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Another endangered relic (1)

Will the slaughter of our remaining heritage structures never end? Will pages of our architectural history continue to be torn to shreds? Pity the future generations of Manileños, of Filipinos; they will have no memory of our past achievements as a nation. They will be cultural foundlings, so to speak, with no genealogy, place of birth unknown.

The Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) has addressed a letter to the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA): “We respectfully request the Technical Working Council to declare the Old Bilibid Prison Complex, which includes the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, as an Important Cultural Treasure…”

Very few Filipinos remember that Bilibid Viejo (Old Bilibid) was designed by Emilio Diaz and Armando Lopez Esquerra in 1857, four years before Jose Rizal was born. The Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital that was formerly the Bilibid Prison Hospital came much later, in 1907. It is one of the earliest works of Architect William F. Parsons who came to Manila with the renowned city planner and architect, Daniel Burnham.

The HCS letter is an extremely urgent because the Department of Health (DOH) is planning to totally and irretrievably demolish the Dr. Jose Fabella Hospital. A DOH statement sent to the lifestyle section of a local daily cited “findings” of the Department of Public Works and Highways, that “continued and long-term presence of people inside the unfit Fabella buildings is dangerous to life and property, especially in case of an earthquake.” Aren’t we all too familiar with such blanket statements from wielders of wrecking balls? The report says that instead of retrofitting, the DOH intends to construct new buildings on Rizal Avenue and Tayuman Street where the heritage Fabella hospital is located.

How alarming that in her statement promoting the demolition, Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial did not seem to know about the history or the cultural and architectural significance of the Dr. Jose Fabella building. Sec. Ubial simply relied on the prognosis of a DOH architect who might not have done his/her homework either. “It is more expensive to retrofit the existing Fabella buildings than to build a modern and bigger national maternity hospital…” That is what they always say! Evidently, Sec. Ubial does not know about the Parsons building, she betrayed ignorance: “We must understand that the buildings of Fabella hospital were built in the 1950s. The buildings were designed as government offices, not as a hospital.”

With all due respect, Sec. Ubial, the Fabella building, though it is a venerable centenarian, was built as a hospital, not as a government office. During the American colonial period, buildings were constructed with sturdier aggregates and reinforced concrete (like the Philippine General Hospital, for example) so these have survived wars of conquest and natural calamities. Kindly find a copy of“Arkitekturang Filipino: A History of Architecture and Urbanism in the Philippines” by Architect Gerard Lico and read the pages about the Old Bilibid complex.

While the HCS supports the modernization of health facilities at the Fabella Hospital, any demolition of heritage structures will violate both RA10066 and RA10717 – General Appropriations Act 2016, which specifically prohibits funding of government projects that entail the destruction of heritage hospitals:

“General Provisions, Section 43, Protection of Built Heritage, Cultural Properties and Cultural Landscapes,” Volume II-B, Page 796, Section 43. Protection of Built Heritage, Cultural Properties and Cultural Landscapes. Alteration, renovation or demolition of heritage buildings and open spaces declared by government cultural agencies or presumed to be important cultural properties, including but not limited to provincial capitol buildings, city hall, municipal hall, monuments, fountains, parks and plazas, school, state colleges and universities, fortifications, lighthouses, bridges, public hospitals, train stations, museums, public libraries, stadiums, prisons, and government offices, shall be undertaken only upon prior approval of government cultural agencies and proper consultation with stakeholders and cultural groups to be administered by the NCCA. This includes the protection of the sight line with regard to built heritage, cultural properties and cultural landscapes.

“In addition, in undertaking major infrastructure projects, the concerned department/agency shall be responsible specifically in the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of national roads and bridges as they impact on heritage structures or aspects of heritage conservation pursuant to Republic Act No. 10066 of the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.”

The HCS humbly suggests that Health Sec. Ubial coordinate with government cultural agencies (NCCA in particular) as required by law, to ensure proper retrofitting and conservation of this historic hospital. A modern hospital can always be built incorporating the heritage building and without altering its character. In that regard, the HCS would like to request the Technical Working Council to remind the Department of Health of the coordination provision stipulated in both laws.

Next week, the other endangered relic, El Bilibid Viejo,

(ggc1898@gmail.com)