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Landmarks of Filipino Art Deco

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 24, 2021 4:00 am

A few weeks ago, local Art Deco conservation advocate Ivan Mandy sent me an FB post announcing that April is Art Deco Month. The International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS), the worldwide umbrella of more than 30 worldwide organizations celebrating Art Deco design and architecture, announced this at the start of the month. The organization, which was founded in 1991, has member societies from Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Australasia.

Art Deco emerged from the heady years of the 1920s when the modernist movement was starting to make inroads on previous historical-revivalist styles. We saw the movement reach Philippine shores in the 1930s with a slew of new buildings designed by Juan Arellano, Juan Nakpil, Andres Luna de San Pedro and others.

We have lost a good number of wonderful Art Deco buildings in the last few decades. Gone are the Jai Alai by Welton Becket, the Meralco Building by Juan Nakpil, and a number of Art Deco apartments in Ermita and Malate.

Our Art Deco heritage in the Philippines can be found in almost all towns and cities. We must conserve these structures as they reflect our communal history and the efforts of Filipino architects to translate the visions of their clients into form and space that is functional, well-built and beautiful.

The good news is that many still remain and we feature here seven sketches I did of these landmark buildings. These are six exemplary works of Filipino architects, which are still standing and being used.

Metropolitan Theater

The grand dame of Philippine theaters is coming back once more. Reports have it that the 1930 Art Deco masterpiece of architect Juan Arellano will open soon after years of conservation.

The theater was the focal point of Manila performance arts in the prewar years. It was heavily damaged in the Liberation of Manila but was resurrected in the 1970s. That second incarnation lasted two decades until it once again fell into disrepair.

We hope that this third resurrection will last. It would be important that continuing programs for the use of the theater be organized with the participation of the community around it, including the two dozen or so educational institutions within the vicinity.

Rizal Memorial Coliseum

 The Rizal Memorial Coliseum was built originally as a venue for tennis.

This landmark Art Deco structure is just one of several heritage buildings erected as the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex for the 1934 Far East Championship Games (the precursor to the Asian Games). Originally designed by pioneer architect Juan Arellano, it was renovated last year by architect Gerard Lico.

Last year it was adapted as an extended hospital facility for the current crisis. The coliseum originally was designed for tennis. The venue shifted mainly to basketball from the 1950s onwards, and it was adapted for indoor sports in the last Southeast Asian Games.

Nielson Tower

 The Nielson Tower tells the story of how modern Makati was once an airfield that hosted the first interisland and international flights of the capital.

In the middle of modern Makati on Makati Avenue is this heritage site and structure. Built in 1937, the Art Deco two-story building was a commercial air terminal, one of two servicing Manila (the other was in Grace Park, Caloocan).

The first commercial flights in the country used this facility. The Japanese converted it into a military airfield in WWII. When airport operations moved to Pasay in 1949, the airport was converted into the center of Ayala's real estate development, with the runways turned into the three avenues that now define the Ayala triangle.

The terminal was reused first as a police station, then as Ayala's Heritage Library (winning an award in 2001 from UNESCO for heritage conservation). In the last decade or so it has been leased to restaurant operations and is now the highly rated Blackbird restaurant. Thankfully, the greenery around the structure has also been conserved as part of the Ayala Triangle Gardens.

St. Cecilia’s Hall

 St. Cecilia’s Hall in the St. Scholastica’s College campus is an elegant, well-maintained venue for music and the arts.

Located in St. Scholastica's College, Manila, this Art Deco masterpiece was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of Juan Luna. Completed in 1932, the structure was renovated in the 1950s and again in the late 1990s, yet keeping most of its distinctive features intact.

In the 1950s, before the completion of the Philamlife Auditorium, St. Cecilia's was open to outside bookings and was a popular venue for concerts. My aunt gave her graduation piano recital there in the ’50s. Several friends, classmates, and my late wife Twink and all her sisters went to school at St. Scho. The compact campus is chockfull of heritage buildings, anchoring the district in tandem with the scattered complexes of La Salle and Benilde.

The Nicanor B. Reyes Sr. Hall

 The Nicanor B. Reyes Hall of FEU anchors a well-landscaped campus blessed with heritage buildings.

This Manila landmark in Far Eastern University anchors a campus filled with the Art Deco creations of National Artist for Architecture Pablo Antonio Sr. The building was completed in 1939, just before the war.

Architectural scholars have likened its geometry to the proto-deco creations of Frank Lloyd Wright, like the Larkin Building. Antonio’s mastery of the style is seen in his handling of details in the stairways, arcades and windows. It is a testament to his planning that the building continues to function as well as when it was completed over 80 years ago.

Jaro Municipal Building

 The Jaro Municipal Hall in Iloilo City  has been adaptively reused as a satellite museum of the National Museum of the Philippines.

This distinctive structure in Iloilo was designed by Juan Arellano and completed in 1934, when Jaro was still a municipality independent of Iloilo. After the town's consolidation with Iloilo, the structure was converted into the district's police station and remained serving that function until the 2000s. lloilo donated it in 2014 to the National Museum. It was brought back to its original form and is now a satellite of the National Museum.

I've been inside before and after its conservation and am glad that this Art Deco gem has been saved. The half dozen other heritage structures around Jaro Plaza also needs to be conserved. The Jaro plaza itself is undergoing conservation, a joint initiative of the City of Iloilo and the NHCP.

Our Art Deco heritage in the Philippines can be found in almost all towns and cities. We must conserve these structures as they reflect our communal history and the efforts of Filipino architects to translate the visions of their clients into form and space that is functional, well-built and beautiful.