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The three towers of Quiapo

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 19, 2022 5:00 am

The spectacles of election campaign kickoffs, at venues like the QC Memorial and the Philippine Arena, brought me to think about where these events used to be held first: at Plaza Miranda, the focal point of historic Quiapo district.

Until the early 1970s Quiapo was both a political, as well as commercial hub. This was before CBDs like Makati and Ortigas took over. The difference was Quiapo had no Manhattan skyline to overlook the district. It did, however, have three landmark towers, one religious, one commercial and one residential that added to the quarter’s distinctiveness.

These towers were built before the turn of the 20th century, in the 1930s and the late 1950s. All three dominated the skyline in turn, with their unique silhouettes.

Tower One: The San Sebastian Church

The first and oldest tower in Quiapo is San Sebastian Church. Known officially as The Minor Basilica of San Sebastian, the all-steel structure was completed in 1891. It is the only all-steel church in Asia. The church was designed by Spanish engineer Genaro Palacios in the Gothic revival style, its parts were cast in Belguim and these made its way to the Philippines in eight shipments.

The San Sebastian church is today threatened by rust and lack of funds for full repair, as well as from new building construction nearby.

It was designated as a National Historical Landmark in 1977 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in 2015. It was supposed to be listed as a World Heritage Site but threats of deterioration due to rust and lack of maintenance has prevented the church’s international listing as such.

The San Sebastian church from R. Hidalgo Street with the Meralco tranvia in the foreground

Efforts to conserve the structure have been in progress for over a decade. This was led by the noted architectural conservationist Tina Paterno. Essential repairs were made with the limited funds available, but much more needs to be done to ensure the structure is repaired to last another century. There have also been threats from tall commercial towers being planned beside the church, which would compromise the structure.

Tower Two: The Ocampo Pagoda

Just over 300 meters to the west of the San Sebastian church is the Ocampo pagoda. Jose Mariano Ocampo built the seven-story tower in the mid-1930s, completing the unique structure right before the war.

Conservation and adaptive reuse of these will ensure that the district retains its cultural specificity and character.

The Ocampo Pagoda has seen the rising sun for over 80 years.

Ocampo was a lawyer and was also in the real estate business. He was reportedly inspired by Japanese architecture, even though he had not been to that country. He designed the structure and gardens around it by himself and hired local craftsmen, as well as two Japanese overseers, for the construction of the pagoda. The tower was designed to house his offices, while the podium around it was his family residence.

The last time the Ocampo Pagoda was intact was in the 1960s, as seen in this picture with Bessie Ocampo Buencamino, daughter of the owner and builder.

The tower was so robustly built that it was used as an air-raid shelter in the war. After liberation and the passing away of the patriarch, the family apparently divided the property and moved. It is now used as transient housing for seafarers and for location shoots of feature films and telenovelas.

From the tower battlements you can see the San Sebastian church 300 meters to the east.

Unfortunately the tower and its resplendent gardens have deteriorated over the decades. Much of the statuary and artwork inside and in the gardens are lost or disappearing. From atop its tower you can see San Sebastian to the east. Looking west you can catch a glimpse of the third tower in this article, the Picache Building on Plaza Miranda.

Tower Three: The Picache Building (Now The F&C Tower)

Quiapo is anchored by its eponymous church, which fronts the equally historic Plaza Miranda. It was here that most political campaigns were launched until the 1970s and the imposition of Martial Law. In fact, a grenade attack during a political rally (a false-flag operation) was used as one of the reasons for the dictatorship.

The church was damaged in the war and rebuilt. But it was another structure that anchored Plaza Miranda of the late 1950s and 1960s. This was the 12-story Picache Building. Designed by Harvard-trained architect Angel Nakpil, the building was Manila’s first true skyscraper.

The Picache Building is now over half a century old and is protected under the heritage law.

The Picache Building broke the previous barriers for height because of the use of structural steel. This had to come in the early 1950s because of foreign-exchange restrictions, but relative prosperity in the late 1950s (remember, we were second only to Japan in those days) brought in the use of steel for building.

The Picache stood as a symbol of Manila’s dominance and aspirations to modernity. It was coupled by Mayor Arsenio Lacson’s building of the country’s first underground passageway and shopping center underneath Plaza Miranda. At night the building shone like a lantern and was the object of postcards of the era.

The building still stands, although it has changed hands. The crown of “tallest and most modern’” appears now to be reserved to skyscrapers six times taller in Makati or BGC (where the ground is harder).

The Picache Building by Angel Nakpil was a bright beacon of modernism in the 1960s.

Plaza Miranda has been pedestrianized and currently is in good shape. Successive mayors have always started their reigns with a cleanup, but old habits always seem to creep back into Quiapo, and people seem resigned to the idea that its rebirth comes every three years or so.

The three towers of Quiapo have been witness to much change in Manila. The district is in the doldrums, fueled now mostly by businesses catering to the university belt, and lower-end retail.

There is still hope of bringing back Quiapo and the glory of old Manila, but it will need much transformation in terms of governance and urban planning. One thing that needs to stay is the presence of buildings of heritage like its three towers. Conservation and adaptive reuse of these, as well as of many buildings from the pre-war and immediate postwar years, will ensure that the district retains its cultural specificity and character. These form its identity, and sense of place; a quality that many new developments on the fringes of our metropolis lack and will take decades to attain.