Life On The Astals Plane

 first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

In a real estate realm saturated with pretentiously packaged condominiums, or squeaky-clean suburban developments, not too many addresses remain that possess both character and cachet. The Syquia apartments in Malate, with its art-deco trappings, vintage elevator, heavy wooden staircases, and pinstriped doors is in a class all its own. Home to artists, art lovers, politicians, pundits, kooks, weirdos, and various combinations of the abovementioned, the Syquias’ walls provide refuge for personalities that are just too large to live behind any gated community, no matter how exclusive. And from the very start, Cita Astals seemed to fit in just fine.

“The first time I came here was in 1983 with some friends. It used to be like a giant dormitory, a lot of fun,” she reminisces.

An encounter with Cita Astals may not be the best thing to prescribe for the easily intimidated. Her stentorian voice and arched eyebrows definitely add to the daunting Astals Aura. Once inside Cita Central though, the longtime Manila councilor and lifetime artist is a very welcoming and accomodating host. Cita is puzzled why out of all the building’s notable residents, we’ve chosen to feature it’s self-professed “craziest one”. But of course, why should we settle for anyone less?

“I moved in with my boyfriend in 1989. And then I kicked him out and ended up staying,” Cita states succinctly. And who wouldn’t stay? The high ceilings, huge windows, polished hardwood floors, and capacious rooms evoke an era when space wasn’t a luxury, and luxury wasn’t in short supply.

Even with her ex out of the picture, she didn’t always keep all that space to herself. “For a time I’d share the place with friends. If I liked them they’d live in one of the bedrooms for a few months.” She also had the company of her much beloved pet dog, who unfortunately passed away. She tried breaking in a new puppy as a replacement, but that one grew too chew-happy and was returned to sender. Right now, besides her staff, the apartment also shelters several ancient plants that stubbornly thrive on in Cita’s makeshift lanai area.

Cita admits to not really having a plan or philosophy when it comes to fixing up her abode.“I prefer a simple setup. It’s a pretty simple place.” When asked to elaborate about her approach to interior design, she takes on a deer-lost-in-headlights expression. “It’s not meant to be anything. I didn’t really design the house, since I’m not much of a homebody,” she surrenders.

That simplicity also carries over to Cita’s concept of entertaining. “We don’t have big parties since I’m not really a party-thrower. The other people in the building are into that. Although sometimes we have dinners or I hold meetings here.”

Like in her life and career, Cita’s apartment has seen its share of radical shifts. One room in particular has undergone several transformations according to Cita. “It used to be where me and my boyfriend slept together. It was technically his room. One of my conditions if we were to live together is that I have my own room.  Although I never slept there for the 5 years that we were living together. I had, as you may call it, a room and a half!” states Cita, cackling merrily. “The room became an office for a while. It was where I made my book compiling all the ordinances of Manila. But now it’s my bedroom,” she asserts. The room still contains her infamous ex’s bed, which she continues to sleep on.

Cita’s onetime decision to brighten up her walls produced near-incendiary results. “I just wanted a change of color, I was getting tired of white. I wanted a mixture of yellow and orange. I experimented with this wall with the painters, then when we got what I wanted, I left them for a couple of hours.” She returned to find her entire apartment awash in flames, of yellow-orange paint that is. In a fit of creative zeal, the painters had left no wall untouched. Not really wanting to go home to a cabaret every night, Cita left one wall on fire, but had the others repainted a more sedate white and yellow-orange tone.

Scattered about the apartment are “An assortment of stuff I gathered from my travels and what friends have given me.” These range from images of Hindu deities, to Indonesian puppets, Grecian sculpture, oil paintings by local artist-friends, and even a sheepskin rug from Australia. And yet Cita remarks that visitors never seem to fail to zero-in on a set of figures depicting couples engaged in rather lascivious poses.

As we go about poring over her knickknacks, Cita realizes with some amusement that almost all of her furnishings and decor used to belong to friends “All except the electronics and appliances”.

Even her hefty low-slung sofas and seats weren’t sourced from a store. “I bought the furniture from a friend of mine who was leaving the country. He had brought them in from Nepal.  It’s very strong, old wood. This set is around 30 years old. It spent 10 years in Nepal, and 20 years in the Philippines. All I did was have the cushions re-upholstered.” The couch in the hall is upholstered in leather and is for visitors to sit on, while the couch in the sala has cushions of katsa for the lounging comfort of close friends.

Her favorite piece is a solid wooden coffee table set in front of the couch. “You don’t need nails to assemble it. The pieces lock into themselves, like giant wooden Nepalese lego blocks!” Cita exclaims with a throaty laugh.

While we take photos, Cita wonders whether the bright pink top she wears could clash with her blazing walls. “Pink is my working color,” she explains. “Notice that I don’t have anything colored pink in the apartment. This is so that I won’t blend into my furniture!” And with that we unearth yet another one of her rare and quirky design rules.

Although a bit hazy as a homemaker. When it comes to her role as a public servant, Cita’s ideas and contributions are very concrete. “I’ve opened a road. We cleared it, partially put in the drainage and cement. But there’s still another 600 meters to pave. I would like to see that completed,” she states. “I also have an ordinance now to regulate the caretelas. So that they don’t cheat the tourists or be cruel to their animals.”

Cita’s big vision for Manila literally lies on the horizon. “I dream of having a beach in Manila, a Boracay-style beach,” she reveals. Backing her aspirations with action, Cita has actually been working to make her dream real. “We’ll have to treat the water for that to work. That’s why for my latest ordinance, I filed the Manila Water Code charter. So for the first time we’re going to have laws for our water.”

As we steer the conversation away from home and on to city hall, Cita sheds her giddy daze and regains the steel and focus that has made her such a lustrous presence on stage and screen. “The mayor and all the councilors are working together towards the same goal of improving the city,” she proclaims with some pride. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re always hoping to have more new buildings, new developments in the area. Little by little things get done.” If and when the day comes when it really all gets done, then maybe Cita can finally find the time and inclination to indulge in a bit of domesticity. But politics is impossible to predict, and Cita is just plain unpredictable.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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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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