Building the future while saving the past

After three years of legal haggling, the intertwined fate of Manila's 49-storey Torre de Manila condominium tower and historic Rizal Monument is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. Completed in 1913, the monument is a popular site erected to honour national hero Jose Rizal.

Final arguments wrapped up in September over whether the condo, already under construction and dubbed by opponents the "national photobomber", harms the monument's "physical integrity". Petitioners seek its demolition for allegedly marring the skyline of the Rizal Monument. The court has yet to give its findings.

Whatever the outcome, the Rizal Monument has fared much better than other urban heritage sites throughout South-east Asia. It will have had its day in court. Other sites have not been as lucky.

If not already demolished for rampant urban development projects sweeping Asia, a city's heritage sites are often dwarfed by them. This process threatens a city's distinctive quality of life and urban vibe, and severs the past and present from the future.

In Myanmar, in the city once known as Rangoon, the race is on for the Yangon Heritage Trust to catalogue the nearly 200 buildings it has identified as part of the one-time capital city's unique heritage. This includes architectural gems from the city's British colonial past, such as the Secretariat and High Court Building. Yet, cataloguing and then conserving and revitalising are all very different challenges.

Sadly, it is too late for some of the works of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann. His New Khmer Architecture movement blossomed in the 1960s, fusing traditional Khmer building styles with Modern Movement elements.

Two of Molyvann's masterpieces, the Council of Ministers building and National Theatre, have been erased from Phnom Penh's cityscape.

His iconic National Olympic Stadium is being hemmed in by rapidly encroaching development. That structure's significance is gradually being drained by what seems is quickly becoming every city's must-have vanity project - a glass-encased, high-rise condominium building.

But, we would be wrong to think that the phenomenon of disappearing urban heritage - and the debate over it - is a challenge for just "developing Asia" or of South-east Asia alone.

Today, even in the wealthiest of Asia's nations, Japan, the outcry still resonates over the impending demolition of the main building of Tokyo's Hotel Okura. Protests also have led in part to the cancellation of a design for a new Olympic stadium that would have overshadowed the iconic Olympic Arena created by architect Kenzo Tange for the 1964 games.

Urban preservationists point to the Hotel Okura as a jewel of Japanese Modernism architecture, which took root in the 1960s. The now-closed main building is a synthesis of modern design and traditional themes found in Japanese culture. Stepping into the hotel's lobby was like entering a time machine, transporting one back to a bygone, more glamorous and jet-set era.

The impending demolition of the Hotel Okura's main building raises the question of whether Tokyo, and for that matter any of Asia's cities from Yangon to Manila, can better manage the development process.

An unlikely inspiration to how different things can be lies across the street from the Hotel Okura at the United States Embassy in Tokyo.

Ms Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the mother of the current US ambassador to Japan, Ms Caroline Kennedy, was no stranger to urban preservation.

In 1975, alarmed that the Beaux Arts-inspired Grand Central Terminal's preservation status was revoked, the former first lady partnered members of New York's Municipal Art Society to prevent the now-landmarked building's demolition. In place of the train station terminus, developers had proposed a 55-storey office tower.

In her letter to then New York City Mayor Abraham Beame, she wrote: "Dear Mayor Beame... is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?"

Thanks to her efforts, Grand Central Terminal, with its unique murals and masonry work, still inspires. Many of South-east Asia's historic urban structures, such as Malaysia's Alor Setar Railway Station which also was spared from demolition, can do the same.


Today, millions of dollars are spent on campaigns to lure tourists to the region's cities. Experience firsthand the diversity and energy that have given birth to this "Asian Century", the country branding campaigns convey. How, though, can Asia's cities provide visitors an authentic experience if each city becomes indistinguishable from the other?

One need only look to the words of Singapore's founding prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, to understand how important South-east Asia's endangered urban heritage is. "We made our share of mistakes in Singapore," he said in March 1995, acknowledging that in the process of building the young nation, too many of its signature buildings were demolished. "We realised we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage, that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique about Singapore."

But it is not too late to reverse this process. The frenzied pace of Asia's urbanisation need not lead to the wanton destruction of historic structures across the region.

Today, Asia's cities struggle to balance growth and urban preservation. Singapore has learnt the value of its heritage. Efforts to keep and revitalise historically ethnic neighbourhoods from Chinatown to Little India have paid off. Buildings also are being adapted and put to new uses. This month, the National Gallery Singapore will reopen in two of Singapore's iconic colonial-era buildings, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, opposite the Padang.

Five years out from its Olympics - the next Summer Games to be held in Asia, in 2020 - Tokyo also has a real opportunity to show that urbanisation can be managed differently as new buildings go up. This paradigm shift is urgently needed.

Japan, like China - together the largest economies in the world, after the United States - could certainly be a better example for an Asia-Pacific striving to forge cities that showcase the modern and the traditional. How sad that in so many tests, Tokyo has failed to show the way, as has its economic rival, Beijing, in their rush to modernise.

But perhaps, too, like cherry blossoms too soon gone, the Okura Hotel and other beloved sites brought down by real estate developers can inspire us by underscoring how fleeting is a city's beauty as it vanishes.

Let's hope that as South-east Asia moves forward, it finds that illusive balance between the best of the past and the present, while building for the future. We believe it can.

This article was first published on November 5, 2015.
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