If the restoration of the Manila Metropolitan Theater were a song, it’s the renaissance of a timeless kundiman that endures on the airwaves long after its notes were composed.
It begins with a slow pull, its facade greeting you with a lyrical prelude and inviting your steps into the cadence of a pianoforte’s tempo. From the most basic angle, the words “grand” and “classic” used to describe it decades ago don’t seem to fit with what’s obviously seen. But the song plays on anyway, and its refrain carries you to understanding that you only need to look closer to truly admire it the way others did.
Dormant for several years, the MET stays silent—a white noise to the blares and shouts of the city buzz, a minor instrument in the urban orchestra. And then decades later, emerging as a product of meticulous planning, its construction and restoration is finally underway. Decades later, the music plays all over again and begins its new era to the sound of music and revival.
“The current restoration effort is on schedule. The MET will not simply be a theater,” shares Gerard Lico, the head architect for the Manila Metropolitan Theater’s restoration. “If only walls could talk. Over the past eight decades, the MET has helped the guerilla movement, it became a hotel, a motel, a boxing arena, a cinema and so many more.”
Two years ago since the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA) formally launched project METamorphosis with a clean-up drive involving architecture student-volunteers, the curtain continues to go up for the rebirth of one of Manila’s historic landmarks. But although its cultural footprint continues to scale large and wide, its beginnings are neither singular nor central only to itself.
“As a young boy, I was fortunate enough to have visited the MET in 1989 as audience,” the architect says, recalling the theater’s heyday. Describing it as a “palace of entertainment”, he remembers witnessing memorable shows as a kid and being enamored with the MET that he made it certain he would return. “It was at that moment that my love affair with theater commenced. I would never have expected that decades later, I would be fortunate enough to revive this gem of our culture and reconnect with the memory I cherished as a child.”
As time progressed and theaters became more commonplace, audiences became fairly sure what to anticipate. The stage, the red drapes and the orchestra were part of the standard elements to expect. But the MET won’t be any of the standard things.
“[There will be] galleries, a black box theater, a cinematheque, stores, boutiques and workshop spaces to allow the public a greater appreciation of our culture,” shares Architect Lico. “We will be featuring the works of our National Artists, GAMABA awardees and indigenous people.”
Often tagged as a “neglected” or “abandoned” building that stands meekly among taller and newer structures, it’s relatively easy to stay on the first level of obvious perception where the theater is simply a minor background to the urban hustle. But what’s seemingly an inconsequential presence in the city landscape is all set for a reprisal. What was only a name in history books for the younger generation is finally in its prime for resurrection.
“Through its 85 years, the MET was witness to so many firsts,” he comments. “We faced a lot of challenges [with its restoration] and of course, with projects of magnitude such as this, public scrutiny on every aspect of the process is to be expected. But we welcome these. We want to ensure that the MET is the best that it can be.”
Of urban legends
A picture is worth a thousand words. And it reveals just as many secrets. For the many times that the Manila Metropolitan Theater has been photographed, painted, and featured, some mysteries remain. It’s a constant thread that winds its way through conversations: “Is the MET haunted?”
“It’s already blessed by the priest,” Architect Lico replies lightly. Despite the mythology surrounding the conversation, Juancho Agoncillo, an architecture graduate and MET restoration volunteer, sees the theater’s infamy for paranormal stories in a positive light. “I wouldn’t say I don’t believe them per se. But if it’s something that gets people talking about it and its history, then I’ll gladly have people keep talking about them.”
A common theme that has almost always attached itself to the theater’s name, the enigma of Manila Metropolitan Theater endures. It comes as no surprise that the tales surrounding it are as complex as its own history. Its platform, after all, has witnessed numerous concertos, its walls have saluted the art of Amorsolo—and in a time not so long ago, its stage was graced by some of the country’s finest performers. This was the MET’s past: sparkling, musical and grand. It’s a past that was documented as one of the greatest cultural heritage the country has ever known. And this time, it’s a past that resurfaces for a comeback.
“The MET is a product of history,” says Architect Lico. “As we peel back a layer, we uncover the history behind. As the building talks, we listen.”
For Mikaela Burbano, a member of the MET’s restoration team and a volunteer at its first clean-up drive, the MET is more than just a structure. “It was like a person who, despite all challenges, remained firm and beautiful. It was a place of remarkable performances, then the World War 2 came and it destroyed the theater partially. It was restored in 1978 during the Marcos regime, but it was closed again in 1996,” she says then shares about the attempt of former president Arroyo and former mayor Alfredo Lim to revive it in 2010. “Now, it is being restored with a target date of three to five years. The restoration may be complicated, but with our team and with the help of the people who support this, the restoration will be successful and it will represent hope and resiliency.”
Meeting the new MET
Juancho admits that when he volunteered for the MET’s restoration, he didn’t expect anything beyond seeing it covered with graffiti or seeing its walls coated with peeling-off paint finishes.
“I didn’t expect just how much of it is left,” he says. “I think the locals could really help if they would stop disgracing it, vandalizing, and littering on the theater. They could really help if they realize the value of the building and choose to respect what it holds.”
Architect Lico adds that the public’s participation and enthusiasm helps reinforce the importance of history in the collective consciousness of the people. “Awareness that our heritage structures have inherent value has to be highlighted and emphasized. As the public participates in these efforts, they have a stake and investment in its restoration that will ensure its relevance.”
The current era of the MET offers an opportune time to dust off the convenience of apathy. As the potential of the Manila Metropolitan Theater reappears yet again, it tells the story of a cultural heirloom that survives. “We always have unexpected discoveries in the theater,” comments Mikaela. “And it’s not only the structure that makes it a legacy. It’s also because of the people who were formed from being ordinary citizens and into world-class artists.”
“No other building in the Philippines would be in the same conversation as the MET when it comes to the sheer volume of talent, artistry and passion that has been seen through its walls,” remarks Juancho.
“The Metropolitan Theater stands as a testament to the creativity, imagination and skill of the Filipino,” says Architect Lico on the MET’s influence and significance to local culture. “It bridged the gap and allowed the masa and the maykaya—for the price of one ticket—to come together under one roof and be entertained.”
The enduring presence of the Manila Metropolitan Theater is not simply because of its physical capacity. There are very few cultural heritage structures that inspire intrigue and nostalgia as it does, and only a handful as masterfully made. Like rare classics, it retains an appeal that neither decades nor concrete cracks reduced; it stays as an immersive, relevant narrative that resonates for several generations long.
Through the years and across generations, the MET stays resilient and standing. Its external structure, though noticeably worn down by time, remains a seamless testament. It’s a building that was not simply built with concrete and stone—but a whole that simply was. If the Manila Metropolitan Theater’s restoration represents anything, it’s the rebirth of culture and the continuing tale of hope. It is the Filipino mark of resiliency built in stone, local character built as architecture, and a local trait made unforgettable.