Language is a subject that generates meanings, and it is comprised of dialogues concerning things seen and unseen. In today’s hyperconnectivity, it is capable of displaying the power of culture to transform people and the society. Its manifestations—like old monuments, traditional and contemporary practices, or art forms—improve everyday lives. Culture, from this angle, provides the basis for these meanings. And if defined, it is the meant, the conveyed; it is something that holds significant quality.

Arts Serrano, the lead architect of One/Zero Design Collective tells us the language of the First United Building, where its dialogues are made up of former and present narratives. The architecture studio based in Escolta, Manila, has embraced an interest in bridging designs to relevant matters, namely, the heritage and history of communities.

The First United Building, an Art Deco masterpiece by Andrés Luna de San Pedro.

In its glory days, Escolta was known to impress people by the intricacy found on its architecture. It was considered the top commercial and most pluralistic place. It has previously accommodated big companies, first class stores, and stand-alone theaters, many of which no longer exist. The others, however, still desperately stand, sorely keeping their parts intact. If one finds the self in Escolta, it may seem like the place has been undressed of its usual clothing. As if curtains are pulled shut, and its limelight now reduced to a flicker. That is only half the picture.

Serrano has been influential in refurbishing the First United Building, and is on the flight to revitalize the place through the construction of new meanings. “Our cities started changing when CBDs were developed,” he says. To address this, the culture is endlessly being transformed by movements, and occupied in various ways to counterweight the emptiness brought by its former narrative.

It is shameful to resist and defy the worldview of culture. To be independent of culture, or to live aculturally. The preservation of these heritage sites, like Escolta, can help us in uncountable ways. “I think the younger designers have a lot to take inspiration from here, how Filipino architects before tried to define design then,” Serrano mentions. Heritage sites and buildings can positively influence the way a community develops. Like the First United Building, these can constitute a source of identity and cohesion for communities, all the while allowing creativity to set the foundations for innovative and vibrant individuals.

“This is one place where you can see how we can actually define it,” Serrano says. A narrative as rich as Ecolta’s is certainly a treasure. And all these can remain, that is, if one continues to speak its language. B ender

READ MORE: The movie theaters of Colon Street are fading people’s palaces

Watch the pilot episode of Notes on a Building, where Arts Serrano gives notations on the First United Building:

Photographed by Ed Simon

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