They are a witness to the eclectic history of a city that has survived wars and countless natural calamities
In the late 1990s, architect, businessman and art collector Jose Acuzar noticed that a number of colonial mansions in the Philippines, a Spanish colony for 333 years, were in a grave state of decay. Having travelled to European cities such as Prague, where centuries-old structures had been beautifully preserved, Acuzar expressed dismay at the conditions of many structures in his home country.
Determined to protect the heritage and legacy of Spanish-era mansions, the president of the real estate firm New San Jose Builders decided to purchase several ancestral homes located all over Luzon Island and restore them in a new location in Bagac, Bataan, a rural area about a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Manila.
Over the course of the next decade, Acuzar’s team transported nearly thirty ancestral houses, the oldest of which was established in the 1780s—“piece by piece” and “plank by plank”—from their original location and rebuilt them on his 400-hectare private property. He says he did not receive any funding from any government agency for the restoration, but some members of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts encouraged him to pursue the ambitious project.
However, Acuzar’s efforts to preserve colonial mansions have met with criticisms and are not universally embraced. When his Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar heritage resort opened four years ago, some purists publicly disagreed with the way the mansions were uprooted from their original dwellings.
“Some historians were aghast that a private citizen could actually do this,” said Daphne Oseña-Paez, a jewellery and home furnishings designer, after visiting the resort. “Restoration experts may argue that this isn’t really preservation per se, as the buildings are taken out of context. I understand. But in reality, if a person with this level of commitment didn’t step in and take the initiative, a lot of these structures would have just crumbled and decayed… or worse, [been]bought up and chopped up for parts.
“What we have here is the closest thing to an accurate restoration of homes.”
The Las Casas project may have renewed the interest of Filipinos in designs that reflect the country’s rich colonial past. In late 2013, when real estate developer DMCI Homes inaugurated one of its newest mixed-use residential projects, Acacia Estates in Taguig City, the company replicated the design of the old Tuason Mansion in Sampaloc, Manila, which features narra and ipil flooring, thick stone walls, and ornate wooden furniture and furnishings, by utilising modern technology and engineering.
The project highlights the three-storey Casa Real, a multi-purpose hall that resembles an 18th century noble house also known as bahay na bato—literally, a stone house—the most popular of which is the presidential residence, Malacañang Palace.
Several historical structures and mansions in Manila were not as lucky as the ones transplanted to Acuzar’s heritage resort in Bagac. Many residences and neo-classical buildings erected during the American occupation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946 were destroyed during the Second World War, like the Post Office and Manila City Hall, but were reconstructed later on. Some buildings were simply ruined in recent decades when the structures deteriorated due to flooding, natural calamities, old age or plain neglect.
An example of an American-era structure that was not saved was the Manila Jai Alai Building, designed by American architect Welton Becket in Philippine Art Deco style in 1940, but was demolished in 2000. Another prominent Art Deco structure currently facing demolition is the rotting Manila Metropolitan Theatre designed by Juan M. Arellano, one of the Filipino architects who helped restore Manila in the aftermath of the World War.
After the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946, the late Leandro V. Locsin, a national artist and one of the pillars of modern Filipino architecture and interior design, advocated the use of concrete—readily available, durable and sustainable— in design.
Today, his works are amongst the most recognisable landmarks in the country, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theatre, Philippine International Convention Centre, the University of the Philippines Church of the Holy Sacrifice and the old Makati Stock Exchange Building. The original Ayala Museum, designed by Locsin and completed in 1967, was demolished with his permission and rebuilt by his son Leandro V. Locsin Jr. in its current location in 2004.
Another architect who has helped shape contemporary Filipino architecture is Eduardo Calma, whose organic combination of innovative design, sustainable architecture and use of green technology is evident in his mega-scale projects, such as The Mind Museum at Bonifacio Global City, completed in 2011.
Calma also incorporates his design principles into intimate residential projects, which include the renowned Pablito Calma house. With its clean interiors and geometric patterns that adapt to the humid and tropical climate of the Philippines, the contemporary Makati home was featured in Robert Powell’s book that showcases the best in contemporary oriental residences, “The New Asian House”.
These days, Filipinos have to seriously think about the environment in which they want to build their houses, according to Joey Yupangco, architect and dean of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts. He wouldn’t describe his design philosophy as vague as the term “eco-friendly,” but rather a scientific, progressive and practical approach that caters to the needs of the modern Filipino family and their way of life, without neglecting the physical environment in which they live. He hopes that this kind of thinking will translate to the designs of the country’s younger designers.
“Primarily a house is a home. It reflects the behavioural patterns of the individual, so consequently it also dictates the form of how the house is built,” Yupangco said, recalling that his family’s old house in North Forbes Park, a prestigious, gated community in Makati, followed the contours of the lot when it was built in the late 1960s.
The same concept has been applied to the newer houses in the adjacent South Forbes Park, where the area’s sloping topography is more prominent. One of Yupangco’s projects in that same neighbourhood, the Ben Chan House, a dynamic Filipino residence featuring large-yet-flexible minimalist and industrial spaces, was also one of two Filipino homes included in Powell’s collection.
As more and more Filipinos are introduced to modern designs and the concept of sustainable architecture and green technology that can withstand Manila’s current level of pollution, earthquakes and tropical cyclones, especially in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan that devastated the country last year, many designers and urban developers are looking for ways to incorporate the country’s old building techniques and combine them with contemporary styles that are distinctively Filipino in character.
Ayala Land, for instance, demonstrated this strategy by updating the bahay na bato concept in a high-end garden community like Serendra, a low- to mid-rise residential condominium development on a 12-hectare prime property inside the thriving Bonifacio Global City.
Commenting on the future of Philippine architecture, author and up-and-coming architect Paul Joseph Blasco relates that young professionals like him must strive to protect the legacy of the country’s architectural history.
“If we look at our own lineage, we know that the great Leandro V. Locsin didn’t lose his sensibilities in large- scale projects, and despite his growing firm,” he noted on his website.
Acuzar, who stands by his heritage resort’s slogan “Pride in the Past, Hope for the Future”, says he plans to acquire an additional twenty colonial mansions in the coming years and vows to restore all of them to their former glory, notwithstanding the detractors.
“After all,” he maintains, “These homes are amongst our country’s national treasures.”