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Insight: Crafting an Architectural Movement – How the Escolta Block Festival is Raising the Conversation on Preservation

MANILA, PHILIPPINES – There’s a group of architects and heritage conservation advocates that wants to block all cars, including public transport, within a superblock inside Binondo, Manila, particularly around Escolta. They believe that by doing so, the streets will liven up once more with commercial activity without having to tear down the buildings that have been there since the 1920s.

The solution they’re proposing is hardly unknown. In Barcelona, for example, certain superblocks don’t allow cars within and traffic is rerouted to certain drop off and pickup points, giving priority to pedestrians rather than moving vehicles. There are several of these superblocks in Barcelona, and each one has provided the public more space for them to enjoy different kinds of activities, improve foot traffic benefiting ground level stores, as well as potentially curb air pollution in the immediate vicinity.

This is but one facet within One/Zero Design Co.’sunsolicited” proposal (as they call it) that they plan on refining over the next six months for submission to the local government. The proposal ultimately aligns with what the entire team behind the Escolta Block Festival wants to achieve – preserve the heritage buildings on the street as a way of reintroducing Filipino identity to the future generations of the country.


A month-long fiesta
The community built within the First United Building found at the corner of Escolta and Burke street have been running quarterly street parties since 2016 as a way to attract attention to the area. The street parties usually begin at sundown, but throughout the day different companies or groups located in the building hold their own shows or talks ranging from discussions on urban planning, design, and so much more. This year, they decided to trim it down into an annual event, and turned it into a month-long festival instead of a one-day affair.

The previous parties and this year’s recently concluded festival have so far been effective in gathering individuals from all over the country to come and visit Escolta and see the rich potential it holds if properly cared for. 

One point they’d like most to realize is how the heritage buildings on the street are still being used as office and commercial spaces, and are not condemned as one might think. In fact, if you visit the First United Building, apart from its art deco design, the larger floor space, taller ceiling height, and large window and door frames will surely impress and make for an interesting space to work in.

Within the First United Building is a variety of companies most with a progressive mindset when it comes to tackling business, including a hub for artisans and their handcrafted fare, a coffee shop, an art and photo studio, a clothing brand, a graphic design studio, a co-working space, coffee roasters that support local farmers, the architectural firm One/Zero Design Co, and so much more.

Each party so far has followed a certain theme, and for this year’s festival, they chose the idea of thinking “Future-Forward,” which is a look into how a street that holds so much history also bears a great potential to influence and shape how cities will be built and retrofitted in the future.

Gentrification in Escolta
One/Zero Design Co.’s Founder and Architect Arts Serrano gave a rundown of their plans to guests who visited their studio during the last leg of the festival, explaining their proposal – the Escolta Superblocks. Our team was able to catch up with him after the tour and discuss why conversations like these are highly needed especially now as the city continues to thrive, and new property developments around the area are erected.

He explains that within Metro Manila, vacant lots have become scarce and developers have resorted to reclaiming land around Manila Bay or constructing in areas around Manila’s immediate proximity. The only way to keep the momentum now is to go vertical, and Binondo currently holds the highest property value in the entire city with most of the district marked as possible locations for high-rise buildings (forty stories and above). This means that buildings from earlier time periods, which are mostly up to five stories only, now stand at prime locations which can be investment opportunities for developers, and are potential cash cows for their current owners. With the current city government poised to give monetary incentive for those who want to tear down these buildings so they can make room for a new, taller buildings, one can only hope the same support is extended towards current building owners who choose to maintain their heritage buildings.

“There has to be a shift in reconfiguration of land use. Identifying key buildings that we need to preserve and rethinking what that use can be, that’s the more difficult conversation to have,” Serrano shares.

Serrano also explains that high rise buildings will result to increased population density, and the streets of Binondo simply aren’t built for that. The narrow main and side streets won’t be able to accommodate both foot and car traffic as well as sewage needs, and could only cause more problems for the people passing through.

Instead of tearing down the buildings to maximize the lots’ economic value, he suggests looking at the block’s cultural value and significance to Filipino identity instead.

Trust in the maestros
New isn’t always better either. An argument one may have against occupying old buildings is whether or not it is still safe inside one especially in a place that is constantly hit by natural disasters like the Philippines. While that is a very legitimate concern, Serrano shares that after properly assessing the building they currently occupy, he would rather stay inside the First United Building than most of the new structures today even though they are up to par with the current builders code.

“I would trust heritage buildings more than so and so developer built, lalo na in this construction landscape rushing to get buildings built dense and quick. I trust maestros from the 1920s more than developers natin ngayon,” he shared.

One/Zero’s Founder Arts Serrano discussing their unsolicited proposal, The Escolta Superblock

He explained that when they tore down certain parts of the building, they found that the reinforced concrete used was two to three times thicker than most buildings today, and that even metal rebars were way thicker for the number of stories the building holds. The only issues an older building may have are safety amenities like fire escapes, which are easy to retrofit, and have in fact been applied at the First United Building already. The building also recently got wired to be fiber optic ready, thanks to the building owners’ drive in keeping it up-to-date.

Plus of course, the buildings themselves have a unique aesthetic appeal that’s only gotten better as time progressed. The First United Building’s art deco design, the reliefs and moldings, the iconic iron gate at the lobby – all of these you can only truly appreciate from a building that has aged like fine wine. And while there are proposals about turning the district into a heritage site, Serrano says there are still provisions needed in the current paperwork to truly protect and preserve the heritage of the area as well as help benefit the people living and working in Escolta.

Unsolicited (but needed) advice
As part of their internship program, the studio tasked their staff to come up with a bottom-up approach that will help revitalize, preserve, and find ways to reuse buildings in the area. A collaboration between the studio’s core team and the 2019 batch of interns, the primary goal of the exercise is to establish a jump-off point for conversations to happen in ascertaining the proper way to move forward with Escolta’s current context in an urban design sense.

Part of the proposal is identifying which buildings are currently in use, how usage can be improved, and how else it can be used if it’s currently unoccupied. They have identified which buildings could be converted for residential use, and which ones could become cultural hubs, tourist centers, or whatnot.

As mentioned earlier, they’re also suggesting that the area be turned into a superblock devoid of cars and public transport to encourage more people to walk. With that, they also propose that buildings have more active storefronts at the ground level.

Serrano explains that by turning the entire block into a walkable zone, more people would be roaming around on foot, and that would help enliven Escolta as well as provide extra security as more eyes mean less opportunities for someone to commit a crime as studies suggest. They also propose the addition of canopies and benches to make it a place where people can relax.

In establishing guidelines for building owners to follow, the city can then incentivize private stakeholder cooperation to complement a neighborhood development plan. This can be a model that would encourage close cooperation between government and private entities in the possible regeneration of heritage districts.

Serrano also shares that their proposal includes plans on helping street vendors become legitimate stakeholders for the block. He expounds by saying that street vendors, although informal, are part of Filipino culture and have been providing the needs of passersby since the 1900s. He believes they can be given an opportunity to earn as part of a democratized entrepreneurial landscape.

“We feel that it would be a disservice if we do not include street vendors in the conversation. They are part of the community and they should be included in any and all plans for street development, lalo in the context of Manila,” he says.

This is more than economic opportunity. Serrano says that Escolta and their plans for it can be part of a bigger picture. If successful, it can be replicated into other places in the country, perhaps even the world. Escolta, which has a lot of history within its hallowed streets and walls, can be a futuristic city too without having to destroy its heritage.

“By putting up platforms like this where Filipino identity can be reintroduced, that’s where we start identifying that this is more important than how many floor planes you can sell. As stakeholders in the Escolta community, we understand that on one end you’ll be shortchanged because property owners will demote their buildings from high-rise to low-rise density. But on the other hand, do we want to be a city that demolishes who we are for the sake of “modernity”? No amount of floor plates can replace a building that represents our identity and we feel that it is very much worth it.”

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