Identity of cities: Breathing life into heritage buildings

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

OUR houses, buildings, and parks are parts of our identity as a society. But what makes heritage buildings standout is that they are a representation of an idea, culture, and aspiration of certain periods in our history. It is with sadness that the generation today can no longer enjoy the City Beautiful of Manila of the early 20th century. But as we move forward, we should continue to strive to preserve what’s left of our heritage. We cannot and should not lose sight of our diverse culture, as these are parts of who we are as Filipinos.

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One of the biggest challenges in preserving heritage buildings is the supposed cost of maintaining them. This has always been the favorite excuse. But after visiting 2,000 cities in 71 countries, I have observed that the economic possibilities while preserving heritage are limitless. It is also a mistake to think that preservation simply pertains to a building, but in fact it also means a design movement. When you travel to Italy, Rome, France, even South Korea and Japan, heritage can blend well with modernism. In reality, it is the blending of heritage and modernism which breathes life to identity, economy of tourism and patronage, and sense of patriotism and nation.

Embracing culture, heritage, and identity makes good business sense because it creates and showcases uniqueness and memorability. It makes a place standout. For the longest time, Manila and the rest of the Philippines failed to embrace its importance to the City Beautiful movement in the early 20th century which sought to revive Renaissance architecture. Our country has failed to make our Baroque and Gothic-inspired churches into prime tourist destinations, as well as expand the influence of eastern and Muslim architecture.

From bodega warehouse to boutique hotel
Built in 1910 and completed the same year, the Army and Navy Club is one of the first landmark buildings built along Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard). The three-story building served as the exclusive club for American military officers during the American occupation. Architect William Parsons, Daniel Burnham’s protege, provided the architectural design, as well as for the Elks Lodge building next to it.

The Army and Navy Club, located along South Boulevard in Ermita, Manila, is considered by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) as a Level 1 National Historical Landmark. During World War 2, the Club was used as a bomb shelter and an evacuation center. After the war, the building underwent a restoration and was adaptively reused as the Museo ng Maynila in the 1990s, complementing the neighboring Elks Lodge, which became the Museo Pambata. After the Museo ng Maynila relocated to another location in the early 2000s, the building fell into neglect.

After 30 years of neglect and deterioration, the Army and Navy Club is now restored to its former glory through good design, architecture, rehabilitation, and redevelopment.

Advantages of restoration
Restoration and adaptive re-use can cost more than demolishing a structure and starting from the ground up, but the environmental benefits, social advantages, and economic benefits of recycling a valued heritage is more rewarding in the long-run.

The main environmental benefits of reusing buildings is the retention of the original building’s ‘embodied energy,’ the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of the building and therefore restore the heritage significance of a historic building. Instead of building more structures, adaptive reuse/restoration is often seen as more practical measure.

Restoration also has social benefits as communities increasingly recognize the need to protect, retain, and adapt heritage buildings into accessible, usable spaces. The building’s location, access, and public transport availability creates a great opportunity for citizens to rediscover their city’s gems and develop a greater appreciation of our rich and diverse culture and architecture. The special experience of staying somewhere believed to be full of character and history appeals to many tourists, particularly those seeking a deeper engagement with destination culture.

As for the economic benefits, tourism is one of the major economic growth drivers in the Philippines. Heritage tours in the Philippines has seen a dramatic increase in the past decades and will continue to do so as old cities get revamped and restored as an alternative solution to gentrification. Moreover, historical building restoration starts a domino effect by increasing property values, additional income to the city, generating more jobs and revitalizing the surrounding area. The Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) is fine-tuning a law that would give tax incentives to owners of heritage buildings, homes, and other structures that would undergo adaptive reuse.

Looking back and moving forward
Maybe one of the reasons that our tourism arrivals are not on a par with other Asia Pacific countries is because we are not standing out. The treasures of the Philippines not only rest with its natural splendors and beauty, but the culture that had once flourished here. Our country is a melting pot of cultures but our cities have yet to fully embrace it.

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