Like a heap of sand


Built or erected in marble or stone, though some cast in metal, as landmarks in a country’s history or reminders of heroic deeds, monuments are so aimed at permanence or impregnability that for it to crumble one day hardly sound possible.

From what I learned from a restoration architect, my late husband Felix N. Imperial II, who studied the art at Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and came home with quixotic dreams to apply what he had learned in Intramuros, keeping monuments intact requires more than stone masons, brick layers and other such hands (because it is as much a handiwork as building them), it asks of governments a political will—monuments belong to a nation, after all.

Indeed, a great number of such buildings or structures have defied decay from both centuries of natural and manmade disasters like tropical weather and wars such as San Agustin Church but especially elsewhere, those well-kept palaces and temples we often dream of walking into, if only to experience a moment of greatness or a glorious past that for many of us exists only in ether. Virtually a young city of 140 years, I see no such buildings here in Vancouver the likes of Philippine colonial structures most of them sadly left for time to eat away.

But why must a country like the Philippines struggling to stave poverty feed its past of non-living things? Answers to this all too common question with what seems obvious can drag into either despair or acrimony those who belong to the many sides of upholding or not patrimony. Such complex imbalance of forces to Felix had first, scaled down then later, hazed his dream: Intramuros would have given the Philippines a niche with the only medieval walled city in Asia among nations who showcase an inimitable past.

Except for the four gates, major parts of the walls, and the esplanade at Parian, a few of which he restored from the ground like Puerta Santa Lucia, most of his dream—if but one of the palaces, the Ayuntamiento, would have risen again—like moth wings slowly powdered and blown away. He died though, realizing how tiny a vessel man’s body to bear his dreams.

I think Felix was luckier in that he found closure and acceptance, in contrast to my paternal great grandfather who had built not a national monument but a personal one, which I suppose most families would recognize, “for his heirs”. Of these, there are several in Vancouver, most of them exquisitely cared for as living museums—one of them, the Colbourne House still breathing right across our gate.

My great grandfather’s house was of brick and mortar townsfolk of Bacarra called, kabite; its frame had been all I grew up with, a hulking shadow right across from our then fragile wood and bamboo house; apparently its interior was burnt. While almost a myth to Santiago, a nephew my age, and me, as adults we dwelt on snippets of what sounded like tall tales about it. Such as: a short bridge spanning a narrow moat, circling the house, washing the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard were stables, and dark wooden doors and windows that would open at midmorning to the camino real.

As Santiago and I sometimes sat on ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, we imagined a giant chandelier flooding a hall. Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in must have been set on those monogrammed linens I once found in my grandmother’s trunk. Guests must have taken their liqueur from those Depression shot glasses, which we thought were toys in the buffet shelf of Santiago’s mom.

He and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over yet another property, the land where our house stood—we had since lost the one where the kabite stood through another heir. Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at nary a word about it.

During a rare visit to town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark. As I later retraced my way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had loomed solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.  “Why, didn’t you know,” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake.”

I would have to tell Santiago about it, I had vowed. But I decided to keep to myself a realization that no matter how massive some structures are like what my great grandfather built to defy impermanence, these could vanish. On the other hand, Felix’s view of Intramuros may yet be fulfilled: “it had lived through three centuries without me it would stay for others to dream of more.”

In photo: Puerta Santa Lucia facing the bay was totally ruined in WWII when a tank rammed into it; it was restored from the ground up by restoration architect Felix N. Imperial II, using traditional techniques of merely fitting the stones and without any reinforcing bars. He restored all four gates of the Walls.

Peregrine Notes, August 26, 2012, Business Mirror Philippines Opinion Page

If unstopped SM to sit beside the San Nicolas Church,IN soon

San Nicolas Catholic Church


We, the undersigned Catholics of the Parish of San Nicolas de Tolentino and other concerned Catholics respectfully bring to Your Excellency our serious concern about the seemingly imminent lease or probably sale of a southern portion of the lot on which the Catholic Church stands. We only came to know this from some concerned Catholics of the town. Although we do not have a direct knowledge about this rumor, we are convinced it is true.

Visualizing what may happen next, this is the scenario we believe will transpire: that the southeastern portion of the Catholic lot immediately adjacent to the Catholic Church will be leased or maybe sold to SM, a giant commercial corporation that operates malls in different parts of the Philippines. How big the land to be leased is only a matter of our imagination but it could be the site of the convent and probably to include the eastern side of the original building of Santa Rosa Academy.

The size of the land rented or leased whether small or big is not important to us. What concerns us is the desecration of a sacred ground and the invasion of the privacy of our Catholic Church and Sta. Rosa Academy considering the fact that the commercial building will be built just beside the Catholic Church on its southern side and adjacent to the old building of Sta. Rosa Academy on its eastern side.

Please note Your Excellency, that the said place to be leased constitutes the most prominent portion of the lot of the Catholic Church. It is, to us, of sacred significance. The prominent location of the place is the reason why Father Fidel Albano, a parish priest of San Nicolas, selected the place as the site of the present convent. That was in the twilight of the 19th century. The construction of the present convento was necessary after Father Fidel Albano handed the old convento (now the main building of Sta. Rosa Academy) to the religious sisters who were asked to administer the school.

The present convento was constructed by the Catholics of San Nicolas under the leadership of the parish priest, Father Fidel Albano. We object to its being torn down and relocated.

True, renting the site of the convento and some buildings of sta. Rosa Academy on its eastern side will generate millions of pesos in revenue. But for what purpose? And at what expense? Will the end justify the means? Does the Catholic Church of San Nicolas, which comprise the Catholics of the town, need that money badly? Is the revenue of the church as of now failing so badly? On the contrary, the revenue of the church is sound. It is good!

It is worthy to note that while a house of worship and a school should be insulated from the material world, at San Nicolas a design is in the making to define the sacredness of the church by building, a mall just beside it and pollute its spiritual atmosphere with materialism. The presence of the mall just beside Sta. Rosa Academy will destroy its academic dignity. This will scandalize us, the Catholic faithful.

Relative to the operation of a mall, just beside the church, we are reminded of the scene when Jesus witnessed repulsive materialism that corrupted a church of god (temple). He saw people making money right in the temple of God, and in anger, He protested and cried aloud, “Take those things (referring to the objects sold in the temple) and do not make the house of my Father a house of business.” (John 2:16). Is not placing a mall for the sake of money, just beside the church a desecration of the church of God?

At Laoag City business establishments are indeed located around the Cathedral and this situation maybe used as justification for the building and operation of the mall beside the church of San Nicolas. However, the situation at the Cathedral of Laoag and the Church of San Nicolas are two very different things. The business establishments such as Chowking, Jollibee, McDonald’s etc operating on land owned by the Cathedral are at a decent distance from the church. At San Nicolas, SM will be sitting just beside the Catholic Church. The very thought of it is not only shocking but obnoxious and repulsive to the decency of the concerned Catholics of San Nicolas.

The undersigned would have no opposition to a mall built on the church property on the vacant lot north of the church as long as it is built at least at a decent distance of about 30 meters away from the northern wall of the Catholic Church. The Catholics of San Nicolas however desire transparency and involvement in the project itself.

In case the needs of the church for repairs is made as an excuse for the lease. Throughout the centuries when the church was destroyed by typhoon, fires and earthquakes, the Catholics of the town were forthcoming in producing the funds for such repairs.

In the construction of the floor of the church and other projects, did not the Catholics of San Nicolas (with help from other people) make the projects a reality? No less than Father Danny Laeda said so during the closing ceremony at the Plaza during the feast of Christ the King on November 2010. Therefore, there is no need to lease the site of the present convent and its surroundings to SM just to produce money.

Premises considered the undersigned and all other Catholics who may not have signed this Manifesto but support its cause voice their strong objection to the lease of the lot where the present convent stands and adjoining lots. They strongly oppose the transfer of the convent to the lot north of the Church.

Truly yours in Christ:

Ma. Cielito Valdes-Lejano (Quezon City, Philippines)
Leonardo B. Lejano (Quezon City, Philippines)
Alegria Albano-Imperial (Vancouver, Canada, formerly of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte and Manila)
Elizabeth Medina (Chile)–granddaughter of the late
Gov. Emilio Ortega Medina of Dingras, Ilocos Norte

Victoria Rosario Albano (Vancouver, Canada, formerly of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte)

If you support this ‘plea’, you may want to add your name in this manifesto by leaving it as a comment and I’ll add it here.

Dios ti agngina ken sapay koma ta denggen ti Apo daytoy a dawat tayo.

Also posted at

Light-entranced: A New Face of Spain in Manila

Published in Philippine Asian News Today, Vancouver
Posted in

 Vancouver, BC, CanadaIn a number of meetings and conferences I have been invited to or signed in, I am always engaged in a dance of memories I had not thought I lugged around. The most potent of these is culture. A month ago, at a conference on Environmental Justice at the SFU Harbour Centre, each of us, participants, were made to draw our thoughts on the environment using Pentel pens on a piece of white bond paper. Mine was a textured web of the Philippines layered by centuries of colonization. My words in the presentation burst out like a dirge for beauty I had not expected. It could have risen partly from longing for home. After the session, Gil, the Mexican panelist latched on to me. He called me, “prima”; I called him, “primo”. There is nothing new to this. Each time I meet Latinos, they catch me by my name, hugging me con “abrazos fuertes”. At such moments, I always come flying home to Manila, remembering. Like the first time I visited the new building of Instituto Cervantes a week after it was inaugurated. Here is what I recall. 


I had since stepped off the cab, ignoring the driver’s probing why I was going to a “casino” on T.M. Kalaw at midday, and why the new building I said I was really going to—Instituto Cervantes (Manila) he repeated, tongue-twisting—did not have the arko and barandilla he usually sees in Spanish-sounding places. As he sped away, I began looking for the same details he did.


I realized I had gotten off before the entrance, midway through the horizontal span that begins where Casino Espanol’s stucco wall ends. As I singled along a beige stone-clad wall, I also walked under the slightly jutting walls of an upper story, a dark protrusion covered with oxidized metal sheets that holds up a sheer half of white steel-framed glass picture windows. An image flashed: possibly remote, I had shrugged off; but I remembered as a girl during one of those visits to the seminary in old Vigan far north, ruined since, peeking on tiptoes from one of those huge windows flung wide on feast days to watch right under my feet people in a holy procession. I later learned from the architect that the memory had not crept in by accident.


At the end of the span, I drew a few paces back awed by the contrasting lines and surfaces of the facade. Seemingly not both but only the lower portion of the horizontal span flows into the rise of a medium-high tower I faced; both are clad with those beige stones. Together, they form a right triangle. But in my mind, I transformed the geometric lines into an enormous human form seated on the ground, balancing on its stretched legs a transparent box pulsing with light. The architect would probably think this incredulous but I knew from talking with other architects that a building must take on life and if it does it would take on many guises also. Under the broad tower, I slipped into the entrance—automatic glass doors embossed with the institute’s (ICM) logo—and found myself really wondering if indeed I were inside a Spanish structure.


Shedding off Colonial Stereotypes


Almost embarrassed, I shed off the baggage I had carried—stereotype images of stone churches and houses that are not even Spanish but Filipino colonial buildings. A stranger to the Spain of today, I did recall that high noon reading in the New York Times an article about an exhibit on Spanish architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Featured with the story were photos of the new terminal at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport and the Museo Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon. The article dubbed Spain as “showcase of some of the most exciting architecture in the world today” and “a center for architectural marvels.” The Instituto’s architect, (and former director) Javier Galvan Guijo, a graduate of Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid where he also earned his masters and doctorate degrees, must have trained with Spain’s new breed of architects.


Gaping at the structure I had stepped into, I realized it was time for me to snip anything Spanish off relics of the Philippines’ colonial past or those churches and fortifications friars and military engineers built as well as the bahay na bato (stone house) they improvised to withstand earthquakes and keep off the endless summer heat. Even while Galvan claims his design synthesizes such structures that he has studied and documented in his travels to almost all islands of the archipelago – he goes way back to 1993 lending a hand in Vigan’s restoration – his European modernist sensibilities obviously overcame his love for everything Filipino in this building.


Easier to agree with is his declaration that light is the “protagonist” in his design. He could not have escaped its omnipresence in my country. Light floods any nook, seeps into any cranny, it even creeps into nights in the archipelago—a priceless element that to his dismay local designers tend to ward or totally close off. A Madrileno and thus no stranger to the sun, Galvan set his building up as a stage for a play on light.


Light as Protagonist: Capiz in Modern Design Sensibility 


 In the lobby, I felt like a dwarf in an enormous cube that opens to the sky. I scaled soaring dark Indian sandstone walls, breathless at the height, the same feeling when I walk into a cathedral or a gothic church—my experience with structures of this proportion being limited to the ecclesiastical. I pushed the comparison further: square incisions in a grid midway up the wall, the architect’s version of capiz (mother-of-pearl shell) windows—a theme he uses throughout—also reminded me not of the checkered pattern but of how light breaks on a wall of the Santuario de Nuestra Senora del Camino in Leon I got fascinated with on a postcard. Too, a soft aura like a haze that followed a few students milling in the lobby had added to the other-worldliness light refracted from the top has lent. But light playing magic on my senses soon dissipated this haloed perception. 


Right in the lobby, light in its many guises inundates the visitor: fluid as it pours on the walls, solid as in spears piercing the three-sided slits that edge Interior 3the dropped ceiling, vaporous in slants from the square windows, and mist-like as all that light settles on the blue-gray slate floor. Quality and hue also shift according to time of day, changing as light turns with the sun’s inexorable motion. I had imagined as it rose and hit the facade sideways it daubed the lobby a purplish pink, a hue that faded into yellowish white as noon approached and on to a powdery white as the sun paused in its zenith. When light slanted from the west, the light wavered to a soft aluminum gray as it did right then. But wait! It had brightened up as if from a sudden lift. I turned and indeed, met a splash coming in from the patio, hitting a glass wall tangentially across the entrance; the sun had slid ever so imperceptibly in its downward arc.


 Two things had happened in the splash of light: it poured on to the transition area right above where I stood then spilled down the slate-clad stairs on the wall opposite the entrance to my right, and flooded a rectangular space to my left where the lobby expands. This space boxed in by end-walls painted white is a changing exhibit area. But that afternoon in my light-altered state, it had looked more like a waterway drenched with light whooshing in from clerestory windows atop the length of one wall, and bouncing on the outer walls of the theater, the Salon de Actos.


Easily a seeming favorite among students, I found a group squatted in a circle near the far end of the box washed in the light, their heads huddled like some yet unnamed species of birds in complicity. When another group swung in from the patio through the glass door, meeting the first, both soon lifted off on flapping arms, dripping sparks of fluid light, winging out to the arcade outside. I was left trying to decide whether to climb the stairs or follow the flight of students. I took the second choice.


I followed in their trail, squinting at the stark brilliance of a bare sun. Where I had paused outside the door, I viewed the enclosed Casino Espanol property through the patio and the swimming pool, given elements Galvan worked in to his design. Two contrasting sides of Spain look on each other from here: one, a nostalgic colonial past in the arched terraces and inner garden of the brick-roofed Casino restaurant, and the other, a boldPatio 1 straightforward present in the looming white concrete and glass walls, exposed posts and beams of ICM—two sides the patio sets apart yet blends.


I walked on to the arcade that the beams and posts create, keeping close to a series of glass doors embossed with the same square grid pattern—those of the suite of classrooms called aula (cage)—tucked under it. I had peeked into each of these entranced by the light like two streams pooling on the floor. One stream comes from the patio, or light that breaks on the marble tiles then spills in, the other like a fluid curtain comes through glass blocks on the back wall.


Spanish Today among Filipinos


Through one of the doors, I glimpsed the students in the changing exhibit area. (So they flew back in to their cages.) Here, along with the 3,600 other students, they have come to learn Spanish, the language half of the world speaks, a language Filipinos once knew. It takes 30 hours to step up to each of the 25 levels or three years of mastery a certificate testifies.  


Two weeks after this visit during a yearly event of non-stop reading a work written in Spanish, I would sit in the Salon de Actos listening to some of the students read two pages each of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”, his novel that ignited a revolution and led to his martyrdom that made him a national hero. Galvan’s dramatic design that alternates dark concrete and light veneer oak on the wall and ceiling and echoed on the capiz pattern on backs of seats could have intensified emotions the text carried. But the 250 readers, among them mostly students, would focus on the words falling from their tongues, flipping like the foreign objects they still are—though a few would be Spaniards living in Manila and a handful of Filipinos who have lived for years in Spain—thus, pushing emotions in Rizal’s novel a hundred years back where they belong.


Who takes up Spanish these days? I wondered. Jose Maria Fons, then ICM’s information officer, counted among them young scholars simply interested in the language and Spanish culture, would-be teachers—and job seekers who get an edge with Spanish. I had glimpsed some schoolboys among those enrolled in the children’s program, as Fons would later explain, in the last aula as I climbed the stairs at the end of the arcade.


A spindly crown of pili tree shades the terrace above the arcade. Pairs and trios of students had each taken a spot here, leaning toward the patio, reflecting on the static gleam of the pool, chatting in Spanish; no one here is allowed to speak in another tongue. A row of smaller classrooms that includes a media room — also front and backlit — ends at the library backdoor. A sign forbade me to enter; I was not authorized. But I had pushed because no one was looking and found myself engulfed in a giant triangular box brimming with light.  Biblioteca 1


The splashes and spears of light at the ground floor and the streams in the classrooms interplay in the library perhaps ten times magnified. Light here roars in cascades from a skylight—a broad band of framed glass multi-axle steel beams support—then it drops to a light well, skimming a white firewall and streaming halfway down to a wall of glass blocks, the same translucent back walls of the classrooms. Its unhampered flow ends on a recessed white-pebbled ground. More light slide obliquely where the ceiling slopes down in veneer oak, slipping through framed vertical glass windows that look out to the patio. I stood by the side of one of the reading desks still facing upward—as if it were the first time I saw clouds scudding by, leaving a stretch of blue. (One rainy day a week later, I would come back here to watch rain wash the skylight gray, then leave patterns of leaves and seashells, and some tiny animal footprints.)  


I wove in and out of the shelves, basking in the luminescence, starting to feel my dormant Spanish waking up—I did understand the titles on the spines of books, even an issue of Geografica on Cristobal Colon. When I got to the last page of the journal, I sensed a coral hue brushing my arm; the sun had begun its descent. I slung my bag on my shoulders and pushed the door toward the transition area. This open space that overlooks the changing exhibit area and the lobby also leads to the offices. Movement is transparent through the glass doors and walls, light-soaked as in every space in the building. The bustle in the offices had reminded me why I was there.


Manila: Gateway to a Double Triangle-Spain to Asia and Spain to Latin America 


Senor Galvan had noticed me. He had just flown in from a two-day visit to Hanoi where Instituto Cervantes through Manila runs small suites of aula; it also does in Singapore and Malaysia. I learned from him that Manila servesexhibit hall-clerestory windows as regional center for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Nothing new in this role,” said Galvan. Four hundred years ago, Manila opened Asia to the West and the West to Asia; today Manila plays the same role in a double triangle between Spain and Asia in one, and Spain and Latin America in the other.


He then led me to the top of the stairs; light had turned a hazy ash though streaked with coral. Where we leaned against the railing overlooking the lobby, I felt like standing on the ledge of some ancient cave. Senor Galvan laughed off my impression. “That only means this building is alive,” he had said. I had added, “And not blood but light is its force.”  


The building has just been picked as one of TOP100 buildings designed by Madrilenian architects.

Senor Galvan had since left Manila and has just been named director of IC in Oran, Algeria. I had migrated to Vancouver, Canada.