Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Earlier this year, visitors to Intramuros may have noticed the area leading to the iconic Fort Santiago getting a facelift. Plaza Moriones, which was previously a garden, has been smoothed over to resemble a vacant park. When Carlos Celdran — a familiar figure known for his historical tours — arrived from a trip abroad and saw the then-ongoing construction, he was heartbroken. “They paved over my heart,” he says.
The controversial construction at Plaza Moriones was part of a larger plan to redevelop Intramuros, to make it “a new home for meaningful human activities, a haven for the creation for new memories,” according to the Intramuros Administration. Guiding the redevelopment is a 38-year-old provision in Presidential Decree 1616, which provides that the general appearance of Intramuros shall conform to Philippine-Spanish architecture of the 16th to the 19th century.
At that time, Plaza Moriones kept to its name, and for the most part, was a lot which was used as a plaza. Old photographs of Intramuros show that Plaza Moriones was once an empty canvas of land, littered with tall grass and debris in 1875.
In 1903, the space was still an unremarkable piece of land, blanketed with grass. The 1973 Development Plan presented by Spain envisioned the space as a “cultural-recreational area,” a sketch of which shows the area as a plaza.
In 1983, the plaza began to be littered with small shrubs, until it became a garden landscaped by architect Dolly Perez in 1993. It retained this identity until recently.
“In the past years, we’ve used this as a picnic ground, as a [venue for] dog runs, weddings, all of these things, because it was a garden and a memorial,” Celdran says. The renovations being done in Plaza Moriones, however, may have made it unsuitable for these activities.
At the time when the constructions were still underway, Celdran pointed out: “You can’t throw a wedding on top of that granite. It’s too hard, the bride will slip,” he says. “We can’t throw a picnic. How can we throw a picnic when it’s all stone? We can’t have a dog run here; there aren’t enough trees.”
“This project would have been better if they asked people what they thought of some things,” he adds.
History and memory
When one speaks of redeveloping a place of collective heritage, two questions arise: Whose memory are we drawing from? What role should history and memory play?
Celdran, who was vocal on his criticism of the redevelopment of Plaza Moriones — but is nevertheless closely coordinating with stakeholders — is of the view that while history plays a key role in the restoration and redevelopment of Intramuros, it is also important to keep an eye on the present. “You have to understand that history has to fit contemporary society. You can’t freeze it in time,” he says. “You have to use history to help people of the current age advance, right?”
The conflict regarding the redevelopment of Plaza Moriones is emblematic of the dilemma inherent in any undertaking to restore and redevelop places of common heritage, says Marco Sardillo III, former Intramuros administrator from 2013 to 2016.
“Similar to the plaza … I may have [wanted] this for the garden, but that’s my personal sense of nostalgia. But our common heritage of that space is that space as a plaza,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s about foregoing personal nostalgia and embracing our common heritage.”
For conservation architect Augusto Villalon — who was previously consulted by the Intramuros Administration for its new building guidelines, and has worked for several noted conservation projects here and abroad, including the rehabilitation of the Iloilo’s Jaro Plaza — there is more to preserving the heritage of Intramuros than adhering to what was established in the past.
"You have to understand that history has to fit contemporary society. You can’t freeze it in time,” says Carlos Celdran. “You have to use history to help people of the current age advance, right?”
“The ideas of Intramuros’ heritage have sort of permeated the Filipino vision of heritage, which is the old vision. The 1970s vision. They haven’t quite moved forward today,” says Villalon. “What heritage is today, is a total thing. [Intramuros Administration] is talking about restoring buildings, restoring streets, which are very important. But it’s also very important to restore the life that happens in the streets, and the life that happens in the building, whether it’s an office building or residential building or a school building.”
Sardillo echoes Villalon’s sentiment on returning life back to Intramuros. “When [then DOT] Secretary Mon [Jimenez] came in, he said the mandate of Intramuros is not just to restore Intramuros, but to redevelop it,” he emphasizes. “Sadly, for many years, the focus has really been just restoration. Some of the ruins, they were left as ruins. So how do you restore this to a living, vibrant city?”
For the rehabilitation of the Iloilo’s Jaro Plaza, Villalon conducted three public consultations with stakeholders in the area — barangay captains, shop owners, residents of the district — in order to gather input and feedback on initial plans and find out what the stakeholders wanted.
“We had to explain to them what conservation was, make them understand, so that the eye is towards the future, and they will come back and use the plaza again,” he says. “It was something they had participated in. That is what was kulang with Fort Santiago.”
Public consultation in the case of Fort Santiago (and Intramuros as a whole) is not required in the law. Says Sardillo, however, this does not mean that the public will not be consulted at all.
“I think the challenge is helping people to imagine and realize that now that you have this canvas, it now lends itself to other activities,” adds Sardillo.
“Sadly, for many years, the focus has really been just restoration. Some of the ruins, they were left as ruins. So how do you restore this to a living, vibrant city?"
Yet for Villalon, it is the public — after they have been educated on heritage conservation — who should decide for themselves how to conserve and use places of common heritage. The example is Vigan, before it became a World Heritage site. “People did not want to live there because [they believed] the old houses were haunted or malas, until they realized that those old houses were their only resource and what gave Vigan the identity,” says Villalon. “Even the last calesa driver and empanada vendor was able to get that identity, but it took a long time.”
“Intramuros has always been a microcosm of society,” says Sardillo. “We try to run it following principles of good governance, proper policy analysis, and evidence-based policy making.”
“If we could turn this to a wonderful little policy lab, and show people how things can work, maybe we can show [them] we’ve run out of excuses,” he adds.
In this period of transition, Intramuros is still home not only to tourists, advocates, or artists, but also to residents, shop owners, and wandering vagrants who seek solace within its streets. It is to them that Villalon refers to when he says: “Very little has been done for the people inside Intramuros. They are not consulted, and their participation is not brought in to whatever the plans the administration has.”
For conservation efforts in shared spaces to be meaningful, they have to be meaningful for the citizens who are going to use the spaces, says Villalon. In Intramuros’ case, the efforts have to mean something for the majority of the people who utilize the area. “Right now, there’s not much business or life happening in Intramuros,” he says, “and most of the people who live inside are informal settlers.”
Beyond issues of common heritage and design aesthetics is the social and economic impact that restoration and redevelopment efforts will bring upon the inhabitants of Manila’s cherished old district.
Villalon asks: “What happens to the people inside once the plans pushes through? As a district in Metro Manila, will it become a Disneyland, or would have it join the rest of Manila?”
It might still be too soon too tell, as all stakeholders — including Celdran, Villalon, Sardillo, and everyone who has ever walked Intramuros — continue to advocate and shape Intramuros into the space that it is still becoming.