The Manila Hilton of memory
CITY SENSE (The Philippine Star) - June 16, 2001 - 12:00am

Our architectural landmarks are not confined to the ancient and disused. Many buildings of the last 50 years because they were exemplary designs by Filipinos or because they represent a specific stylistic, social or cultural era, are considered landmarks. The ‘60s was such an era; one that saw Philippine architecture finally emerge from post-war limbo. A wave of buildings sprouted, seeking national identity, cultural expression and commercial viability within a framework of modern architecture.

Manila and its suburbs in the ‘60s were considered one of the most modern metropolitan regions in Asia. This modernity was expressed in Americanized suburbs and international style buildings, structures that changed the city’s urban landscape. Leandro Locsin’s early Ayala towers (on the tabula rasa of new Makati), the SSS Building in Quezon City by the firm of Juan Arellano and CC de Castro’s Asian Development Bank on Roxas Boulevard were prime examples. But one structure stood out as iconic of that era – the Manila Hilton.

The Hilton Heritage

The Manila Hilton was the sign that Manila and the Philippines had arrived and plugged into the "space-age." The hotel was the most modern in Asia when it was built, lording it over Manila as the city’s tallest building for over a decade. At that time, it became the nexus to the city’s social life, eclipsing even the Manila Hotel.

The owners, the Delgado family, chose the most celebrated operator at the time, the Hilton chain. Conrad Hilton was the famous hotelier who started out with a rundown inn in Cisco, Texas in 1919. He slowly built the first coast-to-coast chain in the 40’s that spread from the Beverly Hills Hilton in LA to the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Hilton went international in the 1950’s onwards with hotels in Puerto Rico, Havana, Rome, Athens, Paris, and Cairo. The Far East beckoned in the 1960’s and the first stop was Manila.

The Delgado’s property was a site on Isaac Peral (now United Nations Avenue). It was formerly the location of the massive Episcopalian Cathedral and it overlooked the spacious Luneta. More importantly, it had (and still has) a fantastic view of Manila’s famous sunset. This was one asset that the owners and designers wanted to exploit along with the rest of the brief that stated that the new hotel was to be "…sophisticated, complete and indigenous."

The hotel’s construction was to use, as much as possible, local contractors, materials, labor and suppliers. Its design was to be a blend of the best western practices providing "every modern convenience world travellers have come to expect" while exuding an indigenous feel that would connect the guests to the location and the resident culture.

Fusion Architecture

The architects chosen for the job had to also keep the image of the Hilton chain clear while adapting local flair. Two architects were involved in this project, Carlos Arguelles and Welton Becket. Arguelles was by then the busiest architect in Manila having just completed the Philamlife building (also on Isaac Peral). Welton Becket was Conrad Hilton’s architect of choice, having just completed the famous Havana Hilton (Fidel Castro’s favorite) and the Cairo Hilton. (Yes, he was also the designer of the now demolished Jai Alai).

The designs were prepared both in New York and in Manila with Becket himself and Arguelles intimately involved. Arguelles had worked for Becket after the war and had come into his own in Manila. The Hilton formula was a signature rectangular slab on a podium that contained the ballroom, restaurants and pool. Opportunities for architectural expression were to be found in the top of the tower, at the podium facades, the landscape and the interior design. It was the first project in Manila that incorporated all these scopes of design under a focused concept.

Becket assigned his best interior designer, Scollard Maas, to the job. Maas had just completed the Cairo Hilton and was astonished to find Manila designers, artisans, contractors and suppliers at par with the rest of the world. But his first impression of Manila was "the beauty of the (city) – the tropical atmosphere, the harbor. Most of all, the sunsets …(which were) indescribable."

Going Native

The Manila Hilton project was such an important one for Becket that his architectural biography includes a whole chapter on it. Noted in this book was the Manila Hilton’s influence on the design industry in Manila. Maas tells of their discovery of Spanish colonial antique furniture, indigenous Filipino furniture, seashells for lamps, mirrors, and finally beautiful linen and native fabrics. Maas was dismayed that " (though) the people liked good things …at that time, if it was local, it just couldn’t be good or exciting."

The book claims that the hotel project and its use of these materials and furniture changed the local outlook. It stated, "The result (being) a hotel, sophisticated, modern in every way, luxurious to a degree, in which almost every item of furniture or furnishings was made of beautiful native materials by Filipino workmen in designs done specifically for the hotel."

These claims may be true but also at about this time there was a brewing nationalism expressed in growing interest in heritage, architectural conservation and indigenous design. The first conservation efforts were made on Intramuros and a number of old churches like Morong. Maranaw design was also being appropriated for building embellishment. The Philippine pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of ’64 used a Filipino silhouette and indigenous materials.

The Hilton was opened with much fanfare. It was the talk of the town. The center of social gravity moved to the hotel in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The hotel’s restaurants and cocktail lounges were the places to see and be seen. Popular were the restaurants Café Coquilla, Port Orient, Rotisserie, Barrio Hilton, and the cocktail lounges Sultana, Harana and 1571.

The most famous venue at the Manila Hilton was the Top of the Hilton. Countless fashion shows, receptions and grand affairs were held here in the heady years of pre-martial law Manila. International men of mystery and glamorous mini-skirted, moo-mooed or terno’ed women graced this penthouse with the fabulous view. My friends and I (being young men with no mystery …except where to get date money) always joked that we could only go to the Tapat the Hilton (beside the Hilton), a dive that sold greasy burgers and pancit canton beside the real Hilton.

The Hilton held its crown for a while but competition from newer hotels in the late Seventies and then the Eighties saw its gloss slowly fade. The Ermita and Malate area also became seedier and less attractive to visitors and locals alike. The whole central Manila had suffered from an abandonment of use and appreciation because of the centrifugal force of sprawl.

Reversing Decay

This abandonment of the city’s old core can be reversed. No other area of the city can compare in heritage resources and variety of architecture and public space. The grime of a few decades just needs to be cleaned, while the effects of the crime of civic negligence also has to be reversed. Ermita and Malate is seeing signs of life again. Honky-tonk joints have moved out to Quezon City and Pasay while efforts are also persistent in preserving what little is left of the area’s architectural stock of buildings.

The Manila Hilton is now a Holiday Inn and occupancy is back. There is indeed hope for the area. Businessmen, citizens and members of civil society have to push on with programs to conserve the open spaces and parks such as the Luneta and the Mehan, as well as the architectural landmarks of Manila. It is both the solids (buildings) and voids (parks and open spaces) that make a city livable and memorable. One cannot remove either the yin or the yang of urbanity without suffering an imbalance.

Landmarks For Direction

The Manila Hilton is important as a landmark in Philippine architecture. It helped fuel a movement for rediscovering indigenous design and local materials, and reviving craftsmanship. It helped, along with other projects of the era, to put Filipino architects on the same level as foreign ones. Filipino architects were trusted and patronized by clients for a few decades after until the invasion of branded foreign consultants.

I may go back up the building soon (if the restaurant is still up there). It would be helpful to take a long hard look down at what used to be the Pearl of the Orient. It may be that we need to reorient ourselves in our priorities of urban development. Our skewed sense of direction as a city and a nation is being questioned daily and we may be headed in the wrong direction, desperately in need to find our true north.

An examined past holds the landmarks that will help guide us in this quest to find our destiny as a nation and to form the physical settings we have provided to hold this national identity and achieve its aspirations. All this is maybe a little too much perhaps for an article on an old hotel but times like this make one stop and think.

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