As restoration begins for the Metropolitan Theater, the director of the National Museum chronicles the glory days, the troubled history, and the suddenly promising future of a storied cultural icon
The recent acquisition of the Manila Metropolitan Theater by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts was universally hailed as a triumph for culture and heritage. Many pointed to it as a significant instance in which public funds were being applied toward a truly laudable purpose.
For too long indeed, the architectural landmark that stands prominently at what is perhaps the busiest corner in the entire city of Manila has been an eyesore and an indictment. It is an eyesore that not only pierces the hearts of the culturati, but also—as it’s simply too arrestingly beautiful and distinctive to ignore—even the most jaded of Manileños. Its present state of dereliction is a denunciation of the far-too-common attitude where the drive for “progress” and “development” trumps all other considerations, relegating the sense of worth and tangible reality of our own self-representation to whatever the compromised result might be.
This holds particularly true in how we have allowed the appearance of our own capital city to be shaped. It is evident, especially to outsiders, that few of us seem to have any real love for Manila, its role and place in the lives of every Filipino notwithstanding. Why this attitude prevails is for another article, but it is an attitude that differs hugely from previous generations. It’s yet another example of that break in Filipino hearts and minds, most acutely in the civic sphere, brought about by and during and immediately after the Second World War. The pre-war generations strongly supported, and worked hard to bring about, the idea of imbuing Manila with all the greatness reflective of a confident and progressive people who knew exactly where they came from, who they were, and what they were aspiring for; a city replete with symbols reflective, they felt, of themselves. It was a legacy that they undoubtedly hoped to bequeath to us.
The Met was one result of this urge. It was driven by civic pride and the knowledge of the role of culture in manifesting true development. By 1930 the leading citizens of Manila, frustrated in the knowledge that the city had need of a world-class theater, decided to do something about it. Eager to advance its leadership among the cities of the region, the municipal authorities granted the project what seemed to be the very best plot of public land within their power to give, as editorials of the time relate. Funds were raised through public subscription for shares of stock in a dedicated corporation, the Governor-General laid the corner stone, and the Met was inaugurated within barely a year with a program of international stars and performing companies.
Taking Heine’s poem and Mendelssohn’s setting of “On Wings of Song” as his inspiration, the Met was designed by the then-leading Filipino architect, Juan Arellano, in the most fashionable style of the time. The superb Art Deco structure featured dazzling tile ornamentation, stained glass, friezes, sculptures, and wall textures—the whole exterior cast in a blend of light colors as if it were an elaborate confection dusted playfully with icing sugar. It was also technically at the cutting edge, incorporating “the most up-to-date features of modern theater construction” with “special attention” given to the “acoustic properties,” and with the most coveted of all new technologies of the pre-war period: an “air-cooling system.”
Through the next decade, it seemed all the great artists of the world traveling through the Far East were booked to appear at the Met, which featured seasons of opera, ballet, orchestral music, theater, and film. Complaints were aired that the country’s premier cultural institution had been built too small. Such was apparently the demand for seats and the lack of facilities for yet larger productions, particularly for “performance of first-class operas, many of which include ‘mob scenes’ requiring the appearance of large numbers of people” and “even animals.”
Nevertheless, the Met’s financial viability was shaky from the start, even if much of the property was designed for commercial establishments and “auxiliary enterprises,” and debts began to accumulate. Scarcely 10 years from its inauguration, President Quezon considered having the Commonwealth government bail out the Metropolitan Theater Company with sweepstakes funds, and take over the building. Whatever action may have been pursued was of course overtaken by war in 1941 and the occupation and liberation of Manila in 1945. These events left the Met a gutted and burned-out shell that was eventually foreclosed and taken over by the city government.
The brief and sad story of this institution was repeated between 1978 and 1996. The Met, mostly in ruins since the war, was restored and upgraded with the latest technologies; its prestige was reestablished by the close involvement of First Lady Imelda Marcos, as well as by the great performances and artists that were featured there. But in terms of viability, it again eventually failed and the property was foreclosed by the GSIS, with the Theater having already ceased operations.
Despite a brief attempt to revive the Met in 2010, what is happening now represents the third—and hopefully far more lasting—founding of a cultural landmark that was originally envisioned as beautiful, modern, artistically diverse and excellent, operationally viable, and emblematic of the great worth given to culture by the Filipino people. To this should be added the principle of accessibility to the general public, which is highly proper given the use of public resources for the Met’s resurrection. Indeed, these are the ideals that together must govern the NCCA’s project, moving forward.
The first priority is that every element, immovable and movable, tangible and intangible, that forms part of the outstanding architectural, artistic, institutional, and public significance of the Met as a declared National Cultural Treasure must be carefully documented and effectively articulated. This will guide efforts not only to restore its distinctive ornamentation and repair the structure itself, but how the many spaces within the theater can be best and most legitimately utilized. It will also serve as a guide for how new technologies and the exigencies of soundproofing, air-conditioning, modern electrical communications, and plumbing systems can be sensitively incorporated.
Agreement has already been reached that international best practices, such as those advocated by UNESCO for world heritage sites, will be applied as faithfully as possible. Even if it is not (yet) a world heritage site, the Met is obviously one of the leading, if not the very best, existing structures of its kind in Asia, if not the entire world. It is incumbent upon the NCCA and all of us who are involved (or those who simply care) to do proper justice by it, and in so doing show the nation and the world what our arts, culture and heritage—indeed, our declared National Cultural Treasures—mean to us. And also the lengths to which we—especially those of us in the national government who are tasked with this mandate—will go to protect, preserve, and promote it for present and future generations.
It has been suggested that the Met be relaunched by the NCCA as a kind of national culture and arts center, featuring all the public activities of that agency, in cooperation with its affiliate agencies such as the National Museum. Apart from, of course, performances of all kinds, this will include exhibitions, film screenings, demonstrations, lectures, workshops, seminars, and conferences, as well as a café or restaurant to feature traditional culinary arts and a shop to showcase our indigenous creative industries. In this way, housed within a building that truly deserves the term “iconic,” the NCCA, together with the entire cultural sector of the national government that falls within its embrace, can bring its work much closer to the people than at present. It is also hoped that this will be carried out with much higher public attention, visibility, and impact.
Such is the goodwill that this initiative to restore the Met has generated that an informal group of conservation and restoration architects, engineers, artists, and other specialists and experts have pledged to extend their help and collaboration. The NCCA likewise enjoys the strong support of the Cultural Center of the Philippines for advising on the full range of theater operations, as well as of the National Museum on exhibition spaces and museological matters.
To truly rehabilitate the Met, however, much more remains to be done, such as the revitalization of the entire area, from Manila Bay to the Jones Bridge and Binondo. This was once the planned showcase of a forward-looking nation, with its great institutional edifices, expansive parks and gardens, wide and leafy boulevards, the historic Intramuros, and the old commercial district along the Pasig River. Nonetheless, with the theater itself now in the NCCA’s good hands and with the Post Office Building hopefully to follow soon—and with the efforts of the National Museum, the National Parks Development Committee, and the Intramuros Administration, among others—a sense is emerging that the type of revival that has been seen in other cities could soon be manifest in Manila’s own heritage core, such that it might become, once again, the city of our hopes and dreams.
The original Met of the 1930s took a year to build. The second incarnation of the late 1970s took two. Now, it will probably take three, but it will be worth it if the Met can be made to take off again and, this time, forever bear us all with it “on wings of song” in enriching, through arts and culture, the lives of the Filipino people.
This piece first appeared in Rogue’s 2015 Design Issue.