Escolta Street has displayed various configurations over the years, like the vividness of its former days, where the buildings slowly embraced topographies of the foreign, silent theaters multiplied in corners, and people walked along the streets in tailored garments—a resonant district filled with commerce, entertainment, and leisure. It witnessed the firsts of Philippine history, including Clarke’s Café, the first ice cream parlor located along Plaza Moraga on the south end of the Pasig River, Botica Boie, the first drug store on 81-87, and Salon de Pertierra, the theater house that left people astonished by its flicking images.

Or its paleness brought by the bombs of the Second World War that nearly left the place in ruin. It was also this time when it met its complete wither, where half of the buildings in Escolta was vacated as soon as movements gradually shifted to Makati. The beginning of the 21st century then became the “dead” era of Escolta, until art enthusiasts and heritage conservation advocates saw the need to preserve the place, drawing attention to its communities and worn edifices.

98B COLLABoratory, an artist-run initiative and space established in January 2012, started its very first Saturday X Future Market at the ground floor of the First United Building, where the Berg’s Department Store formerly stood. It was erected in 1928, and was originally called Edificio Luis Pérez Samanillo. The building was designed through the partnership of architects Andrés Luna de San Pedro and Juan Felipe Nakpil. Its rectangular form, dominant geometric patterns, and straight lines, make it a perfect example of the Art Deco style.

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The staircase inside the First United Building flaunts its intricately done geometric grillework.
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In its time, people flocked the First United Building (formerly Berg’s Department Store), making it one of the busiest establishments along Escolta. Local celebrities like Dolphy and Nora Aunor once held their offices inside the building.

The Saturday X Future Market gathered local artists and makers of multifaceted design discipline to set up shops, with the aim to recapture the glory days of the bygone premier shopping district in mind. And in 2016, the architecture firm One/Zero Design Collective occupied the fifth floor of the building, and worked jointly with 98B COLLABoratory in the construction of the Hub: Make Lab, a business incubator space. The First United Building continues to welcome, and has received more additions, namely: The Den, a coffee shop tucked at the far end, and Fred’s Revolución, a quaint bar that greets visitors with a portrait of Mao Zedong next to a painting of Karl Marx.

Escolta’s habitation did not stop at those, as it still motions into existence. Last November 17, 2018, the second anniversary of the Escolta Block Party maddened the place with art events, creative talks, exchanges between customers and sellers at the Saturday X Future Market, and a DJ blasting remixed versions of classics out in the street. People slow danced to John Lennon’s “Woman,” and footloosed their way through the Kenny Loggins anthem.

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The Block Party in its noonday form. Food stalls and pop-up shops of local artists and business owners cover the sides of the street, arousing the interest of attendees.
Folk 1006, a barbershop that specializes in dapper cuts, shares the ground floor of the First United Building with the rest of those enlivening the Saturday X Future Market.

One/Zero Design Collective has partnered with The Public School Manila for the studying of Escolta’s pedestrianization. Arts Serrano, the principal of the architecture firm, elucidates the Escolta Block Parties, saying that these exuberant gatherings have always been a prototype for a pedestrianized street, which was made possible with the assistance of the Escolta Commercial Association Inc., the Manila City Hall, Manila Traffic and Parking Bureau, BRGY 291, and the Manila Police. “This offers a preview of what a people-centered Escolta feels like, but of course even with official blessing, traffic is a major problem in Binondo. We are looking into a shared street concept for next year that accommodates both street level activities without having the need to close off the street for traffic. With this, maybe we can ease in the idea of pedestrianization by accommodating what everyone in the district needs on the street level,” said Serrano.

One/Zero Design Collective, along with the Department of Tourism’s secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat as presented by the Creative Economy Council of the Philippines, and Paulo Alcazaren, the principal of PGAA Creative Design, has developed a project concerning the modifications of the Maestranza in Intramuros. They have envisioned it as a platform for both creatives and non-creatives to unite in an experimental soft infrastructure that will actuate a part of the Intramuros wall. “For heritage structures, the physical manifestation of it is as important as how the people would thrive in it. They are not just artifacts we’d polish off with a fresh dab of paint once every three years. As designers working closely with places of character, we feel it’s also our duty to develop a dynamic quality in terms of programming that would keep the structure alive,” Serrano mentions. The project is anticipated to come into view in 2019.

The preservation of Escolta is not only exhibited through the effort put into sustaining the First United Building; this is also echoed by its tenants, whose narratives furnish whole the place. Seb De Jesus, one of the owners of Kariton by 1372 designs, revealed the shop’s story. Kariton, which was created with the help of his wife and children, takes pride in notebooks, origami boxes, and picture frames, products that are shaped from the offcuts and scraps of their neighbors. “Ever since I was a kid, mahilig na akong magkutingting. Kuha rito, tapal dito, dikit doon, tahi rito. (I’ve always been fond of tinkering. I would grab something here, paste it there, then sew something here.) I’m the type of person na pag may nakita akong kalat o basura, hindi ko kaagad itinatapon. (who, upon seeing scrap or trash, won’t think about throwing them away.) I see options and possibilities.”

Out in the street, locals join the event staff in the completion of an art installation behind the stage.

He furthers this thought in the context of Escolta, saying that in order to maintain the place, one has to remember it, and what it can be again. “Yes, it’s an old part of the city. Yes, it’s an old part of history, but like what we’re doing now, we are continuously creating possibilities. Huwag mo muna itapon. May magagawa pa rito. (Do not throw it away yet. There is still something that can be done here.) The same goes with the immediate communities here, like the street children. If you want to revive Escolta, you have to include them. Kung gusto mong umangat ang Escolta, isabay mo sila. (If you want Escolta to grow, involve them in its growth.)”

Reymart Cerin, the co-founder of The Public School Manila, reflects similar sentiments when he said that it is necessary for the locals, not just the community, to see the place in a different light through shared efforts. One has to consider the narratives of the buildings and streets in Escolta in order to fully comprehend the role of these elements in foregrounding the identity of the people. “I think in the end, what I want is for Escolta, and eventually our very own heritage and history, to become not just a matter of conversation but also an essential facet to our own being,” says Cerin.

Keziah Gervic Vivo, the owner of remakethestore, also partakes in preservation, but in the form of shopping. When she started the business, she originally wanted to reinvent and modernize vintage clothing pieces, but eventually ended up retaining them. “Clothing is such a big percentage of the waste we have in the world. We need to learn how to value things a little bit more, because everything nowadays is so disposable. You can buy something from fast-fashion, but two weeks later, you don’t like it that much anymore. It changes. I like to show that these pieces, which were around thirty of fifty years ago, are still relevant now.” Just like how 98B COLLABoratory, One/Zero Design Collective, and The Public School Manila look for ways to provide value to the old streets and sites along Escolta, Keizah uncovers the worth of these pieces that some consider momentary.

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The view taken from the fourth floor of the First United Building at the peak of the Escolta Block Party. A piece of Burke and Regina buildings slightly protrude on the corners.

Preservation is a gesture realized and executed in different manners. Sustaining heritage buildings provides a sense of continuity in this fast changing world for future generations. It sets everything in place, just as how a narrative causes one to remain rather than pass by. The First United Building not only stands to house the quarterly Escolta Block Party—with its drunken stupors, the unfailing trade on the ground floor, music-evoked nostalgia, or hands rummaging inside pockets for the pack of cigarettes bought at nearby convenience store—but also as an impulse for others to take part in the conservation and adaptive reuse of buildings. The revitalization of Escolta enthuses the design community to reshape and transform surroundings to suit the needs of the people.

Architecture is a relationship between dweller and place, and it is fueled all the more when lived in. Belonging in place, on the other hand, will prove most profound after everyone has been accommodated. Only then can smile lines stay prominent on the faces of those constantly mapping and occupying Escolta. B ender

READ MORE: Notes on a Building: on remembrance, cultural preservation, and identity

Photographed by Ed Simon

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