One of the great ironies in life is best captured by Joni Mitchell’s ode to paved paradises and parking lots: we don’t really know what we have until it’s gone.
It’s a truth that’s especially poignant today when most of our heritage sites are in danger of being demolished—if they haven’t already fallen into disrepair, rent beams, and gray ash.
My favorite version of Manila is decidedly pre-war; it involves Burnham’s dream of a capital city and a government center seated in neo-classical opulence. It involves public parks half-lit by gorgeous Manila Bay sunsets.
Like Mitchell’s song, Manila is both ode and elegy, a dream that’s been half-realized and badly burned. There’s something sad and strangely sexy when we look back at our past, and see the hopes and dreams of so many of our architects and builders—their audacity, hubris, and love of country.
Below is a list of some of our best but least-appreciated buildings. They’re the dreams of some of our most renowned architects: Nakpil, Toledo, Arguelles, and Antonio.
In all cases, they’ve either been built or reconstructed by one man: Antolin Oreta, a builder and a nationalist. Known only to insiders, Oreta was very much the architect’s man, building as he did during pivotal points in the capital’s history. Postwar, he reconstructed neo-classical and art deco buildings, and then proceeded to build in the international style and brutalism, as the nation appropriated these styles from the west. Manila was a city like any cosmopolitan city in the West, And Oreta was there through all of it.
If you fancy yourself a lover of Pinoy history and architecture, these buildings should be on your list of must-knows.
1. Department of Finance Building
Designed by Architect Antonio Toledo, the old Department of Finance building was very much a product of its time. Neo-classical and proud, it had a port-cochére or a welcome-space for guests. Massive wooden doors opened to the Marble Hall where state functions and presidential dinners were held. As befit a proper state building, the DOF was all decked out with chandeliers, stained glass windows, and arches.
Today, the DOF holds its own as the central cornerstone of the National Museum Complex. It stands guard with the Old Congress and the Department of Tourism Buildings. Of this sweep, the DOF remains the central focus. It houses the nation’s most important archaeological and anthropological collections, and is now known as the Museum of the Filipino People.
2. Capitol Theater
Oreta reconstructed the Capitol Theater, one of Juan Nakpil’s creations, after it was damaged during World War 2. Located on Escolta Street, the building was done in the Art Deco style with its precise, geometric lines and stylized grille-work.
Architects of the day drew from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Aztec influences to come up with Zigzag Moderne, a version of art deco that made use of ziggurats and pyramids in their designs.
More than being a fashionable institution, the theater encapsulated the Filipino at leisure. Initially a venue for vaudeville, the theater evolved into a cinema with the advent and popularity of moving pictures. It was also the exclusive venue of films produced by Columbia Pictures.
3. The Lyric Theater
Oreta also reconstructed the Lyric Theater, which was designed by Pablo Antonio Sr. It was the perfect marriage of the Zigzag moderne and streamlined modern styles.
After its complete devastation during the war, Antonio sought to reconstruct the old Manila theater. He deviated from his usual art deco style to produce something more uniformly Middle Eastern. While Capitol Theatre had its run of Columbia Pictures films, the Lyric Theatre was the prime venue for movies produced by Warner Bros.
4. Far Eastern University
Another testament to Pablo Antonio’s love for art deco was the FEU campus. Of the sweep and range of the old institution, Oreta constructed the Auditorium, Administration, and Social Hall buildings. Antonio sought to preserve the old Art Deco style even as postwar realities rendered them obsolete and nostalgic. These antique touches pepper the city with memories of the past. Smudged by age and city grime, a closer look reveals both their beauty and the imagination that dreamed them into being.
5. Manila Peninsula
We all know the #manilapen— the famous five star hotel situated on the corner of Ayala and Makati Avenue. It was brought to life by architect Gabriel Formoso— one of the country’s most important architects of the time.
Characterized by a so-called “bush hammer finish,” as well as an exposed concrete façade, the hotel was a prime example of Brutalist design—a hard-edged architectural philosophy that was softened by cozy interiors and lush, tropical trees.
6. Philamlife Insurance Building
Situated along U.N. Avenue in Manila and designed by architect Carlos Arguelles, the Philamlife Insurance Building is considered one of the lasting legacies of the International Style. Although foreign in both look and design, the building still proudly bears tropical elements and local materials.
Oreta was responsible for the pile driving, excavation, and masonry of the building,. His work is seen in the building’s doors, aluminum and glass curtains, fences and driveways. If Arguelles was the mind and heart of the building, Oreta was its hands.
7. Manila Hilton Hotel
Oreta also contructed the Manila Hilton Hotel in 1967—a collaborative work between Arguelles and Welton Beckett. It was awesome at 22-storeys, and it gained fame as the tallest tower of its time. The roof took the form of our native salakot, and was considered a compromise between traditional and modern sensibilities. The hotel has seen many incarnations— the latest one being the Manila Pavilion Hotel. Just this year, the beleaguered hotel battled a raging fire—which only means that there’s no time like the present to remember its former glory, and to dream it forward into the nation’s future.
Now that we know a little bit more of our architectural history—and by extension our history as a nation—it’s on us to preserve what we can, and remember whatever remains of our opulent past, as well as the dreams of those who came before us.
Illustration by Gica Tam