In Manila, heritage architecture struggles to survive

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The Capitol Theater in Escolta St., Manila was once revered as one of Manila’s most “modern” theatres. Photo courtesy of ED SIMON/BLUPRINT MAGAZINE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Teddy Co was a young boy when he frequented Manila’s “movie palaces” in the 1960s. The brightly lit marquees made a spectacle of Rizal Avenue, colloquially known as Avenida. Long queues lined the corner of Carriedo Street where Ideal Theatre stood, premiering Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) pictures like "Doctor Zhivago." Down the avenue was the State Theatre — the home of Twentieth Century Fox films like William Wyler’s historical epic "Ben Hur." Co would cross Plaza Sta. Cruz to reach Escolta Street where he attended screenings in Capitol Theatre for Taiwanese films subtitled in English.

“When I was going to Capitol, it wasn’t at its height anymore,” said Co, a film historian. Built in 1935 and renovated after the Second World War, Capitol was revered as one of Manila’s most “modern” theatres. The ziggurat tower, decorated with a geometrically woven grillwork, was reminiscent of a Parisian industrial quality — what art historians later coined as “Art Deco.” On the vertical planes flanking the tower were bas relief sculptures by the Italian sculptor Francesco Monti — two women in baro’t saya, one carrying a theater mask and another a lyre, elegantly hovering over pedestrians. Capitol’s double-balcony interior accommodated over 1,100 people — a rare feat for its time — and was designed by architect and National Artist Juan Nakpil.

Yet, like State and Lyric, its sister theatres on Avenida and Escolta, Capitol eventually met its demise. On June 2020, the building’s post-war facade was demolished to make way for a high-rise.

The tower relic remains. However, its fate lies in Ascott Resources & Development Corp. (ARDC), Capitol’s late owners and developers, as they dig and drill around the rubble, which, some argue, risk the integrity of this delicate building.

The story of Capitol Theatre is the story of Manila’s cultural heritage. These landmarks pay testament to a Filipino history that was spent “300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” However, their legacies teeter on the edge as the city rapidly “revitalizes” and solutions to their preservation change as quickly as buildings are destroyed.

Capitol has been in a state of disrepair for years but eventually met its demise last June when the building’s post-war facade was demolished to make way for a high-rise. Photo courtesy of ED SIMON/BLUPRINT MAGAZINE

Shifting cultural behaviors

Stand-alone theatres like Capitol deteriorated with the emergence of the megaplex in shopping malls. Ali Mall in Cubao, Quezon City, opened in 1975, following Muhammad Ali’s boxing victory against Joe Frazier. It was the first shopping mall in the Philippines and thus, the country’s first two-screen megaplex was born. Simultaneously, Manila kickstarted the next stage of its development in 1981 with the construction of the Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT-1), connecting the north and south between Cavite and Quezon City.

One of the LRT-1’s twenty stations sits on Carriedo Street, a stone’s throw away from Avenida and Escolta. Delays in finishing the line nudged moviegoers to seek refuge in the newly built, air-conditioned malls with little hope for stand-alone theatres to compete. By the 1990s, the mall chains of SM, Ayala, and Robinsons completely transformed the landscape of moviegoing in the country, housing up to sixteen screens along with a selection of restaurants and shops. Foreign film distributors like MGM and Twentieth Century Fox pivoted their strategy to cater to the megaplexes, overturning theatre operations to landlords with limited programming abilities — a case that applied to Capitol, which went from screening “Thunderball,” a James Bond film, to soft core sex or “bomba” films, to nothing at all.

“We have to consider that these theatres are normally privately-owned and local governments have different policies for governing a particular zone,” said Charles Salazar, the NCCA’s Head of Cultural Heritage. Photo courtesy of ED SIMON/BLUPRINT MAGAZINE

“Reviving” Manila

Preserving Manila’s cultural landmarks is in the hands of local government and the private sector.

In 2016, the ARDC brought Capitol to the attention of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which, Charles Salazar, the NCCA’s Head of Cultural Heritage, described as being in “a state of disrepair.” With the rising demand for housing, and the transfer of ownership to ARDC, a high-rise appeared to be the most suitable solution for renovating the Capitol site. This led the tripartite of cultural agencies — the NCCA, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the National Museum — to approve the demolition of Capitol under the condition that ARDC "undertake a perfect replication of the existing façade" while retaining the tower relic. The ARDC was contacted for this piece and received no response.

“We have to consider that these theatres are normally privately-owned and local governments have different policies for governing a particular zone,” Salazar pointed out in an interview with CNN Life. The Capitol renovations aligned with Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s efforts to “revive” Binondo with high-rise, low-cost condominiums — what he called “Binondominiums.” In 2018, the Teofilo Villonco Building in Quiapo, previously the Life Theatre, faced a similar fate. According to Salazar, the building’s art-deco façade, designed by National Artist Paolo Antonio, was retained while the interior is repurposed as a parking lot, given the limited car space in the area.

“It is the vigilance of the private sector that will carry everything through,” Michael Manalo, the NCCA’s Cultural Heritage Commissioner, suggested. “Private interest groups play a vital role in this equation and they should work with local governments to advance the heritage agenda.”

When the age of multiplexes arrived, Capitol went from screening “Thunderball,” a James Bond film, to soft core or “bomba” films, to nothing at all. Photo courtesy of ED SIMON/BLUPRINT MAGAZINE

Thinking differently

The state’s fragmented implementation and the disproportionate influence of the private sector arguably undermines the preservation efforts of Manila’s cultural landmarks.

A building is considered “important cultural property” if it is over fifty years old and is the work of a National Artist, as per the Philippine Heritage Act of 2009. Yet, this did little to protect the likes of Capitol and Life Theatre from its demolition. When asked why this was approved, Dominic Galicia, former president of the International Council on Monuments and Site (ICOMOS) Philippines, believes it stems from something fundamental.

“It has to do with critical thinking — the ability of decision-makers to assess the proposals profoundly,” Galicia stated. It is not necessarily about keeping a landmark in its former glory, he explained, but about assessing the site with the fullest respect to its story.

Galicia referred to the renovation of the National Museum of Natural History as a positive example where a public-private partnership brought new life to a pre-war building — a project his firm, Dominic Galicia Architects, developed. Mangyan and Maranao motifs ornament the site with a double helix canopy, evoking the Tree of Life, anchoring the building’s neoclassical structure — a marriage between the old, the new, and the ancient.

Similarly, the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Malate — a pre-war structure by the original architect of the Manila Metropolitan Theatre, Juan M. Arellano — faced threats of demolition around late 2016. However, after continued advocacy from interest groups in sports and heritage preservation, the complex was declared an “important cultural property” in 2017. It underwent an intensive P250-million renovation in July 2019, led by Gerard Lico — a professor at the College of Architecture at the University of the Philippines Diliman and a specialist in Filipino Art Deco, who also worked on the restoration of the Manila Metropolitan Theatre. The sports complex took a year to research and develop, opening after four months of construction — in time for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. It is only at this elevated level of conversation, Galicia stressed, could projects like these turn out as well as they do, becoming a gift to the public.

“The neighborhood [around Capitol] is a lexicon of great Filipino architecture and the building is a Filipino expression of what was once universally cosmopolitan,” Galicia remarked.

“When people look at a dusty building, all they see is an inconvenience. A more critical appreciation of inconvenience is to see it as an opportunity for something great.”