Manila’s town plazas revisited: Connecting culture with tech
Eden Estopace (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2015 - 10:00am

Eat, pray, love. In Manila’s old town plazas, memories are made of these. 


MANILA, Philippines - At a time when the town’s nerve center was the busy intersection of the church, the market, schools and government offices, a communal space for idyllic trysts and mundane daily wayfaring exists.

A digital exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum seeks to bring back this era of easygoing 19th-century lifestyle without malls, traffic gridlock, and urban mayhem.

Urban designer and landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren, who is also curator of the project, says that plazas have been abandoned for the suburban peripheries and the building of suburbs, malls, and other mix-use developments in cities.

“The old centers have deteriorated or have become parking spaces,” he says. “We want people to be inspired to protect these public spaces and to rediscover their meaning and significance to our history.”

Take the case of the historic Plaza Miranda fronting Quiapo Church or the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, which was made famous by the bombing of a political rally of the Liberal Party in 1971.

Today, the plaza is still the site of political rallies and a beehive of commercial activities where vendors, pickpockets, fortunetellers, churchgoers and typically every man on the street converge.

At Samsung’s Digital Art Gallery at the Yuchengco Museum, a Samsung tablet and widescreen TV project on screen what it looks like across time. The throwback photos in sepia bring back images of the past – the Quiapo Church in 1800, the plaza in 1939, the Lacson Underpass under construction in 1961, the Liberal Party rally in 1972, and the current Plaza Miranda.

An aerial shot of the place was also taken by a drone camera and an augmented reality feature allows one to view the changes swiftly from today’s look to a hundred years ago.

“That is what the Samsung Culture Connect project is all about,” says Arita Narag, head of corporate citizenship at Samsung. “We realized that public spaces, especially our plazas, played a major role in shaping our country’s social, political, cultural and even religious identity. Next year, we want to take it even further and cover more size and more landmarks in the Philippines.

Samsung teamed up with the Philippine Science High School Foundation Inc. for the exhibit,  which will be open until Sept. 18. It features 11 panels of plazas found in Manila - Plaza Miranda and Plaza del Carmen in Quiapo, Plaza Roma in Intramuros, Plaza Rajah Sulayman in Malate, Plaza Lacson, and Plaza Sta. Cruz in Sta. Cruz, Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz, Plaza Moraga and Plaza Cervantes in Binondo, Plaza Dilao in Paco, Plaza Moriones in Tondo and Liwasang Bonifacio in Ermita.

Alcazaren, a founding member of the Heritage Conservation Society, believes that the marriage of technology and art will not only benefit artists, but also students of culture and history.

He offered this explanation of the layout of the old plazas in a video available at the gallery: “The grid of the streets that is the pattern of the laws of the indies is like a checkerboard. This is called the “quadricillo” and in that grid you have voids that are located roughly in the center of the town. The plazas are the center of the town and also the center of authority and symbols of that authority.”

“Technology makes the arts, culture, and history more accessible and more appealing to people. It allows them to appreciate everything in a more dynamic manner, injecting a new dimension and giving it a meaning beyond what they get to read in books,” he says. 

Coinciding with the exhibit is the launch of Culture Explorer, a mobile application that uses augmented reality technology to help people, especially the youth, learn about Manila’s plazas and other cultural and heritage landmarks. 

The app is virtually a tour guide in one’s pocket, with fresh content and plenty of interesting trivia. It also allows users to navigate around key landmarks and travel back in time to see how the landmark has looked and evolved over the years.

Since history is better appreciated with other people, the Culture Explorer app allows users to connect with other Culture Explorers who share their interest in the different sites.

Our urban landscape is evolving but our collective memory – past, presence and future - must be strengthened to provide context to our realities and cultural identity.

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