The Philam Life Building in Manila, designed by the late, world-renowned architect Carlos Arguelles, is about to be redeveloped into a mix-used structure—and heritage conservationists are sounding off alarm bells as loudly as they could. The developer is its owner since 2012, the SM Development Corporation (SMDC).
In fact, the Heritage Conservation Society is urging the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to declare the building an Important Cultural Property (ICP). One of its most revered components is the 780-seater theater, designed by Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, the artistic talents behind famous complexes such as the Sydney Opera House.
In an official statement release by SMDC to ANCX, the developer said, in part, “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.” It adds, “We reiterate our commitment to preserve the memory of this architectural masterpiece.”
Still, others are quick to criticize SM’s commitment. Some call this idea of “heritage conservation” just another case of facadism—merely preserving the facade and building a new theater inside it. A commenter on the ANCX Facebook page calls it SM’s “pampalubag-loob.”
In an ANCX article, conservation architect Gerard Lico said that whatever the developer decides to do with the building, it should still be “legible and recognizable to the people in light of adaptive reuse.”
But what is adaptive reuse? As the issues surrounding heritage buildings press ahead, we look at some of the structures that have embodied adaptive reuse in the best way possible—updating the heritage design for contemporary use while respecting the original architecture.
The National Museum of Natural History, Manila
Originally designed by Architect Antonio Toledo
The halls of the Museum of Natural History have seen so much of our country’s history, it’s only natural we have them preserved. Originally built in the 1940s as the Ministries of Agriculture and Commerce building, the Museum of Natural History was destroyed in the Second World War, prompting its reconstruction—planned according the the original neoclassical style of design. In the 1960s, the Department of Tourism made the building its home, until they moved their office to Makati City.
Under the National Museum Act, it was acquired by the National Museum of the Philippines, who decided to turn the massive space into the home of our country’s endemic botanical and zoological artefacts.
The doors to the museum opened in May 2018, but not without going through the meticulous eyes and hands of architect Dominic Galicia, interior designer Tina Periquet, several engineers, and contractors. The team was careful to retain the original skeleton of the building, and parts that had eroded through time were bolstered, while the others were replaced.
The modern interiors—the almost floor-to-ceiling sculpture inspired by the double helix DNA is one of the highlights of this destination—makes it relatable to the current milieu, but Toledo’s touch is still very much visible in its core. Of course, the building had become more environmentally compliant, and flood-and-earthquake proof.
The Henry Hotel Manila, Pasay City
Redesigned by Eric Paras and Architect Fred Chung
Along Harrison Street in Pasay City is an unassuming compound that holds the residence and studio of furniture and interior designer Eric Paras, the atelier of fashion designer Jojie Lloren, and the nostalgia-inducing The Henry Hotel Manila of the The Henry chain of hotels.
The hotel’s draw, apart from its proximity to the airport, is its tranquil atmosphere, and the building design and interiors that resemble a Filipino ancestral home. Which did not happen by coincidence. The hotel’s owner Hanky Lee made sure to keep as much of the original post-war structure as possible, without sacrificing modernity and, of course, safety.
The 34-room boutique hotel is an integration of five Liberation-era houses. Each house, except for one, was carefully restructured to have seven rooms each. Aside from the shell, all tiles are original; and all wooden materials that were still functional were retained.
Paras once told ANCX that the goal was not to make it look like a designed hotel. “It should be a story about a house in Pasay,” he said. While the furniture and fixtures are new, they were sourced and made to blend seamlessly with the mid-century theme of the place. Like all old buildings that are restructured, The Henry Hotel Manila was made more safe for guests—for instance, the floor at the veranda near the entrance was slightly raised to avoid flooding.
“Nandoon pa din ’yong soul ng bahay,” Paras said.
Palacio de Memoria, Parañaque City
Redesigned with the help of creative consultant Miguel Rosales
Palacio de Memoria, as envisioned by its owners, the Lhuillier family, is an idyllic auction house standing on what had been an abandoned property. Now a seven-storey mansion, the Palacio de Memoria shelters the family’s collection of European art, antiques, and heirlooms pieces.
In an ANCX article, it is said that the original owners of what used to be a two-storey house have not been identified. What is certain is that the house had already existed during the Battle of Manila. Post-war, the Villaroman family acquired the place and did renovations, including retiling of the floors to terrazzo with images of people dancing tinikling, nipa huts, palm trees, and many elements of the rural life in those days.
The same article mentioned that the Villaroman patriarch, a surgeon, added floors and spaces to the original structure due to his expanding family and practice. The upper floors had a clinic and a morgue.
When the Lhuilliers bought the property, their goal was to bring the place, as much as possible, back to its original style. With the help of creative consultant and art advisor Miguel Rosales, the building was made brighter with the removal of dark panels and several walls. The original moldings were retained, and other parts that were worn out were cleaned and repainted. The mansion’s distinguishing feature, the terrazzo tiles, created by National Artist Juan Nakpil, still welcomes guests as they enter the lobby, lit by natural light and a crystal chandelier.
Interestingly, Palacio de Memoria’s old, original charm was revealed by dismantling parts that were constructed to keep up with the times.
Orchid Suites Hotel, Manila
Originally designed by Architect Pablo Antonio
The lush gardens and towering trees that surround the Orchid Suites Hotel along Pablo Ocampo Street, Malate, makes one imagine the life of the rich and famous back in the pre-war days. And rightfully so. Built in 1935 by National Artist Pablo Antonio, the secluded mansion-like structure was originally the home of Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Villa-real.
Post-World War II, many of its parts were damaged, but were restored by the same architect who first designed it. When the Villa-reals moved out, it became the residence of many dignitaries and personalities, even foreigners.
It was only in 1995 when the heritage structure was turned into a boutique hotel. The old Legarda home beside it (also built in 1935) had been turned into the hotel’s coffee shop and restaurant.
The 91-room hotel may have been living a life that’s different from what it was meant to do, but major parts of its structure still has the National Artist’s signature written all over it.
Circa 1900, Cebu City
Developed by Primary Group of Builders
President Manuel Quezon and General Douglas McArthur have walked on the grounds of Circa 1900. In fact, it was one of the general’s favorite places: on one of the walls hangs a photograph of him and President Sergio Osmeña inside the original structure.
Circa 1900 was once a cluster of colonial houses owned by four of the most prominent families in Cebu City: Sanson, Jereza, Castilla, and Villa—thus the area is called Sanjercasvil.
In an article by Philstar.com, published in 2018, William Liu, chief executive officer of the Primary Group of Builders, which handled the development of the property, said that one of the houses (now called Casa Dos) became the headquarters of the Japanese command for the Visayas. Casa Dos, owned by the Jereza family, now holds a tapas bar, a pastry and bakery, and a swimming pool, to name a few.
Beside it is Casa Uno, originally owned by the Castillo family, which opened in March 2014. It has a restaurant, a piano bar, and a function venue.
When the renovations were ongoing, the owners were adamant in keeping as much of the original structure intact. Some of the more interesting reminders of the buildings’ place in history are the stair railings scarred with bullet marks. Add to that the old photos spread around the old houses. In fact, the designers based some of their plans on what they saw in these vintage pictures. The result is a quiet and elegant spot in Cebu City where people can dine and feel a sense of the old world.
These structures are proof that with careful planning, and with the help of design and conservation experts, it is possible to turn heritage buildings into commercial areas without sacrificing a piece of Philippine history and pride.
The World Health Organization, Manila
Originally designed by Architect Alfredo J. Luz
This is the only structure in the list that didn’t really become something else, except improve on what it can do. But we think it’s still a good example of an update on a structure—without the need to tear down the elements that make it special.
When Architect Alfredo Luz, brother of National Artist Arturo Luz, built the World Health Organization (WHO) building in 1959, he wanted it to represent both Philippine culture and the global importance of the United Nations agency.
Created with the International Style in mind, the building had a brise-soleil, dome-like roof, clean, vertical lines, flat surfaces, and a vast auditorium reminiscent of the Round Table.
The structure had undergone a few renovations since it was erected. In 2009, it was one of the buildings affected by the floods caused by Typhoon Ondoy, and it had to undergo a major rehabilitation process. The sewage and drainage system, for one, needed an overhaul.
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With the original structure in mind, architects Arlen de Guzman and Paulo Alcazaren designed the new WHO to serve the demands of the current office. For instance, there are now more spaces for meetings, brainstorming, entertaining guests from all over the world. Inside the building, lush greenery—and ponds—give people breathing space and fresh air.
By the time the new WHO opened, most parts of the original building that could be saved remained, including works from Arturo Luz himself. The International Style is still very much evident, specially in the façade, with the repetitive modular forms and elegant lines.
Special thanks to Isidra Reyes who helped us come up with this list.