The evil that men do…

“The evil that men do lives after them….” A line from one of Shakespeare’s plays, it could very well be a sweeping description of the HOCUS exhibition at the Gallery XXI of the National Museum of Fine Arts. Most of the 36 paintings authored by Atty. Saul Hofileña and Guy CUStodio are sinisterly anti-friar; Marcelo del Pilar himself could have painted them. Only one projects the good side of the Spanish missionaries — “Fr. Blanco’s Garden” — a tribute to his monumental work about native flora.

Last Saturday, the 5th of the HOCUS lecture series was held at the Sergio Osmeña Hall, the one behind the “Spoliarium,” and Dr. Jose Victor Torres, history professor of De La Salle University, spoke about “Cross and Crucible: The Spanish Missionaries, 1565-1800.” To balance the HOCUS portrayal of the Spanish friar, I invited Dr. Torres to present the positive legacy of the religious orders. He accepted, at the risk of being stoned, he jokingly posted on FB.

Dr. Torres’ presentation began with a list of religious orders according to their dates of arrival, names of towns and provinces each order encompassed with photos of their headquarters, that is, the churches and conventos they built. These are the legacies for which we should be grateful: The Catholic faith, of course, and how it used native religious beliefs like Bathala (one God), the anitos (saints), concepts of an afterlife (Heaven, Langit). He also said the priests destroyed the babaylans in order to assume their important role as divine liaison. European city planning (the cuadricula) was introduced and existing communities were re-clustered around the churches and main plazas. Schools were set up in obedience to royal decrees; printing which was first brought by the Chinese was expanded by the friars who published the Doctrina Christiana and other religious didactic materials. Military fortifications, lighthouses and watchtowers, urban architecture were among the positive legacies of Spain.

After painting such a rosy picture, Dr. Torres asked, “But why did the Filipinos revolt? Why did Rizal write the Noli? Why was there a Revolution?” Thought-provoking questions for millenials, even for baby-boomers.

The second lecture was related to heritage. Landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren’s “Save Arroceros!” was about Manila’s last lung, the endangered Arroceros Forest Park in the former Department of Education compound beside the Pasig River. Incumbent Mayor Joseph Estrada wants to build a gymnasium there ostensibly for the Universidad de Manila (a.k.a. City College) which means that we will lose over 3,000 trees and the oxygen these are supplying the congested metropolis. Why build a new gymnasium, Mayor Erap, when all you have to do is refurbish the historical Rizal Memorial Stadium Complex!

Arch. Alcazaren’s proposal is an integrated comprehensive Park Connector Network, an all-green infrastructureweb with the Pasig River as its spine. This pedestrian-friendly network links the baywalk along Roxas Boulevard, the Rizal Park, and the Intramuros golf course, which should be converted into a public park. Liwasang Bonifacio in front of the Post Office, what remains of the Mehan Garden and the Arroceros Forest Park could all be interconnected for the benefit and wholesome enjoyment of the public.

Arch. Alcazaren’s former plan for a Pasig River Esplanade should be continued with the local government units along the Pasig compelled to cooperate instead of concocting their own designs. The ex-fuel depot in Pandacan should be saved from the avaricious grasp “of evil developers”(add the incumbent mayor and councilors) who might convert the space into a concrete jungle, when it should be transformed into a splendid people’s park with native trees and flowering plants.

The most audacious section of Alcazaren’s Park Interconnector Network is about Malacañang Palace and the Malacañang Park across the Pasig, which should be converted into a museum and heritage zone. The President and his guards will first have to move out. An essential part of the plan is to build six new bridges across the Pasig, one beside Arroceros Forest Park, totally pedestrian, conducive to “connectivity by the people” and devoid of motor traffic and pollution.

What do you think? Arch. Alcazaren asked the audience. That afternoon, it was literally, standing room only at the Osmena hall; 150 people came, mostly millenials from Metro Manila. When Arch. Alcazaren threatened to run for Congress, they cheered and applauded wildly.

The proposals of Arch. Alcazaren have become even more urgent in the light of what is happening in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harry. Houston is drowning because it was built with no regulations, no zoning, and no environmental rules. Through the years, its marshlands have been cemented over. There are sites where petrochemical companies have been dumping hazardous industrial waste, acid compounds, solvents, and pesticides. Two reservoirs had to release water, so even alligators and fire ants have lost their sense of direction. Did you know that, once upon a time, Texas was called Nuevas Filipinas?

For the third lecture, Arch. Dominic Galicia gave us a preview of the National Museum of Natural History, a superb example of adaptive reuse of a venerable heritage edifice, the former Department of Tourism. Originally, it was the Department of Agriculture, the mirror image of the then Department of Finance, now the National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. The Agrifina Circle got its name from those two buildings designed by Archs. Juan Arellano and Antonio Toledo.

I could hardly recognize my former office because Arch. Galicia uncovered all the fine grille work, the neo-classical motifs. The blackened double windows, stairwells choked with old furniture and bureaucratic detritus, sealed hallways that blocked cross ventilation, etc. There is a stylized tree of life rooted at the center patio, reaching for the sky and forming a glass dome canopy. The trunk hides a glass elevator. The tree of life design is indigenous; the Mangyans and other ethnic communities use it.

The 6th and last HOCUS series of lectures will take place in October, Museum Month.