Originally published in Edition One (2023) as part of the As It Was column.
Content warnings: References to colonialism and war
I yearn for the past.
No, not in the ideological sense of wishing for “the good old days.” Instead, I yearn for the literal and tangible. More specifically, I yearn for buildings—immovable objects that bear witness to our history and serve as a reminder of the past and a caution of the future.
This desire for brick-and-mortar is not novel to me. It’s rooted deep within my childhood and the city I call “home.”
Growing up in the Philippines, I spent countless days wandering the halls of brutalist buildings whenever I accompanied my father and grandparents to their workplaces. I recall the musty smell emanating from their decades-old carpets and drapes. These formidable concrete structures may seem like imposing eyesores to some, but they remind me of home. Though dim and chilly due to their small tinted windows, the buildings’ seemingly impenetrable walls always made me feel safe.
Brutalist architecture became the favoured architecture style in the Philippines during the mid-century, a time of economic, political, and cultural reinvigoration of post-war life. Having suffered the insurmountable loss of life and infrastructure during the country's occupation and campaigns for liberation, the Filipinos were eager to rebuild.
With their distinctive small windows, thick walls, and concrete details, Brutalism was the obvious choice. It was cost-effective, abundant, and functional. Its materials and style could withstand the country's unrelenting downpours and scorching heat. Scattered throughout the nation's capital, Metro Manila, visitors are greeted by grandstanding concrete fortresses, from churches to concert halls.
As much as I cherish these concrete edifices, I fear their time is limited.
Older buildings are increasingly under threat of demolition.
Nicknamed “the Pearl of the Orient,” the Philippines was the shining star of the Pacific during the early 20th century. Its ports and bays were clogged with foreign and local vessels. Cities were aglow with the lights and laughter leaking from the grand ballrooms, theatres, and sports facilities.
This era of decadence was abruptly cut short by the Second World War. During this time, Manila and its neighbouring provinces were active war zones subjected to aerial bombings and on-ground combat, resulting in the near pancaking of its infrastructure.
If you walk through the Philippines’ central business district, between luxury apartment buildings and hotels under construction, you can glimpse a scene of its past. Buildings once considered state-of-the-art aesthetic gems have now fallen to disrepair, covered by a film of grime and sympathetic nostalgia.
This is not singular to this area. Venture further out to the historical “barangays,” a Filipino term akin to a village or administrative district, and you will see a similar sight—historical buildings abandoned, graffitied, or in the process of being demolished.
Landmarks and buildings that were spared this fate are not necessarily in a better position. Take the historical walled city of Intramuros, for example. It is perhaps one of the most culturally significant remnants of the nation's 300+ years of Spanish occupation, and a site of extensive bloodshed during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. Many of its centuries-old buildings are now masked by commercial billboards and tarpaulins, strangled by a web of telephone poles, and gutted from the inside out.
I am not alone in this trepidation—online you will find swathes of articles mourning long-gone buildings and institutions that dot thousands of Filipinos’ fond recollections.
For the lack of historical preservation in my home country—which I hold so dear—I can’t help but feel pangs of envy when walking the streets of London or Rome, where throngs of tourists and locals are able to appreciate the same views as their ancestors. To touch the walls of the Pantheon or skim through the books at the State Library Victoria is surreal knowing generations of people have done the same.
The last 150 years of Filipino history is marked by suffering, determination, and victory. As the generations that lived through these historical events begin to pass from this existence, what remains are the buildings that bore silent witness to progress and change.
Regardless of one's beliefs or motivations, we owe it to those who toiled and innovated for the future to preserve their past and rediscover the nation's history. Emerging generations also deserve to learn about the past through physical relics of what once existed.
Perhaps if you share the same sentiments as me, regardless of where you live or where you’re from, more active participation is needed. Visit your local historical buildings, museums, and sites, especially those that are family and community-run, knowing that they may be financing their preservation out-of-pocket or are wholly reliant on donations. Sign petitions and raise awareness in support of these sites. Finally, do your research and get talking. We owe our history and identities that much.