Heritage conservation is now a growing field of interest among Filipino architects and other professionals, many of whom have realized that our built environment contains few structures less than a hundred years old.
This belated but growing awareness owes much to one man, whom many consider to be the father of Philippine heritage conservation.
Augusto Fabella Villalon, fondly called Toti, was a Yale-educated architect with dreams of making his own mark on the landscape of his homeland. He returned to Manila to set up his practice, but soon found himself unable to sit back and watch passively the rampant demolition of our architectural patrimony.
World Heritage List
Villalon began writing his influential column “Pride of Place” for the Inquirer in 1994, lobbying for the protection of our architectural heritage. It was Mayor Lito Atienza’s July 2000 demolition of the 1939 Jai Alai Building in Manila, lauded as one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Asia, which was, in many ways, the spark that ignited the country’s heritage conservation movement, with Villalon leading it.
Villalon was instrumental in the inscription of four of the six Philippine sites on the Unesco World Heritage List. In local and international conferences, he championed the cause of Philippine conservation in a way that adhered to universal principles, while also extolling the importance of the local community and its needs.
He trained as a sociologist before studying architecture, which explains why he maintained an approach to conservation that was more compassionate than draconian.
The rest of the world honored and rewarded him, perhaps more than we have. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) did honor him with the “Dangal ng Haraya” in 2002, but it was really outside the country that he was accorded greater prestige.
Villalon was the first person from Southeast Asia to be named an honorary member of Icomos (International Council on Monuments and Sites), the professional organization that advises Unesco on the sites that comprise the World Heritage List.
The month of May is now National Heritage Month.
Villalon was born in May 1945, and died in May 2018, which seems peculiarly fitting. He would have been 74 this May.
A towering figure in the cultural landscape, he sacrificed his own creative dreams in pursuit of, for him, a more urgent need—the protection of our collective architectural heritage.
He left behind an invaluable and enduring legacy, an awakened national realization that it is up to each generation to affirm, protect and defend the inherited wealth of our nation.
Perhaps, in due time, a grateful nation will accord him the greater prestige which he did not receive in his lifetime. —CONTRIBUTED
The author is head architect of the National Museum of Natural History.