Gerard Lico: Heritage buildings should not be frozen in time
Renowned architect, art historian, and heritage conservationist who worked on the recent revitalization of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum says heritage buildings should be activated
February 26, 2020
Written by Denny Mata
Photographed by Rochelle Padilla
“I’m glad the building is now active,” says architect Gerard Lico, his words resonant as we tread along the hallway under the upper box bleachers of the newly rehabilitated Rizal Memorial Coliseum. “Heritage buildings should not be frozen in time; they should be used. Their continued use will ensure their survival.”
Prior to the Rizal Memorial Coliseum’s (formerly Rizal Memorial Tennis Stadium) major rehabilitation in 2019, threats to demolish the Manila City-owned Rizal Memorial Sports Complex (RMSC) for a commercial center circulated in late 2016. However, Lico shares that heritage and sports advocates prevailed and prevented the property’s sale, citing its architectural significance and contribution to the preservation of Filipino culture and history; creating civic, green, and open spaces; and providing the citizens with affordable sports facilities within the metro. In 2017, the sports complex was proclaimed a national historic landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) through the National Heritage Law of 2009, and declared as important cultural property by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP).
However, as Lico emphasizes, continued use is of utmost importance in the preservation of heritage buildings and sites. So, when the news of RMSC’s rehabilitation broke out, it’s one less heritage site biting the dust. “The [Rizal Memorial Coliseum] is actually a part of a larger rehabilitation of the complex funded by PAGCOR (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation),” says Lico. “The intention was not to open this for the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). It so happened that the SEA Games will happen in 2019, so it was an opportunity for the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) to showcase their building.”
In July 2019, the 250-million-peso-worth rehabilitation of the indoor arena began. ME Sicat Construction, the winning bidder for the project contractor sought Lico’s expertise and service. Lico is a professor at the College of Architecture at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, practicing architecture as a conservation professional and designer of institutional buildings. The Rizal Memorial Coliseum rehabilitation is the first to be completed in the approximately 11,000-square-meter RMSC. “It took us four months, but it was a year-long research and development of the plan,” Lico shares. He admits that it was difficult to rehabilitate an old building more than 50 years old, but he ensures that all interventions and forms of modifications undergo supervision and approval of the PSC, National Commission on Culture and the Arts, NMP, and NHCP. “We surveyed the building and diagnosed the defects. The building is structurally strong so it does not require any structural retrofitting. But we had to remove the defects and elements added which devalue the heritage value of the building,” Lico adds.
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To beat the four-month rehabilitation project time frame, 450 workers toiled in 3 shifts and used a 12-million-peso spider crane instead of scaffolding. Lico affirms that his team made sure of the safety of the workers and the quality of their work. “We had to maintain the quality, so we really focused on the design elements. All of our choices in terms of additional details are in compliance with the Art Deco aesthetic,” he says. According to the architect, the proto-modern building is straightforward, more streamlined with minimal use of ornaments, unlike the Met Theater, as it is analogous to what the Americans wanted the Filipinos to achieve: a streamlined ‘deco body’ that is efficient to contribute to the colonial economy. Archival photographs and plans of the Harrison Park, RMSC, and the coliseum from Jorge B. Vargas’ collection, copies of which are now displayed in the new Gallery, helped Lico and his team to restore the original features of the building.
Lico has been working on Juan Arellano structures for years. He shares that he previously worked on two buildings by renowned Filipino architect Juan Arellano in UP Diliman—the College of Law and College of Education buildings built before the Second World War—and on the restoration of Manila Metropolitan Theater prior to the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. “Although the four-month period was really tight, I was lucky I had the opportunity to have worked on some of Juan Arellano’s buildings, so I am acquainted with his style, technique, and his structures,” he shares. “Some of my interventions at The Met are similar to the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. For instance, the use of foam insulation on the roof and the high-density linoleum in the arena proper.”
Although Lico’s team aimed to restore the building to its former glory, Lico kept some cracks and imperfections in place as he adhered to the aesthetic of wabi-sabi of the Japanese. “People wondered why there were lines and crack-like details in some areas. I understand their indifference because of the notion we have that when we ‘rehabilitate,’ we have to make things perfect. But, if it’s perfect, it’s like removing the layers of history accumulated by the building,” shares Lico. “Imperfection gives more character to the structure, and these ‘scars’ will tell the story of the building. ”
Lico underscores the importance of the building’s history, not only to architecture but also in civics and culture. “I insisted on having the Gallery to retain the education component of the building,” he says. “Continuity and educated intervention—I think PSC is very sensitive to these, that’s why they’re allowing me to have tours like this to educate the public.” Lico shares that he wanted to propose that the sports facility should be opened to the public from time to time for public tours, similar to facilities in Germany and Singapore. He adds, “It is only through the realization of the history of the building that the people will value and love the old building.”
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Amidst the architecture and history lessons by Lico on the day of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum tour and the official launch of the Deco Filipino book he co-authored with Art Deco researcher Ivan Man Dy, a karate tournament was also on-going. According to Lico, the indoor arena is fully booked for the year, with both local and international competitions already in queue. “I’m pleased with how the people interacted with the building during the SEA Games and even now. They were taking selfies. I believe one of the barometers of successful conservation is how people accept the building,” Lico shared. “And the building becomes an Instagram sensation,” he adds, which elicited laughter from everyone on the tour.