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Joel Nito for Asiaweek.
Once one of Manila's most striking structures, the sports building was neglected for years before demolition began.

The Game's Over
A link with the past goes as Manila's Jai Alai stadium is torn down

Ignore, if you can, the poverty and garbage that spill on to the city's streets. Block out the sight of vagabond children hawking tat at traffic intersections. Peer, instead, through the diesel fumes and back to a time when Manila was a gentler place, a blossoming metropolis tipped to be the pride of Asia. This was in the years just before World War II, when the Philippine Commonwealth was preparing for independence from the U.S. and anything seemed possible. Among the jewels of that period: Taft Avenue, a mini-Champs Elysee, with grand homes, sparkling movie houses, colleges and spectacular Art Deco buildings. One of the finest was the Jai Alai stadium, opened in 1940 as a home for the Basque game of the same name and quickly adopted as a playground by the rich and glamorous.

Today, little of the old Taft Avenue is left. Grimy and eternally ensnarled in traffic, it is clogged by too many people living in too little space, with many of the old buildings flattened by American or Japanese bombs. And, as of last week, the Jai Alai building was just about gone too. Despite a determined and emotional campaign to save it, the Art Deco edifice was being pulled down to make way for a court building. Conservationists are livid but powerless. With the disappearance of the sports center, they say, the Philippine capital has lost one of the few remaining landmarks from a time when the city cherished elegance. Says John L. Silva, a member of the Heritage Conservation Society: "Every time we tear down an old structure, particularly one that resonates with history and milestones, we as a people lose another marker that explains who we are as a nation, where we came from and where we are going."

The four-story Jai Alai building was the work of noted American architect Welton Becket, a friend of Hollywood celebrities and designer of the homes of such screen legends as James Cagney and Cesar Romero, as well as of Los Angeles airport. The Jai Alai's sleek, cylindrical glass front was said to evoke the velocity of the game, in which pelotaris use curved scoops to hurl a rubber ball at speeds of up to 200 km an hour against three walls of a court. But the building was a lot more than a sports hall. Every night, Manila's socialites would gather in the elegant Sky Room to party and dine. Those seated closest to the balcony could also watch the competition. "They had a grand view of the game," says Silva, a consultant to the National Museum. "They would conduct bets through the waiters while enjoying dinner." Says newspaper columnist, socialite and conservationist Bambi Harper: "Back then, the Sky Room was really the only place to hold big functions, aside from the Manila Hotel."

Silva says the disappearance of the Jai Alai building is one more example of city hall's "consistent disregard" for Manila's cultural past. Writing in the Philippine Inquirer, he accuses: "Last year, it tried to destroy the Army Navy building, now the Museo ng Maynila [Manila Museum], and to gobble up the adjoining Museong Pambata [Children's Museum] by attempting to put up a boutique and shopping mall." He says another Manila landmark, the 69-year-old Metropolitan Theater, is in a poor state because of lack of official attention. "When it rains, it pours inside the Met," he complains.

Before its eventual demise, the Jai Alai building had gone the same way, accelerated toward its fate by the anything-goes years of the Marcos regime, during which it was closed in a match-fixing scandal. Under the control of the national government, it fell into disrepair, as did the neighborhood. Those who could afford to get out got out, replaced by squatters living in shacks, with, at first, a red-light district around the corner and now a rumbling Light Rail Transit system overhead. The sport of jai alai, meaning "merry festival," returned to Manila in 1994, but to new premises a short distance from the original. The old building was handed over to the City of Manila in 1999.

Mayor Lito Atienza, who studied architecture in college, says he is aware of the Jai Alai building's pedigree, but argues that it was necessary to tear it down. He believes the need for a new courthouse far outweighs the sports center's historical value. "I've been given an opportunity by the national government to build a hall of justice," he told Asiaweek. "I am proceeding with the task even if we have to sacrifice part of our historical past in the process." To suggestions that the Jai Alai building could have been saved and adapted as a court, he replies: "That building has been housing criminals, [purse-] snatchers and pickpockets and even deteriorated into a casbah. It would not work as a new justice building if we kept the faCade because people would remember the game-fixing and the cheating, instead of the dignity that befits a hall of justice. It just wouldn't blend."

Atienza is portraying the demolition of the Jai Alai building as the beginning of the rehabilitation of Taft Avenue — "You get a hall of justice and you get rid of a decaying part of Manila." Conservationists concur about the need to clean up the district, but argue that there was no need to pull down the building. Says Silva: "The Heritage Conservation Society felt the building was a good candidate for adaptive re-use. The demolition was completely unnecessary." Many people agree. Columnist Harper would have liked to see the Jai Alai turned into a college or a modern-art gallery. Architect Emmanuel MiNana envisaged a mixed-use building with podium parking, a commercial mall, office space, and high-end service apartments or a hotel on the upper floors. He says such a development would also have generated good revenue for the government, "an all-win situation with regards to the balance of preserving a large part of a building's cultural heritage as well as providing an economically viable solution that is realistic for the City of Manila."

Urban economist Raymund Magdaluyo believes the Jai Alai building could have been converted into a world-class theater, bringing culture back to Manila "big time." The mayor thinks all this unfeasible. "We cannot keep clinging to the past in the name of conservation if government has limited resources," he says.

As the demolition team prepared to move in July 15 for 45 days of work, conservationists stepped up their efforts to save the building. They held demonstrations at the site and blitzed city hall with e-mails. Says Silva: "Many neighboring countries and cities have now recognized that buildings with such distinctions go a long way to promoting national and cultural pride." Atienza was not convinced. Nor was the presidential palace, which let it be known that President Joseph Estrada would not intervene.

Atienza promises to protect Manila's remaining landmarks. The Heritage Conservation Society says it will believe that when it sees it. It argues that the only guarantee is legislation to safeguard old buildings. Meanwhile, conservationists have a new slogan — "Remember the Jai Alai."

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