Stories Threatened: the Heritage of Manila as Seen Through Escolta

Survival often has little to do with fitness.  The caprice of circumstance and the will of those in power can subvert the natural process of selection, so that our battlefields are littered with the bodies of our brightest, leaving only a few remnants to remind us of who we once were.

Seized by the Americans from its Spanish colonizers at the turn of the 20th century, the Philippines was romantically known as the Pearl of the Orient for its beauty and strategic location.  Its capital, Manila, was a bastion of Western civilization in Asia, with a walled city and an elegant array of Neo-Classical public buildings that reflected the ideals of the City Beautiful Movement.

Due to its link with the United States, Manila became one of the most devastated cities of WW2, second in the world only to Warsaw. From the thriving capital of a commonwealth being groomed for independence, Manila emerged from the war in ruins, its population decimated, its economy shredded, its psyche forever scarred.  Its ancient and beautiful walled city, Intramuros, was razed to the ground, and a large part of its population, along with the landmarks of their cultural heritage, lay in the rubble.

After gaining independence in 1946, the young nation set about rebuilding its capital.  By the 1960s, symbols of hope and heroic ambition were manifest in the city’s resurgent skyline.  Efforts at reconstruction, however, were hampered by haphazard political will. The result was an urban environment fraught with the ills common to large cities – traffic, overpopulation, lack of zoning – leading gradually in the late 1960s to the exodus of the business community to the new suburb of Makati.  

Still the nation’s capital and one of the world’s most densely populated cities, Manila is now greatly changed. Its once celebrated beauty can still be seen in hints, in grand but faded facades amid the hodgepodge of structures that have sprung up.  Too often, however, they come to light only with public notice of their impending demolition, and momentum has started to build toward conserving the vanishingly rare remnants of the country’s architectural heritage.


There is a neighborhood in Manila that may serve as a lexicon of Philippine 20th century architectural history, its streets lined with relics of a fabled past.  Once the most important district in the country, it is now little more than a shabby byway.  Yet its name resonates among the old, and increasingly among the young who are learning of its existence.  A new generation of architects is learning lessons in sensitive climatic response and urban scale from examples there. 

Escolta was the premier business and commercial center of Manila from the late 1800s up to the early 1970s.  It was, so to speak, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street and the heart of downtown.  In this small area, some of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city were built, to house some of the country’s most prestigious offices, banks, and stores.  Although ravaged by war, time and neglect, some of them still stand today. 

Escolta, the district, derives its name from Escolta, the street that extends 450 meters northeast from Plaza Moraga to Plaza Santa Cruz.  The National Historical Commission of the Philippines has officially established the borders of the Escolta historic business district as follows: to the East, Santa Cruz Church and Plaza Santa Cruz; to the north, Dasmarinas Street; to the West, Muelle de Binondo; to the South, Pasig River.


One of the oldest streets in Manila, dating back to 1594, Escolta was named after the Spanish word escoltar, “to escort”, as the Spanish governor-general would parade with his entourage through what was the main street of the district.

A key node of Escolta is its intersection with Burke Street. On three corners of this intersection stand pre-WW2 survivors, relatively intact and at various conditions of preservation; on the fourth corner is a building from the 1960s.  Their stories intertwine with those of other buildings in Escolta, via ownership and architectural authorship.  They all face each other across the intersection in a cordial entente; the corners of the pre-war buildings are chamfered, the shoulder of the post war building is curved. 

Their names are:  First United, Regina, Burke and Gonzalo Puyat.


The First United is today considered Art Deco, although the term did not exist when construction was completed in 1928.  This was just three years after the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, or L'Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, that gave Art Deco its name four decades later.  In 1928 this was not Art Deco but the most current architecture of the time, which reflected a fascination with the latest discoveries in art, technology, as well as archaeology, and generated motifs that were not neoclassical. 

The First United Building is five stories tall and occupies half a city block. It was originally named the Perez-Samanillo building, after the Manila-Barcelona family who commissioned Andres Luna de San Pedro to design it. 

Andres Luna, son of the famous painter, Juan Luna, is one of two supremely creative Philippine architects of the period between the two world wars (the other being Juan Arellano).  His office was the training ground of Luis Araneta, Cesar Concio, Gabriel Formoso, and Juan Nakpil, all of whom would later become the front guard of modern architecture in the Philippines, particularly after WW2.  Nakpil in particular was a partner in Luna’s firm during the design of First United.

The building retains many of its original features. Double-loaded corridors surround two light wells. Near the top of the central bay, and at the corners, the angled corbel arch that frames the penthouse windows seems to allude to Meso-America, while the reed fluted verticals on the rest of the façade suggest Egyptian sources, all reflecting an autonomy from Greek and Roman precedent.


An elegant neoclassical structure, the Regina Building still reigns as perhaps the most elegant of the buildings on Escolta.  It serves as a model of a site evolving over time to accommodate change. 

The first three floors were designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, before he designed the Perez-Samanillo, and fresh from his five year stint as City Architect of Manila (1920-24).  The classical style is very much informed by Art Noveau, evident in the façade’s organic bas relief ornamentation, as well as the fluid forms of the wrought iron grillwork inside.  Luna’s intervention would not touch the pre-existing late-19th century structure that anchored the northeastern corner of the block.  Later, in the mid-1930s, Fernando Ocampo replaced the northeastern corner with a neoclassical facade that would complement the southeastern corner facade of the First United Building across the street.  The result would be the iconic vista of two architectural “lions” guarding the entrance to Escolta from Plaza Santa Cruz.

Ocampo also added a new fourth floor, using this new attic course to emphasize horizontality and to reinforce the scale of the street, even as the building was becoming taller.  Like Ocampo, his client, Jose de Leon, was from the province of Pampanga.  Pampanga sugar was the source of de Leon’s immense fortune, with which he acquired two buildings on Escolta – the Regina and its sister building farther down the block, the Natividad, designed by the Spanish Filipino architect, Fernando de la Cantera.  Escolta was indeed a canvass of industrial ascendancy, narrating the story of how Philippine wealth circulated through the 20th century.  


Built in 1918, the building is named after the philanthropist William Burke, whose name is also carried by the cross street.  Designed by Tomas Arguelles, it boasted the first elevator installed in the country. It survived several earthquakes and both world wars, but was remodeled several times and, in the process, stripped of most of its distinguishing features.  Today its unadorned façade shows almost no trace of its original character, attesting to the contemporary turn toward pragmatic design, and to the resilience of a well-built structure.


The southwest corner of this intersection houses the Gonzalo Puyat Building of the late 1960s.  It is unverified but this building is most likely designed by National Artist Leandro Locsin, judging from the understatement he favored. Its massive gray façade is refined and modulated by a grid of thin vertical concrete fins projecting beyond the ground floor like the upper story of a traditional Filipino house, in the kind of subtle abstraction typical of Locsin.

Formerly housing a famous department store, Syvel’s, the five-story building is now closed and abandoned.  



The Capitol Theater building is an expressive building, its stepped profiles and deep concrete window canopies providing rich opportunity for shadow.  Juan Nakpil designed this building in 1935, five years after he opened his office, seven years after he assisted Andres Luna with the Perez-Samanillo three blocks away, and ten years after he had seen the 1925 Paris exposition that gave rise to Art Deco.  Its monumental façade, with its ziggurat-like tower over the main entrance, dominates the street.  Its symmetrical tower façade is articulated by a pair of allegorical bas-relief sculptures by Francesco Riccardo Monti, a leading Italian sculptor who made Manila his home after escaping Fascist Italy.

In the main lobby, a wall mural executed by titans of modern Philippine painting --Victorio Edades, Carlos “Botong” Francisco and Galo Ocampo -- celebrated the “Rising Philippines”.  It also celebrated the spirit of artistic collaboration that permeated this project.  The national flower, the sampaguita, were used as a decorative motif for the proscenium arch, the wrought-iron balustrade, and other interior elements.  The double-balcony theater had eight hundred seats.  Mural, decoration, seats are now all gone, lost in an aborted attempt some years back to convert the theater into a restaurant.  Occasional murmurs stoke fears of demolition, which would be criminal in the light of the Heritage Law which protects the work of National Artists such as Nakpil.


Built in 1914 on the edge of the Pasig River, El Hogar (Spanish for “the home”) was the doyenne of what was once the Wall Street of Manila, Juan Luna Street.  It is the oldest commercial building in the neighborhood and one of the few remaining structures intact from the American Period.  Featuring a mirador, or lookout turret, it offered the best vantage point for observing the movement of trading ships as they arrived at and departed from the port of Manila. 

The plan of the building, designed by Ramon de Irureta Goyena, organizes single-loaded corridors around two courtyards joined by a lantern-like stairwell with exceptional wrought iron grillwork and an ornate balustrade.  El Hogar has a spatial grace one rarely finds in Metro Manila today. Awning windows on the exterior façade invite the river breezes to flow through the open corridors into the central courtyards. 

During the heyday of Escolta as the premier business address, El Hogar was the headquarters of key corporations, including Ayala, the company that would eventually transform the rice fields of Makati into the nation’s business capital – and in doing so, lure the major corporations away from Escolta, leading to its demise. 

The building evolved gradually over time.  Originally four floors including a mirador, it eventually needed to grow.   The old mirador was then expanded horizontally to become a full floor, its features harmoniously relating to the rest of the façade, and a new mirador was added on top, preserving the building’s countenance – and providing a lesson in retrofitting that applies today.

The last few decades have been ignominious for El Hogar.   Its high-ceilinged rooms became warehouse space.  Its new owners, who purchased the building in 2014, petitioned for it to be condemned, which was granted by Manila City Hall, in the face of the nominal protection afforded by the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, also known as the Heritage Law.

The new owners, making no secret of their intentions, put up a concrete barricade, and removed the ceremonial time capsule and the memorial plaque to El Hogar’s founder, Antonio Melian.  When its delicate wrought iron grillwork and griffin newel posts were dismantled from the graceful staircase and hauled away by truck “for safekeeping”, a public outcry arose, resulting in a Cease and Desist order against the demolition in 2015.

The threats to the embattled El Hogar have made it a lodestone of civic action and protective effort for a growing army of Escolta champions.


The magisterial Philippine National Bank, or PNB, building of 1965, designed by Carlos Arguelles, was built at a time when the country seemed to be at the height of its powers, considered second only to Japan in terms of its economic strength.

The building is 12 stories: a nine-story tower sitting on a three-story podium.   For all its relative height, the PNB harmonizes with the scale of its low-rise neighborhood because of the prominence of the podium. 

Diminishing the sense of mass is the brise soleil, or sunbreaker screen, that rests about a meter away from the inner skin of full-height glass windows that encloses the interior.  It is like the volada, or exterior layer of wood louvers and capiz shell windows that lightly wraps the second floor of the traditional Filipino house, or the barong tagalog, the traditional men’s shirt of embroidered pineapple fiber which floats away from the body, cooling while clothing.

In his 2004 memoir “A Passion to Build,” the contractor David M. Consunji wrote that the PNB was perhaps “the biggest construction project of that time, costing P21 million” with “the largest amount of precast concrete decorative elements and the most complicated marble work ever done in the Philippines at the time."  With Alfredo Juinio as the structural engineer, the PNB was the first building in the country to use “a waffle slab ceiling, each slab measuring 10 meters by 10 meters,” as well as steel piles.

When PNB moved headquarters to Pasay City in 1995, the decline of Escolta became precipitous; a tower full of bankers had been a strong economic engine.  The building was purchased by the city government, used it as the City College of Manila for ten years, and abandoned it  - left it to rot, literally - when the college moved elsewhere. Despite the PNB’s pioneering significance, the city government seems bent on destroying this modern Filipino icon.  After a fire in 2015 damaged the upper half of the PNB, Manila City Hall renewed its efforts to condemn the building.  Citizen-led groups have mounted protests and pleas for its possible retrofit, citing its well-configured space plan, which is eminently suitable for adaptive reuse.  Meanwhile, demolition proceeds.

Science and technology today are able to stabilize the most endangered of structures.  A poignant case in point is the former Product Exhibition Hall in Hiroshima that became Ground Zero of the atom bomb drop, and later the Atom Bomb Dome that is now part of the peace memorial.  Closer to home, the Insular Life Building in Makati, designed by Cesar Concio, from the same period of the early 1960s as the PNB, still stands today, rehabilitated after a fire in 1971 that damaged its upper half.


The Commercial Bank and Trust Company building was built in 1969, designed by Jose Maria Zaragoza, who in 2015 would be named National Artist for Architecture.  It is the last building of any architectural significance to be built on Escolta Street. 

The building has a marvelous section that responds with creativity to the direct sun.  The six-story half cylinder results from extruding in the round an elaborate profile.  Every contour of this mushroom-shaped section responds to the climate, shielding the interior from the sun.  The semi-circular canopy at steet level hovers somewhere between second and third floors.  The fourth floor protrudes in a great overhang that keeps the glass façade in shadow below, while the fourth floor windows themselves recess deeply into the building.

At the fifth and sixth floors, the building’s smooth plastered surface resembles a reversal of the exterior wall of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which had opened ten years earlier.  It is not a direct copy, but an allusion, reflecting the friendship between Zaragoza and Guggenheim Museum’s architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Right next to Comtrust is one of the most poignant vantage points in the neighborhood, the intersection where Escolta meets Nueva, from where one can see the western apse of Juan Arellano’s 1926 Manila Central Post Office across the Pasig River.  Two half circles confront each other across time and a river in a dialogue that shares the narrative of our city.


The fate of Escolta and its buildings seems to run parallel to that of Manila, a city of mixed blessings, subject to contradictory forces – some callous and destructive, and some protective – its mature form still in the making. Whether the once-prestigious district ever captures a new relevance, or settles quietly into its humbled state, will depend on which forces will eventually prevail.

First United and The Regina are intact, thanks to the good stewardship of its owners.  One hopes that the current ownership of El Hogar transforms from mere ownership to good stewardship.  In any case, all three of these pre-World War Two structures are standing.

The future of El Hogar is less certain, as only the vigilance of citizen watchdog groups stands in the way of professed intent to destroy it. 

The former Comtrust Building is still in good shape, both literally and figuratively speaking, and its distinctive form is likely to survive, as it is currently owned and occupied by one of the country’s major banks, Bank of the Philippine Islands.  The same cannot be said of the Philippine National Bank, the tallest building of any architectural significance on Escolta, now being demolished by its owner, the city government of Manila.

Cities tell their stories through their buildings.  The story of Manila tells of the meeting of East and West, and of the layers of cultural influence that enriched this land through the centuries.   Even our ruins form part of this tale.  More tragic than a war’s aftermath is the self-destructive ignorance, callous handling, and willful caprice of its appointed guardians and developers, who often seem bent on destroying the little that is left of our remaining architectural legacy. 

It falls to us citizens, therefore, to be the guardians of our own heritage, to ensure its survival.  It is up to us to keep our memories alive and our monuments standing, so that as we build our new monuments to present and future progress, we never lose sight of the lessons and heroes of our past.

(published in the 2016 book "Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City" that accompanied the exhibit of the same name, curated by Leandro V. Locsin Partners as the Philippines' first pavilion in the Venice Architecture Biennale)