Tuesday 31 May 2016

Looking for old Manila - part one of a Philippines journey

Manila was once one of Asia's most elegant cities, filled with beautiful houses, cafes and public buildings. Much of this was destroyed in April 1945 when Japanese forces were driven out during the final battle for the city. The cost of liberation included the deaths of 100,000 Filipinos and destruction exceeded only by that of Warsaw. Manila has since been rebuilt and the metropolitan area is today home to over 12 million people. However the city has suffered from "unsympathetic developments" that have caused the loss of heritage buildings, replacing them with office blocks, condominiums and shopping malls. And if that wasn't enough, the region is also prone to earthquakes. But, during my recent visit I discovered that it is still possible to find pockets of old Manila, with splendid houses, cafes and restaurants sometimes tucked away behind gates and walls that protect them from the bustle and noise of the city.

Intramuros is one of the oldest parts of Manila, dating from the long period of Spanish colonial rule. Founded in 1571 as the exclusive preserve of the Spanish ruling class, Filipinos and Chinese were excluded from living there. A place of great riches with government buildings, magnificent homes, churches, convents, schools and beautiful plazas it was protected by thick walls and battlements. This came to a disastrous end in 1945 when almost everything other than the church of San Augustin was flattened. Reconstruction began in the 1950's and today much of Intramuros has been faithfully rebuilt or restored including the already mentioned San Agustin Church which dates from 1606. The church has ornate external doors and once you step inside, look up at the ceiling to see the trompe l'oeil work which gives the impression of being 3-dimensional.

Intramuros is also home to Manila Cathedral, which looks much older than it actually is. The original cathedral was built in 1581 but the current structure is the seventh edition, replacing those lost to earthquakes and in the fighting of 1945. The interior has a gilded altar, a 4,500 pipe organ and beautiful stained glass windows. There is a belief that marriages performed in the Cathedral will end badly because the bride and groom leave through separate doors, so if you are thinking of matrimony, San Agustin might be a better bet!

Door, San Agustin Church, Intramuros
Jose Rizal was a multi-lingual writer, scientist and ophthalmologist who in the 19th century, advocated political reform but not independence from Spain. Accused by the Spaniards of fomenting revolution, he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad in 1896 aged just 35. Rather than having the desired affect of dampening the spirit of the independence movement, his death further inspired it and today Rizal is a national hero with streets named after him in most towns and cities. He was held in Intramuros throughout his trial and then executed there. The site of his death is now a shrine which includes a small museum to his life where visitors can read some of his letters, admire his scientific achievements and even hear the final speeches from his trial.

The streets of Intramuros make for a nice stroll, albeit a hot one in the warmer months. A more interesting way to see the quarter is to take a cycle tour with the Bambike organisation. Bambike works with people living in rural areas who construct the bikes from bamboo and whose families also benefit from education and training programmes. As well as being used on the Intramuros tours, the bikes can be purchased and shipped anywhere in the world. I haven't been on a bike in years but felt very safe, with my crash helmet and excellent guide who led our group through streets mainly closed to motor vehicles.

Staircase, University of the Far East
Chapel mural by Antonio Gonzales Dumlao, University of the Far East
Sculpture by Vicente Manansala, University of the Far East
I have already posted about the The Metropolitan Theatre, but the city is also home to other art deco gems. These include the Far Eastern University, constructed between 1939 and the 1950's and built to the designs of architect Pablo Antonio. Its stately facade is backed by a series of buildings surrounding a quadrangle and displaying a range of art deco features. These include the curved pavilion that houses the campus shop and two sets of stone staircases with "floating" stone handrails, one topped by a canopy made of thin concrete slabs. Antonio pioneered modernist architecture in the Philippines and was responsible for several other iconic buildings across the country.

The university demonstrates Antonio's beliefs about architectural design, maximising the use of natural light and cross-ventilation as well as the use of detail in the design of doors, windows and handrails contrasting with the relatively stark facades. The architect's son said that his father described detail as being the soul of a building. Antonio must be an inspiration for the young people attending the university today. Orphaned by the age of 12, he worked part time to fund his studies and completed his professional qualification in three years rather than the usual five.

There are also a number of important works of art on the campus.  Antonio Gonzales Dumlao's mural of Our Lady of Fatima on the facade of the university chapel uses different shades of blue ensuring that his work contrasts with the adjoining cream facades whilst the walls inside the chapel are decorated with a mural depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross designed by National Artist, Carlos "Botong" Francisco.  Sculpture is represented by a series of copper sheet works symbolising love of God, the value of learning, love of country and freedom. These works by Vicente Manansala stand in the centre of the quadrangle.

Staircase, University of the Far East
Stairs and pavilion, University of the Far East
Window detail, University of the Far East
Still on art deco, I was privileged to visit the Tomas Mapua house on Taft Avenue. Still a private home, I was thrilled to see the recently refurbished ground floor thanks to the hospitality of the family who still retain ownership.  Tomas Mapua was a Cornell graduate and the Philippines' first registered architect. As well as being responsible for the structure he also designed the furniture and decorative details of the house. The salon is supremely elegant with its deco ceiling lights, detailed pillars, cane and rattan furniture. The room gives on to the staircase, the wall of which is painted a pale blue decorated with white clouds whilst the stained glass windows on the stairwell display floral motifs. No photographs I'm afraid but you can see pictures of the interior in the excellent book, Art Deco In The Philippines edited by Lourdes Monintola. The book was launched at the Mapua house.

As well as their careful stewardship of this house, the family are also committed to the preservation of traditional Filipino crafts and work with the Rurungan sa Tubod organisation to encourage craftswomen and to help provide employment. The Tepina showroom at the the rear of the house can be visited by appointment and displays a range of items made from silk, pineapple and other Filipino produced textiles. The designs are beautiful and the products exquisite. I couldn't resist two light green cushion covers made from a mixed silk/ pineapple fabric.

Church of San Sebastian
The Quiapo district, Manila's Chinatown is a short walk away from the university. One of the largest Chinatowns in the world it is home to the Church of San Sebastian. Built between 1888 and 1891, it is the only all steel place of worship in the Philippines and may be the only remaining prefabricated steel church in the world.

San Sebastian was built from 52 tonnes of prefabricated steel sections imported from Belgium. The basilica, also made of steel was constructed without welding and is fastened by rivets and bolts. Wandering around the interior, it is hard to believe that you are looking at a steel structure as the surfaces have been painted to look convincingly like stone. The decision to build in steel turns out to have been a wise one as the church has survived at least 11 earthquakes and many of the original features remain including the stained glass windows which were produced in Germany, the metal doors and the ceilings. However, the building is not without its problems and is suffering in places from rust, corrosion and water ingress, at least some of which appears to have been caused by earlier "repair" works. As with many of Manila's remaining heritage buildings, San Sebastian has a story from the battle for Manila in 1945 as the Japanese placed snipers in the belfry. Its not hard to understand why as the roof of the church affords a spectacular view over the city.

Already declared an Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure, there are proposals to include the church in a bid for UNESCO World Heritage listing but I understand that these are in the very early stages. Much work has been undertaken over the last few years to establish the condition of the building and to draw up plans to ensure it is preserved. I was lucky to meet conservator Tina Paterno who showed me around and told me about challenges facing this unique and striking mint green painted building.

Former Embassy of Monaco, Quiapo
Detail, kiosk, Quiapo
The lanes to the rear of San Sebastian are also worth exploring and give a hint of what this part of Manila was once like.  A number of ancestral homes have survived here, some constructed of wood and flanked by fragrant frangipani and jasmine blossoms. The Iturralde house at 730 San Sebastian Street was once the Embassy of Monaco and still has an imposing presence on this little side street. Protected by railings and partially hidden by the garden, the house is one of the few remaining wooden buildings in Manila. It still has a flagpole from Embassy days above the balcony and was recently used as a film set. I read here that there are plans to restore the building and open it to the public. I really hope this happens and would love to visit next time I am in Manila. Still in this area, there are less obvious reminders of the past such as the art deco influenced detail on the window of a little kiosk.

Gallery entrance, the Henry
Old Manila can also be found in some of the city's hotels. I spent the first three nights of my trip in the Manila Hotel. Built in 1909, it has liveried staff and offers old style service. I arrived on a Sunday to find afternoon tea in full swing in the sumptuous lobby. This is afternoon tea with a difference as the very "English" sandwiches and cakes are supplemented by local favourite dishes. Guests are entertained by a string quartet and people dress up in their best clothes and some of the very youngest members of a wedding party included little girls dressed as ballerinas and boys in suits with dickie-bows. Very elegant.  The hotel was severely damaged in 1945 but enough remained to resurrect it so that it again became a focal point for the great and the good (or not so good). Famous guests have included writers James Michener and Ernest Hemingway, pop stars the Beatles and Michael Jackson and even John F Kennedy, former President of the United States. The hotel was extended in the 1970's at a time when Imelda Marcos was fond of visiting and entertaining here.

On my return to Manila after traveling in the north, I stayed at the Henry, a new boutique hotel in Manila's Pasay neighborhood. Discretely located behind a high wall, the Henry is a series of former homes, built in the 1950's in Chinese style and forming a single compound. Several of the buildings are used for guest rooms but two of them are used as shops selling design items, including the items found in the hotel rooms, two more are used as galleries and workshops, primarily for contemporary art and one is a restaurant. This is a great place to stay - quiet and peaceful and offering great service in a heritage location. I especially liked the wooden floors in the rooms and the original tiled floors in several of the buildings.

Manila is a very big city. At first it can seem overwhelming. The streets are noisy and the roads clogged with thousands of cars, buses, taxis and the ubiquitous jeepneys and tricycles (a kind of cycle taxi). But there is another side to this city and if you look carefully its possible to slip back into the old Manila and to surrender to its charms. I am keen to return!

Some more pictures...

Contemporary art, the Henry
Art deco staircase, Quiapo
Horse-drawn carriage, Intramuros
Ruined building, Intramuros
Roadside shrine, Quiapo
You can see more pictures from the Philippines here.

1 comment:

  1. How ironic that Intramuros was one of the oldest parts of Spanish colonial rule in Manila. Yes it may have been the exclusive preserve of the Spanish ruling class, keeping the so-called riff raff (Filipinos and Chinese) out, but in the end the magnificent homes, churches and plazas came to nothing. War bombs every suburb equal handedly, destroying the treasured suburbs AND the less elegant suburbs.

    Your top photo of Intramuros looked serene.