UP Diliman’s Romulo Hall: A Brutalist Hallowed Ground

The Brutalism of Romulo Hall (or Romvlo Hall, as its pseudo-Roman signage shows) has always caught my attention.  For modernist junkies like me, it must’ve been a beautiful building back in its heyday; or, for those who find Modernism ugly, it must’ve at least captured the zeitgeist of a generation steeped in the Cold War politics of Modernization.  Judging from the looks of it and from whom it was named after–Carlos P. Romulo, it must’ve been an important landmark.

Romulo Hall

Romulo Hall, UP Diliman (Photo by David Montasco)

Last Monday, after attending Prof. Nathan Gilbert Quimpo‘s public lecture, “Mindanao: Nationalism, Jihadism & Frustrated Peace,” at the new Asian Center building beside the old one that is Romulo Hall, I finally gave in to my curiosity, and walked into this magnificent brutalist structure.  I noticed the hardwood double doors and balustrade (possibly narra), the multi-circled sunroof, the floors, walls and ceiling of glorious cement, the Marcos-era photo murals, and how decrepit it all was.  My heart sank.  This is unmistakably a cultural heritage, and possibly a historical site, but it has been left to rot… as this is in UP Diliman, by the government no less!  (I wonder if its housing of the Institute of Islamic Studies is the reason behind this blatant government neglect.)

After a quick research just now, I found two interesting articles on it.  The first article, which was published on Verafiles.org in July 2013, was written by the students of UP Prof. Yvonne T. Chua, as requirement for their Investigative Journalism class with her.  Although the article was about having a mosque inside the Diliman campus, it revealed interesting facts about Romulo Hall:

“The 38-year-old stone building was designed by National Artist Juan Nakpil as his last architectural project for UP Diliman. Considered a heritage site, Romulo Hall is undergoing inspections and structural planning on whether it is still safe for occupancy.”

Since the article was written in 2013, this puts the year of the building’s establishment at 1975, three years after the declaration of Martial Law, and a year before I was born.  I remember a conversation I had with a former Asian Studies graduate student in the mid ’70s.  He said he was put in the military’s blacklist for simply borrowing a book at the building’s library.  Soon afterwards, he noticed he was being trailed.  He decided to drop out, fearing for his life.  For an act as simple as borrowing a book at the former Asian Center, one becomes a subversive in the eyes of a paranoid Authoritarian state.

The second article, which was published in the UP Forum in its Nov-Dec 2012 issue, was written by Asian Center Prof. Rueben Ramas Canete.  In this article on heritage works within the Diliman campus, Prof. Canete offers a detailed description of Romulo Hall:

“In 1975, Juan Nakpil finished his third and last architectural project for UP Diliman, Romulo Hall which currently houses the Asian Center and the Institute of Islamic Studies, at the corner of Leon Ma. Guerrero Street and Ramon Magsaysay Avenue.  Romulo Hall was designed using the brutalist forms of Neo-Vernacular Modernism, and is based on an amalgamation of several traditional Filipino house archetypes, particularly the Ifugao fale, the Maranao torogan, and the lowland bahay kubo.  The hardwood doorways that mark the front and rear entrances of Romulo Hall are made of thick panels of narra and molave, and soar more than four meters tall, carved with stylized sarimanok relief motifs.  Finally, its façade profile and roof are evocative of the bahay kubo, with its sharp angle and imposing bulk.”
Given Romulo Hall’s place in our culture and history,  why are we just inspecting it if it is safe for occupancy, why are we not conserving it to ensure that the generations that come after us could still call the material products of our zeitgeist, home?
As I exited the building from the rear, I came across a patch of earth that connected the old building of the Asian Center with the new.  I thought about the graduate students who walked these grounds, smoked weed, congregated here.
I imagined Asian Center Prof. Ed Tadem when he was still an Asian Studies graduate student, with long curly locks and a perpetual impish smile, standing where I stood, while dreaming of a revolution that hadn’t yet faltered.
Then, all of a sudden, I felt connected with the past, to people who shared so much of their life force in this place.  I felt reaching out to the future, to people who, like Prof. Tadem, possess the courage to nurture the impossible, even in a wasteland such as this.  Romulo Hall is more than an important site for me; it is hallowed ground.

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