(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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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."
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.
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.