Batangas delight
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2016 - 9:00am

The gauge of any city is how functional and efficient it is in the provision of infrastructure and services. The ultimate measure of a city, however, is the level of delight it provides its citizens. Delight in urbanity comes in the form, not just of good public and private architecture, but most importantly in the civic, public open and green spaces it provides everyone, resident or visitor.

This week, I am starting a series on public plazas and parks (the two terms are often interchanged in the Philippine setting). Everywhere I travel in the country, I look for that central space, the town or city plaza, which defines the physical, social and cultural center of the place.

A few months ago, I, and a few associates, were on our way to Calapan, Mindoro. We left Metro Manila at 4:45 a.m., thinking that we needed some time to get to Batangas City for the ferry across. We were surprised to reach the southern capital city in just an hour via the Star Toll Road! We had over an hour to spare, so we had breakfast and went looking for the plaza.

The shape of Philippine towns and cities were set by the Spanish-era Laws of the Indies, which laid all urban areas in the country in a grid pattern with the central space of the plaza defined by structures of importance — the church, the municipio and often the market.

Batangas City evolved from a port town and it, like many urban centers nationwide, boasts this heritage of space.  We found Batangas City’s central plaza, Plaza Mabini, named after the First Republic icon, surrounded by the city’s main church, city hall and other civic structures.

The site was obviously an elevated plateau of land equidistant from the Calumpang River and the seashore. The landmark would have been, and still is, the church’s dome. The current incarnation of the Basilica of Immaculada Conception was built in the mid 19th century. Its façade, massing and interiors are remarkably well-maintained and marvelous.

Literature on the church states that, “On Feb. 13, 1946, by a decree of the Holy Father, Pope Pious XII, the church was elevated to the ‘Basilica Minor’ of the Infant Jesus and Immaculada Concepcion and was the first basilica to be vested that honor and priveledge in the Philippines and in the entire Far East. Through the efforts of the Sto. Niño Pastoral Foundation, a religious organization, the Batangas Church Museum was established with honor of the late Msgr. Clemente Yatco. Precious relics and century-old books and statues can be found in the said museum.”

I found little material on the city hall itself, which apparently had been renovated several times. The current building is tastefully restrained in terms of architectural treatment compared to many I’ve seen and it sits on one corner of the one and a half hectare space of the plaza.

The modern version of the plaza was constructed in 1951. It was renovated in 1964, like many town plazas in the era of Rizal Park’s famous makeover. The park won first prize in the National Beautification Project Contest in 1969 for its landscape design and “overall aesthetic urban form.”

Plaza Mabini was further renovated with funds from the Philippine Tourism Authority in 1993. This included the renovation of two water fountains from the 1960s and the addition of seating for the existing stage. The online blurb on the plaza states that a gazebo and public restrooms were also constructed in one corner of the Plaza.

We parked at the periphery of the plaza in time to see the Zumba class in full swing. Zumba is now a nationwide phenomenon and a staple at public plazas and parks. We noted the main monument to Apolinario Mabini in the center of the plaza. The 100-year-old plinth and bust had very unique ornamentation and the figure of a woman seated at its base.  The rest of the plaza was organized around this central element.

The plaza is well-maintained compared to others. The acacias and other trees seem to be in great shape except for the row at the back, where officials had paved in between and up to the tree trunks to gain space for parking. This is ill-advised and I see it often enough all over the country. The health of the trees will be affected and there are other solutions to the needs of parking.



The other common problem is the presence of many structures in the plaza itself. Some were defunct and others could have been sited better or consolidated into just one pavilion to minimize the loss of open space.

All in all I would give this plaza a rating of 7.5 out of 10. Its good to see that it is well-used and well-loved. A lot of the problems it has in the perimeter can be fixed and the plaza is fairly intact.

We need to conserve all our town and city plazas in the country. They are often the only elements left aside from the church. If we lose our central spaces we also lose our sense of place and a civic rootedness that feeds civic pride. Kudos to Batangas city for their stewardship of Mabini Plaza.

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