The New San Juan City Hall: Dream Building or a Nightmare?

Architecture means something. People should take time to take a look and tell what they think about the spaces around them (spaces which they probably see so often that they tend to ignore and consider commenting unnecessary). To critique architecture, according to Wayne O. Attoe is “to sift and make distinctions”. Its objective is not to search for flaws of a subject, but to discern and say something intelligent about it.

Last March 3, 2013, my classmates in History, Theory, and Criticism (HTC) and I went on a trip to San Juan City to critique its new city hall and the park in front of the building. A city hall, as the home and symbol of the local government, is not just a pile of cement and construction materials. It certainly means something.

The Dream Building

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The New San Juan City Hall

According to a news article by Nina Calleja in newsinfo.inquirer.net, the San Juan City government employees consider the new city hall as a “dream building”. Former city mayor JV Ejercito said that the inspiration of this building was the United States White House. However, Janess Ann J. Ellao of Bulatlat.com said that it hardly resembled the said famous landmark.

The Exterior

The new city hall indeed looks like a dream building. The façade has a historic look. Actually, it is adjacent to the Pinaglabanan Shrine, which is also very historic and monumental. In front of the stylish arch of the building is a fountain and at its sides are pathways with wooden patio coverings. It is equipped with a helipad on top and a parking space at its rear. It is too rich in details for a small and simple city like San Juan. The tiled roof and other elements incorporated in the design of the building make it resemble a Spanish villa.

Spanish villa

Spanish Villa (cdn.freshome.com)

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New San Juan City Hall

Like a Spanish villa, the building has a pleasant and relaxing feel from the outside. Even the landscaping jives with its grandeur. One drawback however is that though the building has a lot of windows, these are most of the time closed and covered with blinds. It is also evident that almost all of the windows are each paired with air conditioners. This shows that the building doesn’t efficiently utilize natural lighting and ventilation.

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The Interior

As expected, the interior of the building turned out to be just as grand as its exterior. The main lobby’s walls are decorated with big paintings and hanging from the high ceiling is a beautiful chandelier. Its lighting is pleasant and welcoming, it is air conditioned, and the front desk resembles that of a classy hotel. The halls are spacious and neat, and the staircase in the atrium is also rich in detail. The new city hall succeeded in becoming a “dream building”. One may say, based on its appearance, that it is an expensive building. Well, dreams do have a price.

Nightmare of the Poverty-Stricken

The new city hall which fulfilled the dreams of the officials literally crushed those of the people who used to live in the shanty areas of the city. These are the people whose homes were demolished to give way for the grand White House-inspired building. Many families who relied on small sources of income lost their homes to the new city hall which was supposed to be for them, citizens of San Juan. Their lives didn’t get any better although they were relocated, Nina Calleja, wrote. Many militant groups protested that their government officials had again given false promises of being pro-poor.“It should be called city mall, not city hall. It’s ironic to have what looks like a White House-inspired city hall when San Juan is only a small city,” Arnold Repique, president of Samana (Samahan ng mga Maralitang Nagkakaisa), said to Inquirer.net.

The grand and expensive city hall, which was called the “government center” served as a dream come true for the employees, yet a nightmare to the commoners. To those with the tall seats, the building may be a symbol of pride and glory. However, for those who had relied on the government’s help, it may have been their source of disgust ever since the officials held the demolition operations. Truly, architecture means something. What, then, does this building say about the historic city of San Juan?

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