Time traveling in Manila: Preserving heritage, one building at a time

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 3) — Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Malate, Manila was once a stadium bustling with loud cheers and adrenaline.

"Antigo na 'yan (It's an antique)," says 54-year-old sidewalk vendor Bong Palaña. "Nanay ko pa ang nagsasabi, panahon pa ng giyera 'yan (My mother said it was already there during the war)."

Manila-Heritage-Preservation_17_CNNPH.jpg Sidewalk vendor Bong Palaña says he used to work as a baseball hopper in what he described as an "antique" stadium.

Palaña, who says he had a stint as a baseball hopper in his younger days, has made a living out of selling souvenir items beside Rizal Memorial Sports Complex (RMSC).

The 9.6-hectare stadium saw the beginning of the careers of Olympic medalists and notable athletes like Hidilyn Diaz, Lydia de Vega, Elma Muros, and Robert Jaworski.

Barring training in sports, the stadium  was also home to a number of events.

In 1934, it hosted the Far Eastern Championship Games, predecessor of what is now the Asian Games. The Beatles in 1966 also sang in the  82-year-old stadium, one of many other important events in its storied history.

RMSC owner, the Manila government did not profit from the stadium's track oval, swimming pool, bowling center, basketball hall, and bowling center features.

Manila-Heritage-Preservation_16_CNNPH.jpg The City of Manila, the rightful owner of Rizal Memorial Sports Complex,says there is no profit from the stadium's track oval, swimming pool, bowling center, basketball hall, and bowling center features.  

READ: The uncertain future of the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex

But things changed since the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) declared RMSC as a National Historical Landmark in March 27, acknowledging its role in the history not only of sports but also in other monumental events in the country, as well as one of the last surviving art deco architectures designed by notable architect Juan Arellano.


The sports complex is now entitled to government funding for protection, conservation and restoration, under the Heritage Law.

A known architect assured the public the stadium is structurally sound.

"Pre-war structures made of solid poured concrete are generally robust. That's why they were so difficult to destroy in the war. They have been and are being used, so any safety concern would have been raised years ago," architect and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren said.

In December 2016, the Razon group headed by tycoon Enrique Razon proposed a "preservation and urban renewal project," which, according to them, will turn the sports complex into a mixed-use space while preserving the RMSC facade. The city government approved this, despite contentions from heritage advocates.

"The business areas are expected to compensate for the expensive and meticulous process of restoring and preserving the RMSC façade," the Razon group's statement said.

Reports said the PSC is planning to transfer the stadium to Clark, Pampanga — more than a hundred kilometers away from where it stands now. But this is opposed by many, especially students and other groups that use the facility for training.

"We have so many schools in Manila and ... nearby towns and provinces. Pwede naman dito i-hold ang kanilang regional sports activity. 'Di ba, hindi ginagamit (They can hold their regional sports activities here. It's not being utilized)," Encarnacion added.

Adaptive reuse, or "using a heritage building for a contemporary function other than the one it was designed for," might be what the Razon group is trying to do with the RMSC.

Despite disagreements among heritage conservationists on plans to turn Rizal Memorial into a commercial space, adaptive use as an approach has actually worked for some buildings in once was dubbed Manila's Queen of Streets - Escolta.

Manila-Heritage-Preservation_6_CNNPH.jpg Escolta was the primary commercial district in Manila before the war.  

Escolta was the primary commercial district in Manila before the war. It stood witness to many of the Philippines' firsts: ice cream store, radio station, theatre, and bank, among others. It was where  the elite converge, and famous artists pass on their way to the theatre.

In half a decade, Escolta lost its former glory to time. Most of its patrons could only share their stories to their millennial children and grandchildren, and hope  the beauty of the street and its unique architecture could be restored once more.

Indeed, various groups have taken the task  of reviving Escolta. Building and business owners there never gave up on the street. What is once known for business now stands as a living relic and an outdoor museum, as well as a place for creatives.

Manila-Heritage-Preservation_12_CNNPH.jpg The Regina Building in Escolta boasts of a Beaux-Arts style, designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro and Fernando H. Ocampo.  

But bringing back the people to Escolta is not an easy feat, despite the allure of the rich architecture of the buildings that surround it.

The former First National City Bank Building constructed in the 1920s overlooks part of the Pasig River and Intramuros. Businessman Carlos Araneta bought the property in 2009 and renovated what is now the Juan Luna Plaza  on the same year with the vision of turning it into a business process outsourcing company.

Manila-Heritage-Preservation_2_CNNPH.jpg Juan Luna Plaza, formerly known as the First National City Bank, overlooks part of the Pasig River and Intramuros.  

However, the lack of investors hindered the plan.

Safety and cleanliness of the area are the main issues, said Juan Luna Building Administrator Christopher Hagedorn. This is why partnership with the city government must also be in place.

For now, the Juan Luna Building, and Escolta district in general, serves its purpose as a living museum. The district does not get much attention compared to its neighbors Intramuros and Chinatown, and this is why building owners and administrators like Hagedorn are more than willing to accommodate students or enthusiasts who want to learn more about Escolta and the story behind it.


"The tourists walk … around Rizal park, walk around Intramuros golf course … but the Filipinos around the country should also be able to come here (in Escolta) and be proud and learn about their past, and be able to see and experience it," Hagedorn said.

For now, Hagedorn is envisioning Juan Luna building to be a mixed-use space. The 1,600 square meter space for each of the seven floors now waits for brave tenants who will be willing to risk putting up their businesses in a time machine.

Alcazaren said it would be harder for the Juan Luna Plaza since it is a stand alone. The city government, he added, also has to play a part in heritage conservation. There must be a sustainability plan, as well as easier processes to apply for permits.

"Most district or historic core revitalisation projects (in other countries) need to be district-wide schemes where government provides incentives for adaptive re-use, provides infrastructure to support the re-use, provides safety and security, provides less red tape to get building approvals,"

"The problem is larger than Manila because of the complexities of unfettered rapid urban growth based on opportunistic real estate development and not on any rational master plan or framework for sustainability… but there are things that can be done, like with Escolta, a street at a time," he said.