The call to save the San Sebastián Basilica in Quiapo, Manila is starting to gain traction again on social media as heritage advocates and concerned citizens voice out concerns over the looming threat faced by one of the country’s most important architectural treasures.
The construction of a 31-story condominium—the University Home Recto—right behind San Sebastian caught media attention three years ago. Interest over its adverse effect on the church’s structure was revived recently after reports that construction of the said high rise has been underway amid the pandemic. Photographs of the said development were shared to ANCX by the San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.
A bit of history
The all-metal church is the first and only one of its kind in the Philippines. Completed in 1891, the Neo-Gothic structure was built through an international collaboration. It was designed by a Spanish architect, with inputs reportedly from the builder of the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel. Belgian engineers oversaw its erection. A Frenchman was in charge of its flooring. And invaluable assistance from local laborers and craftsmen contributed to the church’s completion.
The interiors were handpainted to look like stone, with wall paintings of statues and saints done by the Academia de Dibujo, Pintura y Arte, headed by Lorenzo Rocha, a multi-awarded painter. The basilica’s walls and ceiling also feature the work of turn-of-the-century artists Isabelo Tampinco and Felix Martinez. This historical marvel was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure in 2011.
The construction of the condominium was the subject of a recent editorial by journalist and arts and culture critic Lito Zulueta of the Inquirer, who was reminded of a statement made by Manila Mayor Isko Moreno when he assumed office in 2019. According to an Inquirer story, the mayor said he will protect the city’s heritage landmarks against ‘photobombers,’ the term used for the heavily criticized 49-story Torre de Manila in Ermita now marring the skyline of the Luneta Park. The skyscraper was erected during the term of Moreno predecessor, Mayor Erap Estrada.
Threat to the church
In a story ANCX published in 2018, renowned anthropologist Dr. Fernando Nakpil-Zialcita had strong words on the development. “It’s a Godzilla tower rising from hell,” he said. “It will really overshadow the church. Mawawalan ng dignidad ang simbahan.”
He said the construction of a high rise behind it will ruin the basilica’s chances of being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “We want San Sebastian on the UNESCO list because we want to bring more prestige to the country, more tourists,” Dr. Zialcita pointed out. “Masisira because UNESCO is very strict about its siting. The church has to be admired in its majesty, if you’re going to construct any tall building—even a building taller than the San Sebastian Church—wala na.”
Attorney Mark Evidente, Heritage Director and President of the Heritage Conservation Society explained that the settings add to the significance of heritage sites like San Sebastian. If the settings are compromised, the value of cultural landmarks is diminished, he noted.
The foundation’s executive director, Tina Paterno, said that the developer “needs to study the impact of its foundations on nearby structures.” Any impact would hit the basilica hard, she said. “Construction diggings may affect the structural integrity of the church,” says Zulueta’s editorial.
Even more tangible than a possible UNESCO recognition is the impact of the construction to the lives of the people in the quaint neighborhood.
In an interview with Bandila in 2018, Paul Iturralde, who owns one of the old, historic houses near the lot where the residential tower is to be constructed, cited the reasons they wrote a letter of protest regarding the construction of the high-rise to then-Mayor Estrada.
The residents pointed out the immense traffic it will cause to the single-lane, one-way motorist barangay road. They also said it will weaken the foundation of old houses in the area due to the excavations. Also, the dust, dirt and toxic waste discharges from the construction can jeopardize the health of the residents. Back then, Summithome Realty Corporation hasn’t been issued a building permit yet for the said project.
In an October 2020 statement, the foundation and the Augustinian Recollect Order jointly uphold to protect the basilica and the community that it serves. Their main goal, the foundation wrote, is to get urgent clarifications from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), and the National Museum of the Philippines based on a clearance they issued the condominium developer on 16 July 2019. Individual letters were sent on 28 September 2020 to the Chairpersons of NCCA and NHCP, and the Director General of the National Musuem.
“The guidelines of this clearance must be followed with respect to the construction’s proximity to San Sebastian Basilica, recognized as a National Cultural Treasure and National Historical Landmark,” the foundation pointed out.
Through the request for clarification, they hope to find out “how [the agencies] assessed the possible effects of the building’s design and construction activities on the architectural and structural integrity of San Sebastian Basilica and the surrounding houses.”
“This focus on the protection of architectural and structural integrity of the Basilica and houses is important because they directly affect the lives of residents. It is important to determine if the condominium’s construction is a threat to people’s homes, and if there is a possibility of displacing families. At the heart of this issue is the safety of the community, which guides the decisions made by the team alongside the data of our engineers and architects,” the letter said.
The foundation, who says it has been currently working with local stakeholders, their technical consultants, and legal counsel, has yet to release an update on the previously posted statement.