The Legacy of Juan Arellano: Saving Southeast Asia’s Only Art Deco Coliseum

It only took four months!

by Christa I. De La Cruz
Nov 30, 2019

(SPOT.ph) Around the world, the most famous sports stadiums are either those that stood the test of time or those that embraced the future through their high-tech design. The Colosseum in Rome, for example, lets modern-day spectators travel to a long gone era by coming face-to-face with walls that once witnessed gladiators in combat. Wembley Stadium in England, on the other hand, lets people find their seats through public WiFi and a mobile app. Not to mention that it has a 134-meter arch that can change color right above a partially retractable roof.

Here in the Philippines, an Art Deco coliseum seems to be caught between centuries. The Rizal Memorial Coliseum, which is an indoor arena built in 1934 and designed by Juan M. Arellano, has been the training grounds of our national athletes for decades despite its chipped floors and walls and rusty interiors—not for long, at least. Eighty-five years since it opened, this historic sports venue—which, as it turns out, is Southeast Asia’s only Art Deco coliseum and the Philippines’ oldest sports complex—finally got a much needed major restoration with heritage architect Dr. Gerard Lico at the helm.

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Before renovation and restoration, the entrance to the Rizal Memorial Coliseum (RMC) was the complete opposite of its glory days.  Courtesy of Gerard Lico
Funding, which is at about P250 million, came from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. The contractor, ME Sicat Construction, partnered with Lico for the project. Courtesy of Gerard Lico
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The marching order, according to Lico, was to restore and renovate the interior and exterior of the facility. They officially started on July 8.  Courtesy of Gerard Lico

Reviving What Was Lost

The big change is evident when you enter the Coliseum through Gate 2 of the 10-hectare Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. There, in all its glory, is the gray-colored façade that’s hard to miss along P. Ocampo Street. The grills were replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, metal dividers were removed, the old lighting fixtures were recreated, and the add-on canopy was refurbished and returned to its original design.

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“We removed the concrete canopy. It diminishes the heritage significance so we decided to remove because it's not part of the original building, and not the original intent of the architect. It's from the 1970s, might as well remove it to highlight the Art Deco aesthetic,” Lico explains in an interview with SPOT.ph.

Lico restored the rounded posts with built-in lighting fixture, returning to the Art Deco roots of the RMC. PHOTO: Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

The complete transformation of the façade is just the start because as you enter the building, it's as if you've been transported to a completely different place—far from the grim and grime of Manila. The terrazo flooring, which is distinctly Art Deco, is all cleaned up now, but not without patches that filled the holes and scratches. “Makikita mo may differentiations siya kasi added layer of history 'yon. Hindi kailangan i-achieve mo na perfect at seamless. 'Yong scars and imperfections, kasama 'yan sa history ng building,” Lico says.

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His team also discovered a faux marble finish beneath the white layer of paint on the lobby’s wall. Since “Art Deco is about luxury,” according to him, he decided to go ahead and turn the faux marble into a real one: travertine marble. In place of white fluorescent lights are modern-looking chandeliers with triangles and zigzag patterns “para magkaroon ng depth ‘yong ceiling.” 

The sides of the foyer open to the Visitor Center and the Gallery, which used to be boarded up. They even found the lost porthole windows on both sides, which were present in archival photos but were covered with cement during improper repair.

Through archival materials, Lico discovered that behind a boarded up wall is actually a doorway leading to a room that they turned into the Visitor Center.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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They also found the original porthole window that was covered with a plywood during one of the previous renovations.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
Reconstruction revealed grill work that bears the letters "T" and "S," which stand for Tennis Stadium—the original name of the RMC when it was built in 1934. Courtesy of Gerard Lico
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Triangles were prevalent in Arellano’s design for the RMC, including the terrazo flooring. 
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon

Maganda talaga 'yong you look at old photographs as reference for decision-making,” Lico shares about the restoration process, thankful for the archival materials he gathered from collectors. One of his sources was Jorge B. Vargas who was a founding member of the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation (now the Philippine Olympic Committee) in 1911, and the first Filipino member of the International Olympic Committee. In the end, Vargas’ penchant for collecting every bit and piece about the nation’s involvement in international sports was Lico’s pot of gold.

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Now, photographs from the 1934 Far Eastern Championship Games, 1954 Asian Games, and three editions of the Southeast Asian Games (1981, 1991, and 2005)—all held at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex (RMSC)—are on display as part of the Gallery’s permanent exhibit. Blown up tickets and posters are also on the walls, including memorabilia from national and regional sports meet, the piano recital of Spanish artist José Iturbi, and the Beatles’ arrival in the Philippines in 1966.

A scale model of the RMC is on display at the Gallery.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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The exhibition showcases the rich history of the Philippines' oldest sports complex.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
It displays old photographs of international sports events held at the RMSC.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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Most of the memorabilia are part of Jorge B. Vargas' expansive collection.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon

“Why do I need to have this space? To explain to the visitor the relevance and historical significance of the site. Now that they understand the meaning of the site, they will protect it and they will love it,” Lico says about the show that his team put up. He revealed that this wasn’t part of the budget and contract, but “he is happy to do it and spend for it as [his] gift to the Filipino people.”

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The RMC seats up to 6,100 people. Newly installed plastic seats occupy the lower box, while the old wooden bleachers at the upper box are kept intact to maintain the Coliseum's Old-World charm. PHOTO: Criselda Carreon

Modernizing a 1930s Structure

But returning to Rizal Memorial Coliseum’s Art Deco aesthetics doesn’t have to mean doing away with the comforts of modern living, such as air-conditioning, excellent plumbing, and efficient lighting. A two-inch foaming insulation was sprayed on the ceiling to absorb outdoor noise, such as the sound of rain, and heat.

To make way for the centralized air-conditioning, they sealed off the whole building, which was a challenge since the original cooling system was composed of built-in blowers, vents, and exhaust fans. (Yes, in this tropical weather). They also installed air-conditioning ducts, which are all in an industrial style to match the interiors. The exposed pipes are also evocative of ocean liners, which was a significant element of industrialization in the 1930s.

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The interior's original look was maintained to reflect Arellano's vision of a Streamlined Art Deco design for the Coliseum.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
The wire mesh, which used to separate the audience from the court, was removed. The metal was recycled and designed with the prevalent triangular motif.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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Ducting for the air-conditioning was intentionally exposed to follow the industrial aesthetic.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon

Magkaiba 'yong Art Deco ni Juan Arellano sa Metropolitan Theater. It's more classic Art Deco, may stylized ornaments. Dito, 'yong second phase ng Art Deco, it's about valorizing the machine. The machines of the 1930s were the ocean liner and the bullet train. It's all about aerodynamic curves, the efficiency, end even consumer products had to look streamlined. And streamlining was also chosen because sports is all about achieving the streamlined body. The second phase of Art Deco was the precursor of Modernism, nawala na 'yong ornaments. Ito meron pang konti through the grillwork,” Lico says about the Streamlined Art Deco or Streamline Moderne style for the Rizal Memorial Coliseum.

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Art Deco elements, such as hexagon-shaped mirrors and scallop patterns on the light fixtures, can also be found inside the restrooms.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
Individual hot-cold showers—all with running water—have metal doors and grillwork.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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Rooms for the athletes are equipped with metal lockers.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon

You can see these details on the metal gates all over the arena. The same patterns were also used in the repurposed doors and grillwork surrounding the audience area. Geometric shapes, such as the hexagonal mirrors and scallop patterns for the lighting fixtures, were also big inside the toilet cubes, shower rooms, and locker area. These are still reminiscent of the ocean liner aesthetics.

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“This project illustrates that old buildings can be revived through careful research, investigation, and aesthetic intervention. Critical 'yong restoration in the sense that you have to insert air-conditioning, pero kailangan i-probe mo ‘yong areas na least damaging to the building. It was really a challenge to modernize this building to be at par with other sports buildings in the world. Pero may bentahe ito kasi meron siyang historical pedigree,” Lico says about the combination of the old and the new.

The Rizal Memorial Coliseum is the venue for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games' gymnastics event, which is happening from December 1 to 9. PHOTO: Criselda Carreon

If These Walls Could Talk

When the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex was built in 1934, it became a symbol of our country's capacity to be independent from the United States. It was "to show to the colonial master that we can organize an international game, and therefore, we can be independent, we can be a nation." A year later, we inaugurated the Commonwealth government.

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Following the Second World War, this sporting venue was renovated in preparation for the 1954 Asian Games "as a showcase to the world that we have recovered from the ruins of the war."

For a week, the RMC will be used for the SEA Games' gymnastics event.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon
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People from all over Southeast Asia will see what the restored RMC looks like.
PHOTO BY Criselda Carreon

We almost lost this historic complex in 2016 when reports surfaced that the former administration of Manila bared plans to sell the property to a private entity. Heritage advocates and cultural groups, however, stepped in; and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines declared the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex a National Historical Landmark.

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For 2019, the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex was restored for the 30th Southeast Asian Games. We can only hope that beyond the all-lit up façade, terrazo flooring, and marble finish lies our nation’s full return to its once glorious roots.

The Rizal Memorial Coliseum is at Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, P. Ocampo Street, Malate, Manila.

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