The Manila Metropolitan Theater (circa 1931)
Anyone who passes by Lawton in Manila amidst the droves of vendors, street smoke and overcrowded flyovers, will notice an odd structure in sight. Pinkishly faded walls adorned with cloud engravings and spires atop an almost rotting building stands defiant against the oblivious atmosphere. One would get a feel that many of those who see it regularly see it as a nuisance that had to be scrapped and demolished. Maybe because the structure itself has fallen down to degradation after years of effort to rehabilitate and renovate it.
But the Metropolitan Theater is more valuable than that, if not priceless. Like any other historical monument or structure, the value lies not only in its design and ingenuity, but its historicity as well. The theater was built and inaugurated in 1931, at the height of excitement for independence of the Philippines promised by the U.S. Built by the artistic designs of Juan Arellano, the Filipino architect who designed many of the pre-war buildings like the Legislative Building (now the National Museum), Manila Post Office Building, the Villamor Hall of UP Manila, it was built on a vision that Filipinos have their own unique art and that we as a people have to exalt it since it is our national expression to the world. He greatly lamented how his fellow colleagues would rather copy Western Art vigorously without first considering their native roots. Thus, one would see Arellano’s signature when one sees the ceilings of the Met Theater, adorned with bananas, mangoes and other floras and faunas found in the Philippines. The theater is an Art Deco designed structure built at the height of the Art Deco fad.
The theater became especially important during the Japanese occupation, since many Filipinos, deprived of movies free of Japanese propaganda, went to theaters like the Met to wile their troubles away. Theatrical productions then became a voice for the suppressed nationalism of the people. The building also has a natural air-conditioning, designed for the cool air from Pasig River to come through the ventilation shafts of the theater.
I had the opportunity to visit the theater (take note, this was a rare moment, since no one is allowed to enter) when some friends from the Filipinas Stamp Collectors Club c/o Lawrence Chan toured us. Once you enter the building, you’re greeted by three big doors leading to the theatre, with curved staircase on both sides of the front hall. On the left and right side stands the reclining sculptures of Eve (on the left) and Adam (on the right). On the back of these reclining statues are the reproduced paintings of Fernando Amorsolo. When we went inside the theater proper, it was pitch dark as we continued walking towards the stage only to find out that the orchestra pit was full of water. We went up and saw the beautiful halls that would have showed more grandeur if it was fully renovated. Atop the building are sculptures of oriental dancers and spires that turned out to be made by Francesco Ricardo Monti, that famous Italian sculptor who also designed the mourning angels atop the Quezon monument, among others.
The Met Theater building was greatly damaged during the liberation of 1944. When it was restored by the Americans, it lost its original glory. Come the Marcos years and it was renovated again, but after that, it fell into degradation again.
It was indescribable what I felt when I visited the theater. It was a mix of nostalgia, pity, regret and a tinge of anger. These structures, these monuments, they are our statement to the world. Like a family picture displayed in the sala, our visitors could see all these. Would we even wonder why they turn away in dismay and write scathing blogs against our city?
We do not realize the treasures we are surrounded in. And I mean it to the rest of the population passing by Lawton every single day—
guys, you have no idea…
Art rendering by Janeil Arleguin. Photos by me (*Click the arrow on pics above to see other shots of the Met Theater)
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