Tower of Babel

My August 16, 2015 column.

Like many others, I await with bated breath the decision of the Supreme Court on the Torre de Manila case. It’s a landmark case for many reasons, foremost of which is that it has turned culture and heritage conservation into a legal issue whose ultimate resolution has been put in the hands of a select few. Everyone is hoping, of course, that the honorable court would render a decision that not only resolves the long-simmering issue but also provides wise counsel that is comprehensible and acceptable to all stakeholders. Achieving the latter, of course, would be almost impossible given that the opposing parties in the case have already dug deep trenches to fortify their respective positions; as far as each party is concerned, theirs is the only correct position. Thus, any decision of the honorable court would be met by great jubilation, or alternately, great disappointment and consternation by either side.
So will the honorable judges of the highest court in the land find merit in the arguments of the culture activists who want developer DMCI Holdings to tear down the almost-complete 46-storey residential building because it mars the sightline of the historic Rizal Monument in Luneta Park, or will it side with DMCI which has consistently maintained the construction of the tower has not violated any law and that destroying the tower would send a chilling message to business and industry? Will culture and history get vindicated or will business and industry prevail?
I have refrained from commenting on the Torre de Manila issue because I was honestly taken aback by the rather intractable position both parties have taken on the issue. I understand the stakes are just too high. On the part of DMCI, we’re talking billions of pesos that would go down the drain – and possibly lawsuits from those who have bought units in the tower, as well as a number of reputational risks. On the part of culture activists, it is preservation of national heritage. But I maintain that a win-win solution could have been reached very early on if people were proactive and collaborative.
I am also for culture and heritage preservation (and I have staunchly supported a number of efforts in this regard), but I have always been turned off by advocacies that engage in demonization. To my mind, the possibility of enlightened debate is unfortunately killed when people start demonizing those on the opposite side of an argument. At the same time, I have been alarmed by the seeming insensitivity that DMCI has displayed all this time. Surely, DMCI has realized the Torre de Manila is not just an “issue” - it happens to be a tangible and fixed monstrosity that will not disappear from the public eye. It will stand there – a constant source of aggravation to many.
Thus, all creative solutions that have offered have been dismissed almost contemptuously by both parties. There were suggestions to make the darn building complement the Rizal Monument such as painting it over with the Philippine flag or with other designs. Someone proposed turning the monument around so that the national hero would have its back toward the building. Others have suggested lowering the height of the tower. Still others have suggested building some artistic structures within the park behind the monument so the tower is obscured when taking pictures from the monument. There were many more suggestions, all of which have been immediately dissed. Of course none of the suggestions were perfect solutions, but it would not have hurt anyone to project the attitude that they were open to working together to solve the problem. Like I said, we all know that the stakes were too high for both sides, but surely nationalism and patriotism is also about respecting the interests of other Filipinos?
Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court on the case will be, there are certain lessons that can already be drawn from the whole imbroglio. Quite frankly, the response of the culture activists and the government agencies concerned were not only late, it was also slow. It was also inadequate. It was like they waited for the tower to reach a certain height before they got their acts together, pretty much the way they begin caterwauling only when the demolition teams have already arrived at the scene to tear down national heritage structures. If they really are serious about their advocacies, a more proactive and strategic plan of action – such as getting our legislators to pass stringent laws and doing a comprehensive information campaign that would rally people to action - would be preferable to late-minute screeching. Business organizations need to be more sensitive to cultural issues because truly there are more important considerations than money in this country; having the law on one’s side does not constitute license to disrespect sensibilities of others. 
But above all, everyone must realize that nationalism is a concept that needs constant kindling and nurturing. Everyone seems concerned with how the tower would photobomb the national shrine, but not about the fact that the ideals, teachings, and works of the national hero seem irrelevant and alien to most of our young. Many were concerned about how the tower will mar the vista of a park they would not dare spend time in because doing so is beneath their social class. There are many more proactive manifestations of concern for cultural and national heritage sites other than liking status messages in social networking sites, starting with actually visiting these sites, patronizing businesses that support them, or just simply learning more about them.


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