These Walls Can Talk in Spanish (and they tell quite a tale)

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003. photos c/o Instituto Cervantes Manila)

The Mayflower building was built in 1938 on the site of an old estate. Ancient trees, even older than the building itself and all that remain of the original lands, continue to stand guard over the grounds. A Filipino architect was commisioned by then Vice President Fernando Lopez to design an innovative structure to rise within the fashionable district of Malate. The property started out as a residential enclave of great exclusivity and elegance. Its large apartments fronted a spacious courtyard and it even featured a separate building for the servant’s quarters. During the Japanese occupation, the Mayflower saw its share of devastation, and many endangered souls took refuge in its sturdy walls. But the structure proved its resilience by surviving the ravages of the war.

After the liberation of Manila, the building was quickly put to good use. It was leased to the US Agency for International Development to serve as their offices, and also as the residence of the agency’s director. The Mayflower then became a favorite haunt of President Quirino and in turn, President Magsaysay. They would often drop by to discuss affairs or enjoy breakfast with the USAID director. In the 1970’s the building was occupied by the Embassy of Indonesia, and then in a bit of foreshadowing, the Embassy of Spain. It was then taken over by the Opus Dei in the 1980s for their Maynilad study center. But it was destined to fall back into Spanish hands when in 1994 it became home to the Instituto Cervantes. The inauguration of the new facilities was graced by the presence of no less than Her Royal Highness, the Infanta Elena of Spain.

Javier Galvan, who holds a doctorate in Heritage Architecture, has been the Instituto’s director since 2001. But he first visited the building when he was invited to give a lecture in November 1994, shortly after the inauguration. An amiable and exceedingly humble Spanish gentleman, he gamely posed for photos and allowed us the run of the facilities. At first, he half-seriously proposed that we hold the interview in Spanish, but finally agreed to speak with me in English, that is until after I’d finished a few more classes at the Instituto. “But the next time, hablamos en Espanol.” he teased.

An architect might appear to be a curious choice to head an institution that is best known as a language school. And although he is a very accomplished and cultured man, Dr. Galvan considers himself to be no linguist. He originally came to the country in 1993 as the senior architect of a multinational team funded by the EU to assist in the reconstruction of Baguio and Dagupan in the wake of the 1990 earthquake. While in the Philippines, he found himself fascinated by Spanish colonial architecture, particularly the Filipino style of “architectura mestiza”, and ended up touring the country to better appreciate its unique principles. He gave lectures, held conferences, wrote papers, and spearheaded exhibitions on the subject here and abroad. His research work and proposals helped develop the master plan for the revitalization of the historical center of Vigan. The Spanish crown clearly appreciated his efforts when “for his outstanding service to Spanish culture and his work in strengthening ties between the Philippines and Spain” he was awarded The Cross of The Order of Isabel the Catholic. All these sterling qualifications, combined with his passion for our history and heritage, singled him out as an inspired choice for the director of the Spanish government’s official cultural outpost in the Philippines. Under his term, Instituto Cervantes Manila has thrived.

However, the Instituto’s success has also been the cause of some its problems, Dr. Galvan admits. “Over the past nine years, activity in Instituto has grown. There are more students, and we need more facilities. We need a larger multipurpose hall to accommodate more people. For instance, we have a series of movies every Saturday. But the halls are often crowded and people cannot come inside.” Despite its restrictions, the director remains grateful for their current accommodations. “So far, the building is appropriate. It has served us well all this time,” he affirms.

Upon exploring the premises, one passes through arched entryways leading into narrow corridors lined with framed prints and sketches of Philippine and Spanish subjects, old maps, letras y figuras, and an eclectic assortment of paintings. “The paintings are property of the Instituto,” Dr. Galvan explains. Some of them were offered by artists who have held exhibitions in the building. The classrooms, despite being rather oddly-shaped, are all well-equipped and adorned with posters of excerpts from Spanish classics and maps of the Spanish-speaking world. The library is stocked full of books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials in Spanish. Everybody uses the building’s curvy, winding grand staircase, which Dr. Galvan considers to be the interiors’ most memorable feature, to get from one floor to another. One wonders though how most people can resist from sliding down its polished wooden bannister. Tucked behind the offices is a terrace with a view of the grounds and another, less grandiose set of stairs that also functions as a fire escape. And everywhere, huge glass windows bring light into the building. Dr Galvan points out that “because the windows are very large, there is a lack of isolation,” The sun and sounds of Manila are never completely shut out.

Most Filipinos with a passing knowledge of architecture tend to lump all structures built in Manila between the two world wars into “Art Deco”, but Dr. Galvan politely proceeds to corrects this common assumption. “The building has been said to be art deco but I don’t really think we can call it that. In art deco you have decorative motifs which you cannot see here. It’s more rationalism, that kind of architecture belonging to the modern movement. In the same period you have different styles. But all these architects in those years said you have to forget about decoration. They were more interested in ships, engines and machines, the iconography of the modern movement.”

Dr. Galvan was initially reluctant to classify the Mayflower’s architectural style. “I don’t like to label buildings. Probably, it’s very clear if a building is Gothic or Roman. But when you go past the Renaissance, it becomes unclear. You can try to find a way to classify architecture, but in many cases it’s not easy to put a label,” he explains.

He continues to ruminate on the building’s design. “The purity of lines, and the rounded corners, are typical of rationalist architecture. It has the kind of aesthetics derived from ships,” he muses. “It is very clear that these are rationalist, but proto-rationalism would be the most appropriate label,”Dr. Galvan finally concludes.

He agrees that it is fortunate that a structure with such an intriguing history and architecture has survived while many others have not. “It’s a pity because these are all part of heritage, but unfortunately the will of Filipino society to preserve old buildings is not strong. Little by little it is improving, but many have no interest,” he says with much concern..

“In Manila they say ‘this is old, let’s forget it, it’s abandoned, let’s make something new’. People prefer new developments like Makati or Fort Bonifacio, historical districts like Intramuros, Ermita and Malate are abandoned. These districts are still recuperating. It has happened already in many towns in Europe. In Spain you can see how recuperating the historical center of the city is important. The situation in the core of the city has been improved and upgraded.” As logical and well-proven Dr. Galvan’s ideas may be, it seems that local officials are only beginning to take such concepts seriously. “I hope someday Manila itself can fully recuperate. Of course there are some beautiful spots, but they are hidden by the jungle. If the entire city is improved, general services, lighting, sidewalks, all these things, business will come back here. And the value of the property will be higher,” he contends.

Despite (or because) of his own experience with local restoration projects, Dr. Galvan manages to be optimistic about the situation. “It’s very good what happened to Roxas Boulevard. It’s a space worth rejuvenating. I would prefer that efforts would concentrate more on projects like these.” Dr. Galvan receives news of other redevelopment efforts around the city, like the Avenida Rizal walkway and the Pasig River linear parks, with much pleasure. “The Pasig River also, is part of the heritage. Like other famous big rivers, it should be enjoyed by the people. I would love to live along the Pasig River. If I could, I wouldn’t ever go to Makati. If you could live in Intramuros or by the bay I’d gladly live there rather than in a new development.”

Pondering the day when the Instituto might have to relocate, Dr. Galvan reveals his grand plan. “I have proposed to move to Intramuros. It is a project that hasn’t pushed through so far. The plan is to reconstruct the Ayuntamiento then to have the Spanish embassy, the different agencies, and the Insituto Cervantes there. It’s a huge project. We are in talks, but it takes time to carry out.”

The government might be dragging its feet in helping to realize his dream, but that won’t stop Dr. Galvan’s mind from moving on. “If we were to put up a new building for Instituto, I wouldn’t like to build something like modern architecture in Spain. You can always try to have in mind the principles of the culture. For the design, I’m thinking of some principles of the architectura mestiza, the bahay na bato. Not a literal one like Casa Manila, but just using some principles, like the transparency of the light and how the windows control the entry of light. Maybe the same design as the ventanillas, but instead of capiz we use glass. In the end it will look very modern, not a literal Spanish or Filipino house.”

For now though, the Instituto Cervantes is keeping its address at the Mayflower. And Dr. Galvan always speaks of their home with much fondness. “This is an example of a building that has been used for many years and different purposes. I think that’s a good lesson to learn on how to use buildings like these. Good architecture can be used or adapted to different uses. Instead of demolishing old buildings, this should be done more. We need to maintain and preserve good architecture,” he states, ever the conservationist.

Although the Mayflower has been associated with the Instituto for many years, they are actually just leasing the building. The owner, an intensely private man, does appreciate the fact that his property is being ocuppied by a prestigious institution with a noble purpose. Although he also feels that some of the structure’s features are being underutilized. For example, the covered patios that extend from some of the rooms on the ground floor, where former residents must once have lounged, the Instituto merely uses for storage purposes. The owner also discloses that what we see now of the building’s interiors no longer follows the original floor plan. The contractor that the Instituto hired had to tear down a number of walls in order to convert the apartments into classrooms. In fact, the current rear entrance to the building is only a recent alteration, and used to be a kitchen. The circular plaza behind the building, with the cloverleaf design and Insituto logo set in concrete at its center, was supposed to be a swimming pool.

He has taken great care to ensure that any additions and improvements to the structure remain true to the original building’s lines. With the advent of airconditioning, the window shades and ledges were re-imagined to prevent the new fittings from detracting from the over-all effect. Modern plumbing, electrical, and communications requirements meant having pipes and tubes running across the building’s exteriors, but they have all been cleverly concealed behind slitted columns that conform to the structure’s aesthetic. Under the owner’s supervision, an entire floor was added to the top of the building, but it is integrated seamlessly enough that it becomes nearly impossible to tell that it was never part of the original structure. The perimeter fence and walls are also recent additions, but they blend perfectly with the general design, and do not prevent passers-by from appreciating the compound’s façade. The parking facilities were designed using sophisticated computer-aided techniques in order to maximize the space alotted.

A less devoted proprietor would have been content not to bother with superfluous details, but the Mayflower’s owner could not abide with such carelessness and indifference. To him, the Mayflower’s architecture is a treasure that must not be tampered with unconscientiously. And he wishes that all other building owners demonstrate just aó much thought and concern to the maintenance and renovation of their own properties. He also hopes that other businessmen realize that there is more to owning and developing real estate besides profits. He echoes Dr. Galvan’s disappointment at the general lack of interest and desire among Filipinos to protect their architectural treasures. Because of greed and apathy, we are losing a priceless legacy. It is this sort of narrow-minded and short-sighted attitude that haunts our country and holds it back from greatness, he avows.

History has bequeathed the Mayflower building with a grace and air that one may only perceive in buildings of a certain age and style. And yet because of the dedication and good sense of its owner, it possesses none of the mustiness and decay that usually envelops such structures. It endures as living proof that a privately owned building can preserve its legacy as an architectural landmark and still sustain its purpose as a valuable commercial property. At a time when many heritage buildings lie shuttered and neglected, waiting to be restored and revitalized, the Mayflower stands dynamic and vibrant. It’s heartening to know that a treasure like the Mayflower shall continue to serve a vital role in the urban landscape for generations to come.

Instituto Cervantes Manila transferred to a new compound beside the Casino Espanol along Kalaw St. in 2006. Federico Delgado, owner of the Mayflower building, was found murdered in his apartment at the penthouse of the building in 2007. The property has been acquired by De La Salle University – College of St. Benilde>

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved


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