A century of alternative Malacañangs

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - July 3, 2010 - 12:00am

One of the key deicisions that P-Noy has to make is where to live. He reportedly decided against Malacañang Palace because of his bad memories of the place. The choice of official residence during his term is important for logistical and security reasons. The selection of yet another site for the presidential residence also means that tradition may be lost to a new one; that of a change in address every six years.

The choices considered in the last few weeks were the Arlegui Mansion, the Premier Guest House, the Goldenberg Mansion, and the Pangarap Guesthouse across the river from the palace. P-Noy is even considering the Aquino residence on Times Street. The serious options for where the country’s top executive lives have, in fact, totalled over 17 in the last hundred years.

Riverside, Seashore and Mountaintop

The traditional official residence has been Malacañang Palace, home to 18 Spanish governors-general and 14 American civil governors before the Filipinos took over with President Manuel L. Quezon in 1935. The palace started its official life as a temporary residence of Spanish governors general after an earthquake in 1869 reduced the original stone edifice in Intramuros to ruins.

The tumultuous state of the islands in the last quarter of the 19th century prevented Spanish authorities from rebuilding the palace in the Walled City. With the American takeover, the capital and its civic buildings had to be rebuilt or improved; and that included a governor’s residence.

The renowned architect Daniel Burnham planned for the governor’s residence right beside the Luneta, which was to be extended and made a miniature version of the National Mall in Washington, DC. Burnham laid out a large mansion with a number of smaller bungalows beside it at the water’s edge.

The complex was never built and the civic center was only partially completed as American policy changed to a gradual, but inevitable, letting go of the farflung islands. In the meanwhile, the insular officials including the governor had to make do. One move to mitigate the discomfort of Manila, and a residence needing constant repair (from flooding and lack of amenities), was to seasonally move up to cooler climes. The Mansion House in Baguio was the alternative summer residence of the governors-general.

Commonwealth President Quezon embarked on grand improvements for Malacañang Palace but not all the presidential family wanted to, or actually lived there. The flamboyant politico built his wife Doña Aurora a separate mansion on a cliffside property overlooking Marikuina town, well away from Malacañang and the bustle of Manila.

New Country, New Capital, New Presidential Residence

But Quezon had even bigger plans for a new capital for a soon-to-be-independent Philippines. In the manner of Washington, DC, Quezon City was born. He brought in American planners to collaborate with senior government architect Juan Arellano on the project. The 1941 Frost-Arellano master plan for the new capital Quezon City provided a new site for the presidential palace.

The plan built the new city around a central area that would have housed the three branches of government. The legislative complex was to be built on a 25-hectare elliptical site. On one side, along a road that eventually became East Avenue, was to rise the Supreme Courts complex. Opposite, on North Avenue, was the site of the new presidential palace complex with a residence and executive offices. Today, the Veterans Memorial Hospital stands in its stead (where President Erap spent some time before moving to his Tanay “retreat”).

Quezon also considered establishing a summer capital at Tagaytay, which he had master-planned as such in 1941 by Harry Frost, Arellano’s collaborator on the Quezon City master plan. A summer residence for the president would have been a key element of the plan as it had been for Baguio. He did have a rest house built along the ridge as well as a lodge (Taal Vista Lodge) and even a golf course, where the DAP now sprawls.

The two cities’ plans were put on hold because of the advent of World War II. President Quezon moved Malacañang to Corregidor in December of 1941. The government in exile had its president live in a suite at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC until 1944, the year he died of tuberculosis.

Our White House on White Sands

After the war’s end, in 1947, the Quezon City plan was revived, but the site of the three branches were moved to Novaliches. These plans were revised twice more in 1949 and 1956, but the location for the new residence and executive complex remained essentially the same, at the northern end of a triangular pad overlooking the Marikina valley. (The Batasang Pambansa now sits at the center of this plot.)

What most people don’t know was that the new Malacañang Palace may have moved even farther than Quezon City. In the preparations for the 1949 plan for the Capital at Quezon City, the government actually looked at locating the capital elsewhere. A committee was formed to look at 16 other options to Novaliches. These included, among others: Tagaytay, Cebu, Davao, San Pablo, Baguio, Los Baños, Montalban, Antipolo, and Fort Mckinley (Fort Bonifacio).

The committee even considered moving the capital to the geographical center of the country. This was in the Visayas, very close to a small island now known worldwide — Boracay! Our president could have welcomed foreign dignitaries on a long beach. People’s Power would have been a beach party!

All this never happened and the palace stayed by the Pasig from Roxas’ term to the Marcos’ regime. Early into the martial law years, before the parliamentary moved to Novaliches, the strongman of Asia decided to bring back the capital to Manila. Quezon City lost the title to the Greater Manila Area (GMA).

Shopping North and South for A New Malacañang

At this time President Marcos even considered an alternative site for the government center and the presidential palace. A joint study was conducted by the architecture and planning offices of Cesar Concio and Felipe Mendoza, comparing the original Novaliches site and a newly reclaimed stretch of land south of the new Cultural Center of the Philippines. Novaliches still won but if it had not, then the new Malacañang Palace would have been built on what is now the site of SM Mall of Asia!

Despite plans for a total move, Marcos stayed put even as the new parliament opened in Quezon City. He did move seasonally to his hometown and built a Malacañang of the North in Laoag. He tried to stay in power longer than the people wanted and was forced out of Malacañang Palace and the country in 1986.

Corazon Aquino took over but she decided to live in the Arlegui mansion. Fidel Ramos also chose the Arlegui mansion during his term but there were suggestions during his term to move Malacañang Palace to Fort Bonifacio as part of the coversion plans then.

Erap and GMA opted to go back to tradition by moving into the old palace. In 2004, GMA sought to establish an official residence in Cebu City. The province and the region were supporters of her administration and she probably felt the need for a refuge from hostile Manila. The structure chosen was the Cebu Customs House, an American-era structure. The official name given was Malacañang sa Sugbo. It has seen little use and its fate is unknown.

Moving Malacañang

This brings us back to 2010 and President Noynoy Aquino. Perhaps it’s time for a permanent change. Many point to the palace’s bad feng shui, with its back to a flowing river. Tragedy has befallen almost all who have stayed in the palace or the generations of Filipinos who were ruled from there under various regimes. The traffic in tragedy has come from a palace that has also affected the area’s vehicular traffic. Mendiola and the San Miguel district makes for complicated routing of vehicles — both the public’s and the president’s. The presence of the palace on the river also makes it difficult for water-borne passenger traffic to increase on it (the current Pasig commuter boats have to get permission from the PSG every time it passes by).

The presence of the palace also prevents taller buildings to sprout around adjacent districts straining to maximize its real estate potential. This is because of the need to prevent more vantage points for snipers. The palace is, in fact, within sniper range from several points already identified by security and planning consultants.

It is not an easy site to harden, security wise, and this is not even pointing out the dangers of the fuel depot just blocks away. The area is so difficult to defend that the palace grounds seems more a residence of the PSG (which has a big contingent) than a home for our presidents and their families.

With all these, there is no compelling reason for future presidents to stay in such a jinxed site and structure. Many believe Malacañang Palace would make a better museum than an official residence. This would bring in tourism, revitalize the San Miguel district and bring in more investment to central Manila. The Arlegui and Goldenberg mansions would make great boutique hotels, while the Malacañang Park should be preserved and opened to public access; a boon to a city in dire need of parks.

Addressing The Lack of A Center

Where should P-Noy hang his hat in the meantime? I do not think it matters in the short run. All options are difficult ones in terms of logistics and efficiency. The long-term solution is to achieve what countless master plans for the capital have failed to do — build a center of government that brings the three branches of government in efficient proximity to each other.

The dysfunction of our national government is reflected in the physical reality of a chief executive by the Pasig River, the Supreme Court bunkered on Padre Faura, the Senate by the sea in Pasay, and a Congress in the boondocks of Quezon City. This leads many to think the three branches want to avoid each other and make it four times harder to mount mass protests against the government. “Divide and conquer,” is the apparent strategy of the current spatial configuration of government. Symbolic, much less functional, unity is nowhere in sight.

A change in the president’s address may address the change needed to turn this country around. But only if the address is a consolidated one, inclusive of the other two branches. Corruption favors those who can hide. The physical separation of national government offices all over the metropolis also makes the cost of running government an extremely expensive undertaking, with wasteful duplication of support functions and plantillas.

P-Noy may end up staying on Times Street. It is his choice. But it is high time government considered building itself a proper center, where the permanent residents are transparency, honesty and justice. And one last thing, when and if we do get a new permanent residence for our highest elected official, let’s call it a house. A palace is for kings and queens, and we are in a royal mess now because we’ve had too many of them.

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

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