The month of May is considered National Heritage Month of the Philippines, and although it seems that year in and year out, public participation is disturbingly minimal, it is good that I resume my blogging on an important aspect of heritage preservation and that is adaptive reuse. A lot of Filipinos seemingly lack enthusiasm whenever the topic is on history or culture but this wrong attitude is the exact cause of our own heritage’s degradation. Likewise, our lack of creativity, our insecurities as a people and our constant fear of being “baduy” hinder us from seeing the many opportunities we have in order to bolster our industries and help make our economic activities thrive.
Adaptive reuse is a creative way of reusing old structures (e.g. buildings, streets, plazas, etc.) and adapting these for more modern ends, most notably business-related activities. Throughout the world especially in Europe, Latin America and very close-by, Asia, adaptive reuse is utilized by urban planners, businessmen, heritage conservationists and even government agencies to animate tourism efforts, to help businesses that are starting-up or trying to establish their presence, to resolve urban management issues or to keep a street or a building’s memory alive.
In Europe, one will always find beautiful, majestic period edifices being occupied by chic, high-tech modern offices and establishments. Many old palaces, which are really hard to maintain with today’s electricity rates et al are now turned into hotels and museums. In today’s sadly atheistic Europe, one extreme, drastic adaptive reuse would be how old churches and abbeys are being turned into hotels and even disco clubs!
It’s always exciting, however, to enter because of the contrast and also the “old world meets modernity” feel one gets. In Asia, old shop-houses are still in use although the upper floors no longer have residents and are also now occupied by businesses. In Singapore, I enjoyed eating in those shop-houses that gave me the impression that we were eating home-cooked meals.
It is also a very practical measure to reuse old buildings. Instead of building more structures (that are often aesthetically displeasing), people could use old structures and refurbish these. Not only would they spend less, they would also do a great deal of service to the community by preserving a structure that might be part of the community’s history and heritage. Instead of converting tracks of land that are meant for agriculture, and turning these into commercial complexes, policy makers could just select streets or districts and reuse the rundown edifices or the barely used thoroughfares for lively commercial purposes. This could be done in Binondo especially the street parallel the river. This could also be applied to the Escolta, wherein old period buildings could be turned into hip boutique hotels or high-class residential condominiums. In Metro Manila most especially, we need to always learn to adaptively reuse especially those within the city because our urban sprawl is getting worse. Next thing we know it, Laguna is already part of Metro Manila! The need for cars would be lessened if we reuse and maximize the structures in Manila especially the old, heritage buildings.
Reusing structures has been done in the Philippines and though some are successful, some are in need of constant management and monitoring precisely because the people need to be educated in order for them to learn to appreciate the value of such efforts.
Some examples of reused structures would be the Apostolic Nunciature in Taft. It is the Vatican Embassy that now occupies a former stately mansion along that Avenue formerly known for the abundance of grand abodes that housed the nation’s elite. Sadly, only few of those beautiful houses remain and most have been left to decay because they’re either left unused or continue to serve the purpose of being a home, thus unable to earn revenues for maintenance purposes. However, the example of the Apostolic Nunciature should inspire other home owners to convert their homes to business enterprises so that these could earn. There is also the example of Cafe Isabel in San Juan, an old chalet typical in San Juan during the 20s and 30s that is now a restaurant.
In Vigan, there is the classic example of the reuse of the homes notably along Calle Crisologo. What used to be the respective zaguans where carriages and carrozas used to be kept, are now shops and restaurants that cater to locals and tourists, thus bringing revenues (well, hopefully) to the homeowners. In some places around the world, they close some streets and open spaces at certain hours of certain days for enterprises. Some close entire streets and plazas permanently to creatively reuse in order to generate commercial activity and also to popularize those streets and spaces for heritage and tourism purposes. Such streets and plazas like Temple Street in Hong Kong, Calle Presciados in Madrid and China Town in Singapore become “must-visit” places for tourists and are almost always bustling with activities. People flock to those places without fearing of being run-over by a vehicle or by paying an entrance fee because these are public spaces.
We need more efforts in the Philippines to reuse our structures. We need to keep our old buildings, our streets’ names and the over-all feel of particular places so that future generations continue to have tangible connections to their past and also for us to help our economy thrive. It is also a way for us to help the environment so that we preserve the remaining open spaces we have and learn to recycle the present structures we have.
All it takes, in my opinion, is for our leaders and also us, the citizens, to have the will, the creativity and the enthusiasm to make adaptive reuse happen in our country. We need to adaptively reuse now more than ever because it does two things basically: it preserves our heritage and animates our commercial efforts. History would come alive again if our historical buildings and heritage structures are constantly used and reused.