architectural masterpiece.” 

And as for the theater, SMDC says an 800-seater is part of the plan and it will be as big as the original, with “better insulation, computerized sound system and improved acoustics.” 

The SMDC statement comes on the heels of the Heritage Conservation Society’s letter to National Commission for Culture and the Arts chairperson Arsenio J. Lizaso petitioning for a “cease and desist” on the redevelopment plans on the Philam Life Building. 

The letter was written after the group “received reliable information” of SMDC’s plan to restart the redevelopment project. Last week, social media posts have also started circulating that alluded to this, including that of architect Gerard Lico who shared his “last look” of the decades-old structure on his wall.

A rendering of the proposed mixed-use development besides a photo of the current structure.

In the letter signed by Heritage Conservation Society president Mark Evidente and its Board of Trustees and Advisers including chairperson Tats Manahan, Ivan Man Dy, Dominic Galicia, Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Silvana Diaz, and Isabelle Ramos, the group extolled the virtues of the building to make a case for it being declared an Important Cultural Property (ICP).

This is not the first time a petition to save the structure has been put forth. In 2013, after the structure was acquired by SMDC, French conductor and flutist Olivier Ochanine filed an online petition for the theater to be spared from redevelopment. Ochanine was then musical director and chief conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, which once considered the performance hall its home.

In this August 5, 2020 statement, the group explained the building’s significance by way of its designer Arguelles. The architect, who passed away in 2008, has also worked in memorable and impactful structures such as the UP Faculty Center in Diliman, the Ateneo de Manila campus, the Development Bank of the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute in UP Los BaƱos. In 1968, he was presented with the Republic Cultural Heritage award for his contributions to Philippine Architecture. Twenty years later, he was conferred with the Patnubay ng Sining and Kalinangan Award by the Manila City Government as well as a Gold Medal of Merit from the Philippine Institute of Architects.


The statement also established the property’s place in Philippine architectural history, being among the first structures to be built locally in the International Style of architecture. “Filipino architects adapted the style to both the local environmental and cultural context, hence, fusing sunbreakers or brise soleil with signature elements of Philippine architecture such as horizontality and passive cooling mechanisms—a nod to indigenous design developed over the centuries by builders and craftsmen.” 

The building’s design, the statement adds, made use of several “then-novel” elements and techniques, which have since influenced succeeding structures in the country.

The Philam Life Theater has hosted many international greats such as Renata Tebaldi, Marian Anderson, Pinchas Zukerman, and our own Cecile Licad.

The Heritage Conservation Society also brought up the significance of the 20,000-square meter structure to Philippine arts and culture, particularly through its famed 780-seater theater. The document also did not forget to add that the theater’s acoustics was designed by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, the same group behind the performance halls of the Sydney Opera House, among others. 

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For a time, the structure served as the de facto national theater, and made the Philippines into a destination for aspiring musicians from all over the globe. “Recognized as being among the great halls of the world and among the great modernist works, the structure has been a repository of and witness to exemplary Filipino artistic talent,” the statement says.

This multi-panel mural by Jose Alcantara, which hung prominently on Philam Life Building's walls, was transferred to the care of the National Museum.

Based on all these reasons and its possession of “exceptional cultural, artistic, and/or/historical significance in the Philippines,” the Heritage Conservation Society strongly urged the NCCA in the petition letter to declare both the building and theater as an ICP. 

With this recent statement from SMDC, and the images that give us a picture of what the future of Philam Life Building will be like, will this mean a new era in big business taking on heritage structures in the country?