Grandstands and grand public spaces

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren () - July 10, 2010 - 12:00am

Last week we explained the varied choices for official residences that past presidents have made or at least contemplated. Malaca-ñang started as a temporary palace over a hundred years ago but it has persisted. The building’s very silhouette is a symbol of executive power, one that may well endure despite the deficiencies of its physical distance from other branches of government, bad security and unlucky feng shui.

Last week our new president took his oath and addressed the public for the first time at a similarly storied structure — the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta. The streamlined edifice with wings of concrete is less than half the age of the palace but it, and the park that houses it, has witnessed many a historic event. After the ceremonies at Rizal Park, the new president opted to take his celebration to another historic site, the Quezon Memorial Park.

The three sites share a common past. All three were originally temporary in nature or meant for other functions than what they fulfill now. Their fate is a reflection of our reality of unfinished plans and temporary-turned-permanent solutions for most anything we do as a government or a nation.

Sites Of Swearing

The first big inauguration was Aguinaldo’s at Barasoain Church in Malolos, Bulacan in 1899, which was replicated by President Erap in 1998. Many said the site was jinxed as both Aguinaldo and Erap never finished their terms.

When the commonwealth president was to be sworn in, the choice was the steps of the Legislative Building (now the National Museum) at Luneta. This followed the American tradition of holding their ceremony at the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Hundreds of thousands of Americans gather every four years for this rite of passage — standing for hours on the National Mall, that great swath of green in between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Our own legislative building was a slightly smaller version of the one in Washington, DC, and faced our version of the National Mall, the Luneta. Instead of the Washington Monument, we ended up with a much shorter Rizal Monument. This planned capitol building was never built and the National Library that was already started beside it was expanded and ended up as the House of the Philippine Legislature.

Manuel L. Quezon was sworn in on the steps of the legislative building on Nov. 15, 1935. Because of the war, his term was extended twice and he was sworn in on Corregidor in December 1941 and in Washington DC in 1943. The Legislative Building was in ruins in 1946 when Manuel Roxas took his oath as president on its steps. A few months later he re-did this oath as part of a long ceremony that was the inauguration of a finally independent Republic of the Philippines.

Born On The Fourth Of July

The selected date was July 4, 1946 and several structures were built at Luneta to celebrate the event. The steps of the Legislative Building and the road fronting it were deemed too small to house the 4,500 invited guests as well as the tens of thousands Filipinos planning to attend.

With a budget of P 120,000, architect Juan Arellano designed a grand Independence Grandstand in ornate Neo-classic style. He incorporated a triumphal arch with two “wings” that shaded the main galleries. The centerpiece in front of the arch was a stage in the form of a ship’s bow with a carved figurehead of a maiden representing freedom. Two other figures, representing a Filipino and a Filipina stood about 10 meters tall behind the stage and the central gallery. The whole composition was placed facing west a few meters in front of the Rizal Monument and not across the lawn near the breakwater where we now have the Quirino Grandstand.

When Roxas died suddenly at Clark Field, Elpidio Quirino was sworn in at Malacañang Palace. He won the presidential election in 1949, by which time a replica of the original Arellano Independence Grandstand was built as a permanent structure where it stands now. The design was prepared by Federico Illustre, who was chief architect at the Bureau of Public Works. The structure incorporated the triumphal arch but did without the boat prow stage and the tandem statues behind.

There was no budget to build the wings for the Quirino ceremony but the succeeding inaugurations saw the gallery expand every four years until it reached close to the present size in the ‘60s. Each event also was cause to clean and fix up the structure, which saw intermittent use as a venue for Independence Day rites.

By the advent of the ‘60s, Luneta itself was the object of a major renovation. The birth centennial of Rizal was the main impetus for a new set of plans. The style of the buildings planned for the new Luneta was modern and this set a flurry of suggestions to update everything else on the site including the grandstand and even the Rizal Monument.

This led to the demolition of the triumphal arch and the adding on of a steel and aluminum pylon to the Rizal Monument to give it height. The arch was said to be sinking anyway and was declared a danger to the public. The pylon on the Rizal Monument was taken down a few months after it was slipped on. By the time of the Ramos inauguration, the stylistic pendulum swung again and the grandstand was expanded with Neo-classic décor here and there.

Elliptical Na, Circle Pa

President P-Noy motored down to Quezon City for his inaugural party, which by tradition was held at Malacañang. The chosen venue is the Quezon Memorial Park, the first time the place was selected for any inauguration-related event. Like the Quirino Grandstand and Luneta, the QC Memorial has seen popes and religious gatherings but no major political events.

The park was originally the site of what was to be the capitol building of the new republic had the war not intervened. The first Arellano plan of 1941 shows a substantial building (as large as the US Capitol) on the 25-hectare elliptical site. If it had been built then, the presidential oath taking would have been staged here.

After the war, the capitol site was moved to Novaliches and what is now the Batasang Pambansa. President Marcos had one inauguration there, when the building was new, in 1978. It was held indoors as the planned 20-hectare Plaza of the Republic that was to front it was not built.

Instead of the capitol building, a memorial to Quezon was planned on the ellipse. The Quezon Memorial Committee established by President Roxas in 1945 held a competition for the design, which was won by Federico Illustre, who became head of the Public Works Department and was tasked to complete the structure. It took 25 years and over P6 million (pre-floating rate, $1=P2) to complete it in 1975.

The memorial was a barren field until a planned park was started in the mid-‘70s. Today, it is filled with trees and is a popular, although hard to reach, green space. Despite the presence of an underground tunnel from QC City Hall and one pedestrian overpass, the rest of its two-kilometer perimeter is daunting to cross, as eight lanes of constantly moving traffic make an isolated island of it.

The increasingly active use of the park in the last decade under Charito Planas’ park administration has been a source of controversy and outcry from the public and the heirs of Quezon. The park was turned back to the city recently and it reportedly hired a city planner but no landscape architect (traditionally the professionals who design parks) has been retained.

Bring Back The Future

Bringing back the inauguration to Luneta and Quirino Grandstand is a nod to tradition and acknowledges that the city of Manila is now less hostile to the chief executive — President Gloria had her last inaugural in Cebu, since Manila fell from her garci …er, grace in the run-up to her second term.

Since the president has not finalized his choice of residence, he has opted for the Times Street residence for now and the selection of the QC Memorial Park was a logistical choice because of its proximity.

All these arrangements would have all been simpler if any one of the five or so major plans for a government center was built. For any of these, the president could have taken his oath on the steps of a capitol building housing both the Senate and the Congress. Millions of people could have witnessed this from our own version of a National Mall or Wide Avenue of the Republic. He would have been sworn in by a justice (normally the chief justice), who would have held office nearby. After the swearing in, he and his entourage would have been able to take a short ride (or even walk) down our equivalent of Pennsylvania Avenue to a new Malacañang (hopefully a presidential house and not a palace).

Ceremony and pomp all go hand in hand with civic celebrations. The sites of these events are as important as the event themselves. The strength of the institutions we build for ourselves is reflected in cyclical traditions, made and kept. The regularity and familiarity of the sights and sounds of these events, along with their settings, reassures citizens of continuity in affairs of the state.

The zeitgeist of current Philippine life is one where traditions can disappear overnight, where solid institutions dissolve into thin air, where basic rights like freedom of speech are easily muzzled by bullet or backhoe, where supposedly sacrosanct and elemental components of democracy, like laws, can be negotiated or disregarded with impunity.

We live in difficult times and corrupted environments. Change is necessary both in our political constructs, as well as our physical ones. The time for grandstanding is over and we need to put order into our lives and our surroundings for any progress to be made. It is hoped that future civic ceremonies will be held not in crumbling facilities but in grand civic spaces and structures kept sacred and robust. Part of the oath then, that our leaders should take each inauguration, is to leave these institutions and traditions, edifices and civic sites, in better shape for the next generation than when they took over.

So help us all, God.

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

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