Last Friday, the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) shared a photo of a letter from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. The letter was NHCP’s response to the conservation group’s petition to declare the Philam Life Building as an Important Cultural Property (ICP). It explicitly denied the conservationists’ plea as well as the request for a Cease and Desist order on the continuation of current owner SM Development Corporation’s plans on the property.
The letter said the NHCP and the National Museum of the Philippines “are constrained from declaring the structure as an Important Cultural Treasure, National Landmark or National Cultural Treasure as it has been assessed as failing to meet the necessary criteria for historical and/or cultural significance.” The letter was received and shared by EA Sembrano of the FB page El Reportero and signed by NHCP chairperson Dr. Rene Escalante, read.
Both the NHCP and the National Museum are agencies of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the government office to which the Heritage Conservation Society earlier sent an urgent letter. In that letter, the conservation group pleaded for a proper assessment of the Philam Life Building. The letter also laid out the structure’s many virtues and discussed its storied past—to prove it is worthy of an ICP status.
Not the work of a National Artist
But the NHCP argued that the Carlos Arguelles-designed building is not a work of a National Artist and not located in a declared heritage zone. “Hence, we cannot issue a CDO pursuant to the provisions of Republic Act No. 10066, and require from the property owner the total preservation of the entire structure,” wrote Escalante.
Escalante shared that SMDC applied for the lifting of the presumption of Philam Life as an ICP, but the request was denied. The NHCP, Escalante claimed, is not for completely extinguishing the memory of the building. “Instead, the NHCP required SMDC to incorporate some important architectural features of the building in their development plans. Anent to this, the NCCA unanimously supported the decision of the NHCP through the issuance of a board resolution dated 29 August 2019,” Escalante wrote, adding that NCCA’s support for this provision came after consultations with fellow cultural agencies and exchange of communications with SMDC.
Escalante also shared in the letter that the NHCP approved a development plan by SMDC on June 5, 2020, allowing the developers to build a high-rise mixed-use building. The plan integrates features from Philam Life’s original mid-century modern design to “reflect the memory of the building.” These include clean simple lines, the original horizontal brise soleil, the use of support pipes, and a mullion of the façade including the concrete porte-cochere—a covered entrance where vehicles can drive thru and drop off passengers.
Sun shades are not enough
Meanwhile, the Heritage Conservation Society released a statement Thursday, August 27, and it includes updates on Philam Life, including the aforementioned letter from NHCP which the group says it has yet to receive.
In the statement, the conservation group emphasized that their August 5 letter-petition was addressed to the NCCA, and not the NHCP. “It is our position, based on RA 10066 and RA 11333, that it is NCCA that has jurisdiction over declarations of sites of architectural and cultural significance,” the statement, which can be found in full below, reads.
Whatever process SMDC and NHCP underwent is separate from the petition of Heritage Conservation Society, says the group’s president Atty. Mark Evidente. “But I think from my view and from the thousands who have expressed their views via social media and Change.org, something was clearly missed in that process,” he told ANCX. “Is the architectural and cultural significance of the site adequately conserved simply by reconstructing the sun shades?”
Building a nation
ANCX got a chance to sit down with Evidente as well as other HCS board members right after they sent their original petition to NCCA. They explained the urgency of their plea, and why they feel so strongly about the property.
Architect and adaptive reuse expert Dominic Galicia said the Philam Life Building is one of the earliest and finest examples of how the International Style was adapted into the Philippines. The country’s heritage is not just our bridge to our colonial past, the architect explained, but also this immediate post-war period when “we were such an ambitious and young nation that had such a bright future. So this building reflects that sense of us as a country having a bright future,” Galicia said.
Proceeding with a complete new site, as the group has come to understand SMDC’s plans at that time, would mean the loss of branding, goodwill, and nation-building opportunities. “What is nation building but progress being built upon progress. It’s not progress destroying past progress,” Galicia, who is part of HCS’ Board of Advisers, expressed.
Apart from extolling the groundbreaking physical traits of the structure, the group also pointed out its impact on arts and culture. “It was the cultural center for 10 years. Pre-Martial Law that was it,” HCS chairperson Tats Manahan shared about the building’s famed performance hall. Many international artists had performed there including world-renowned musical superstars Renata Tebaldi, Pinchas Zukerman, and Marian Anderson. Many local artists made their debut there, too, not the least of which is Cecile Licad who, as an eight-year-old, took on an orchestra and wowed the audience in Philam Life’s 700 plus seat theater.
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HCS vice president Ivan Man Dy gave a street-level perspective to the structure’s significance. “What most people don’t realize is that it was also a community theater within the neighborhood. Even in Binondo, it was the favorite theater of the alumni association of schools,” he shares. It is also within Ermita’s heritage district, surrounded by historically-significant buildings and areas such as the University of the Philippines-Manila in Padre Faura, the old Hilton hotel block, and even Luneta which is a short walk away.
That’s why a proper dialogue on the matter—involving all the proper agencies—is of utmost importance to the conservation group. “We think that that is the place to have this conversation so that it happens under the auspices of government,” Evidente said.
The HCS president pointed out that the issue here is really national identity, and our journey as a people. “If we demolish [these structures], nawawalan tayo ng source ng kuwento, kung sino tayo, kung saan ba tayo galing, and saan tayo papunta,” he said.
Photos courtesy of Manila Nostalgia FB Group