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Finding Deco

The Ipo dam tower is a magnificent example of engineering Art Deco, akin to the more famous Hoover Dam structures in the US.

Walking down Paseo de Roxas in Makati recently, I bumped into a remnant of Manila of the 1940s  a small bridge. I took notice of it because it had rounded railings and horizontal stripes; elements of the Art Deco architectural style from the 1930s.

Modern Makati was developed in the 1950s but many architects and engineers were still under the influence of Art Deco, even when the rest of the western world had shifted to the International Style of glass and steel. This was probably because artistic or architectural movements took a few years before impacting the local scene.

In the ’50s magazines were the most common venue for the transmittal of new styles in architecture. Since up-to-date magazines were expensive in Manila, most architects would wait for old issues to filter to the second-hand bookstores along Claro M. Recto Avenue. These magazines were often a few years old.

The UP Los Baños has several Art Deco beauties like this waiting shed.

The other reason for the vestiges of older styles was that designers went to default mode when designing the more quotidian of structures; like this bridge. Since this piece of the urban scape was small and hidden, it survived the last half-century only to be re-discovered by people like me (whose cars were coded, so I had to walk… not that I favor cars, but this part of town was not filled with too many buildings with public access).

The metropolis, despite the ravages of World War II, managed to retain a large number of Art Deco buildings. This was because they were often made of solid concrete (poured in place instead of using today’s lighter concrete hollow blocks).

Many of these structures had only their facades and internal structure left but they were quickly rebuilt because many housed functions necessary for a city on the mend. One of the first to be rebuilt were the Art Deco apartment buildings, mostly located in Ermita, Malate and a smattering in Paco and Singalong. Many of these survive to this day, testimony to their robust construction (or their luck I not taking a direct hit during the liberation of Manila).

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This is an old Art Deco movie house now being used as a talyer.

Then there were the movie houses along Rizal Avenue and all over the Sta. Cruz and Quiapo districts. Many of these today have been gutted and turned into tiangge markets or worse, boarded up waiting for the wrecking ball; the victims of several waves of alternative entertainment starting for Betamax, then CDs, and now DVDs and internet downloads.

Another building type that survived to the 1950s was the gasoline station. Most of the great Art Deco stations (with flat roofs, rounded-edge gas pumps, horizontal striping) in Manila have disappeared but you will find many in the province hidden beneath the detritus of urban expansion. I’ve seen some converted to talyers.

The provinces are, in fact, great repositories of Art Deco heritage. The town halls (now city halls), capitol buildings or movie house all over the country in this distinctive style can be seen right beside or behind gigantic shopping malls, bus terminals or billboards, but they are still there… for now. The fact that these structures are far from Manila make them all the more prone to disappear without anyone raising any objections.

Ermita and Malate districts in Manila still hold these prime examples of Art Deco apartment buildings.

We do have a heritage law that protects architectural legacies over 50 years old. The problem is in the law’s implementation. The public in general, and real estate developers in particular, know little about that law. Fewer know or have an appreciation of architectural heritage. Although there is some kind of consciousness about Spanish-era structures, the early twentieth to mid-century styles are not in most people’s (or politicians’ and real-estate developers’) radars.

Another Art Deco treasure trove involves all the pre-war and immediate post-war infrastructure-related structures. These are the water towers (like the ones in Cubao and Mandaluyong), bridges (like the little one I noted in the beginning of this feature) and dam structures (like the one in the image attached, of the Ipo Dam tower in Bulacan. The Ipo structure is a prime example of a variant of Art Deco called streamline modern. I thought it disappeared after the war but I found out recently that it had survived. Magnificient!

I found this post-war Art Deco gas station in Batangas City, perfect for a Starbucks or retro diner.

When I saw the pre- and postwar pictures of the Ipo structure, I thought immediately that it would (again) be a great opportunity for a foreign movie ala Bourne Legacy. Even B-movies would not be a bad idea, but Chuck Norris is apparently retired.

Calling Hollywood...maybe Sylvester Stallone could make a prequel of Rambo at Ipo, titled Rambo: Origins featuring the daring exploits of Robert Rambo, father of John Rambo. Robert was an American Navajo Indian who was a US Marine “code talker” — they relayed communications in their dialect so the enemy couldn’t decipher the message. Sargent Robert was in the Ipo area and intercepted a frantic call for help from group of stranded marines huddled in this very tower. R Rambo fought a winning battle against 320 Japanese troops to rescue them. In Manila a few weeks later he met and wooed a German Jewish refugee Freida Greenberg. Their child was John G Rambo. The rest is history (or Hollywood).

Provincial towns have wonderful Art Deco structures like this in Kalumpit.

Yes, Hollywood beacons, but we can’t achieve stardom unless we keep our architectural heritage, all those sites and structures without which we cannot tell any story of who we are, what we were and what we had hoped to be.

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

The old Roces building by Pablo Antonio Sr. off Rizal Avenue is streamline-modern at its best.

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