Modern look to old classics?

Old China town in pastel

While I was spending my holiday in Singapore last December, I saw something that made me think about what happened in that poor Rizal home in Calamba. My recent discoveries in Singapore, a land I so adore because of its heritage programs, brought me to reassess my views about heritage preservation. Preservation to many is keeping old houses and churches in its original composition, the surface has to be left untouched, and I was zealous believer on this, I would rather see these structures crumble to pieces under our feet than see it renovated. But then I realized that these buildings needs to be improved.

Colorful old building near Clarke Quay

Shops along Balestier

Once old Chinese shops, now bars near Dhoby Gaut

The pink house, an 18th century Chinese shop, the one in the middle, serves as the facade of Value in Balestier. At the back is the building.

A visit to its historic district would reveal old houses painted in bright pastel color; a closer look will reveal that some of these shops and buildings had been totally renovated inside to accommodate business, amazingly, only the old façade remains. Like this hotel in Balestier Rd., where the old Chinese shops, declared as heritage structures, serves as its main lobbyand their administrative building, while the actual hotel – complete with all the amenities of a modern one – was built behind it! Instead of completely demolishing the old structure, the idea was to upgrade the space inside, making it bigger and safe, while keeping the façade, so as not to lose the old character of the historic district. The many visits to Singapore has made me understand that creativeness is needed to resolve the challenge of conservation and making these historical structures relevant. I remember a recommendation made to Atienza, an architecture grad, before to do the same thing with Skydome, instead of bringing it down, its art deco façade can be kept while the rest of the building is rebuilt and expanded to make room for the government office he wanted. But I guess these officials’ are not yet ready for such ideas. Old cities’ represent different historical strata, removing everything to make way for development is building new ones. There must be tangible samples of what it was like, this adds to its appeal and this has been proven to be beneficial for the locality because it attracts tourism and business. Of course, there will be casualties as development must also take place, so there must be a list of what needs to be kept for the next generation.

Chinatown's heritage office

Well restored building in Chinatown that dates back to the 18th century

I’m no architect nor am I a city planner but I could see this approach being employed here. It’s common to encounter old buildings that are no longer safe and it would be major oversight to compromise the safety of the people that would use them but to completely knock it down is a terrible mistake, and this has been happening around Manila’s important buildings for decades now. The solution can be seen in the Singapore model. Here old houses are painted and are made to appear attractive, fresh and renovated. The trouble with us is that for those who want to preserve the old, we want them really looking old but it doesn’t have to be, making these structures relevant is what’s important. We can either keep them old and unused or upgrade them and make them useful. The trouble is that our mind could not imagine improving these old structures, like painting casa Rizal, even if the paint, if done properly, will protect it from the elements, our society, those who care about these things, can’t imagine something like this being right. What more if old houses are turned into business centers! But this is something that we have to consider. I realized that we can’t make all historical buildings and homes to become museums; the solution is to make them functional, only then we’ll be able to keep them because for as long as they remain irrelevant and unused in their current locations, heritage demolishers like Atienza will always have an excuse to tore them down.


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