BOOK REVIEW: ENDANGERED SPLENDOR: Manila’s Architectural Heritage 1571-1960

by Rose Churma  

In the book’s preface, the French architect, Guillaume Marchand calls this publication an urban novel. To read this book is likened to a journey, with its readers as explorers to decipher the urban zone that is Metro Manila.

In essence, this is an inventory of Manila’s architectural heritage, a vital instrument in preserving memory.

Apparently, the process of doing a Cultural Inventory has become increasingly popular in the Philippines and the initiatives in Cebu and Bohol provinces were noted as examples.

Ateneo de Manila’s Cultural Laboratory has also done cultural mapping of Tayabas in Quezon province, as well as Intramuros and San Juan in Metro Manila — funded by Fundacion Santiago, a non-profit foundation that “sees the positive contribution of heritage tourism to job creation at the grassroots level.”

It is not surprising that the country’s Department of Tourism initiated the impetus to create an inventory of Manila’s heritage structures in 1996—as part of a “master plan” that would generate better quality tourism.

Interestingly, a few Hawai’i architects and planners participated in producing this master plan—an off-shoot of Hawai’i State’s thrust to market Hawai’i’s consulting services in design and tourism planning.

Noted anthropologist and one of the authors of this book, Fernando N. Zialcita, was part of that team. He had identified the list of structures for each of the “Special Design Areas” identified in the master plan, and he eventually suggested that a more expanded “Inventory of Manila’s Heritage Structures” be conducted.

Cities and municipalities of the NCR (National Capital Region) was scanned, and photo-documented and their architectural, historical and social significance was noted, such that by the end of the survey, the total number of entries was around 3,400.

This book is a product of that research, with the team comprising of individuals with various skills and backgrounds and a project manager (Erik Akpedonu, a German Ghanian who developed a deep love for Philippine heritage and architecture) who trained the young researchers and controlled the quality output of the research.

But the common thread for all participants was their sincere interest in Philippine heritage architecture. This passion and commitment are evident in this publication—a stunning and awesome achievement in the context of Philippine society’s slow to the non-existent appreciation of the country’s heritage, nor an understanding that cultural assets can be economic assets as well.

In this regard, Dr. Victor Venida, an economist and one of the authors, highlighted both the potential economic activities for each district that could serve as discussion points for long term urban management.

The book’s authors stressed that cultural heritage is more successfully preserved in the context of an urban plan, as experienced by several urban centers. It requires regular and consistent dialogue among its stakeholders.

The four districts of Manila that are covered are: Intramuros, Binondo, San Nicolas and Tondo. These four districts, a zone running from north to south at the mouth of the Pasig River is considered the core of Manila and of the entire Philippines.

Intramuros, located south of the Pasig River, began as a Spanish colonial walled city and evolved as the center of the nation’s political, religious, educational, social and cultural center during the Spanish rule.

North of the river is Tondo, which flourished as a port even during prehispanic times. While south of Tondo is Binondo, called the “Pivot of the Pacific” for its role in the Galleon Trade which earned Manila the term “first global city” since these global transactions took place in the Parian which was part of Binondo.

Beside Binondo is San Nicolas, whose historic structures document the emergence of a local bourgeoisie, among them the family of General Antonio Luna.

World War II devastated large swaths of Manila, destroying examples of architectural heritage from the Spanish colonial and early American era. But some remained. But for how long?

The authors of the book lament that the lack of district planning, the commercial sector’s desire for profit and neglect to maintain these historic edifices are destroying landmarks of Manila’s history and Filipinos’ creativity.

Since they started writing this book, a few of the structures have already been demolished!

In the back cover, they write: “This series was written in the hope that seeing all the remaining splendor gathered together under one cover, the public might feel it urgent to keep alive Manila’s story and its landmarks.”

This series is meant to be a set of three volumes. This book is the first volume.

“Volume 2: The South” covers the zone that extends from one of the oldest settlements within the metropolis down to Manila Bay (which includes Pandacan, Paco, Malate, Singalong, San Andres to Ermita). “Volume 3: The North” will cover areas across the Pasig River—Sta Cruz, Quiapo, San Miguel, to Sampaloc-Sta Mesa.

We look forward to these volumes before some of its historic structures are demolished or deconstructed and moved elsewhere.

The photographs show the beauty and glory of the structures as well as the filth and decay (which is heartbreaking because beneath the grime and intrusive electrical wires and detritus of urban life, one can glimpse of what used to be—the intricate details of moldings, the craftsmanship of a bygone era).

One of the authors, Fernando “Butch” Nakpil Zialcita has Hawai’i ties. He received his graduate degree in cultural anthropology (MA and PhD) from the University of Hawai’i and is married to a local-born from O’ahu.

An author of other books, he has fought for the conservation of cultural heritage such as the protection of urban ensembles like Vigan. He currently is with the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology where he set up the Cultural Studies Program.

For advocates of the preservation of Philippine culture and history, this book is a “must-have.” For local libraries and educational institutions, this publication is a well-researched reference tool for young Filipino-Americans in search for their roots.

Interested parties can send inquiries via email at <>.

established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at

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