The Light Rail Transit 1 or LRT-1 runs from Roosevelt in Quezon City to Baclaran in Parañaque, covering an almost 20-kilometer route. In 2021, an estimated 44.35 million commuters took the LRT-1. It was the second busiest line among local railways that year after the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3). Despite being marred with inconveniences that have discouraged the riding public from taking it, MRT-3 still tallied a 45.6 million annual ridership in 2021 amid the pandemic.
The LRT-1 opened to the public in 1984. It was the first overhead railway in Southeast Asia, although it could have been a street-level train had the government followed the 14-month study funded by the World Bank from 1976 to 1977. The study estimated that building a street-level system would only cost $8.1 million. The 1991 book “Some are Smarter Than Others: The History of Marcos’ Crony Capitalism” by activist and scholar Ricardo Manapat summed up that the project cost $278 million in the end from an initial estimate of $216 million.
The then newly created Ministry of Transportation and Communications—one of two ministries created in 1979 through an Executive Order and the predecessor of what is now the Department of Public Works and Highways—pushed to raise the train’s platform to “avoid building over many of Manila’s intersections.”
The following year in 1980, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos created the Light Rail Transit Authority to oversee the project. Then First Lady and Governor of Metro Manila Imelda Marcos was named chairperson, and prominent Marcos crony construction magnate Rudy Cuenca and his firm Construction and Development Corporation of the Philippines took on the contract and started construction in October 1981. National Artist for Architecture and Allied Arts Arch. Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa was tapped to design it.
The LRT-1 could have been a lot of things, including a lot less costly, it turned out.
What could have become of the LRT-1
The Mañosa-designed LRT-1 elevated railway stations were built to look like a Bahay na Bato, a prominent type of housing structure during the Spanish colonial era which succeeded the Bahay Kubo.[READ: Growing up in my dad’s studio: A glimpse into the lives of Nat’l Artists with their children]
“The vision was to create a station that was tropical, climatically responsive, and truly spoke to our local culture through an architecture that is uniquely Filipino,” the architect’s namesake firm Mañosa Company said in a Facebook post. This explains the prominent features of LRT-1’s stations, which include its distinctive raised terracotta tiled roofing that sets it apart from other local train lines whose designs are closer to modern architecture.
Sticking to Filipino architectural elements—precisely that of the Bahay Kubo—is, after all, Mañosa’s bread and butter. He’s well-known for the tropical-Baroque Tahanang Pilipino that came into completion in 1978 and soon became the Coconut Palace, which is ultimately a Mañosa study in indigenous materials, specifically coconut.
But perhaps a forgotten trivia about the Mañosa-designed LRT-1 is that the architect had other intentions for the railway besides mobility. In the same Facebook post, the Mañosa Company revealed that in his designs, the late National Artist integrated provisions for green energy alternatives such as solar panels as well as rainwater collection.
Mañosa was a rather involved architect, it turns out. It is said that he oversaw even the smallest details, including designing the colors of the trains themselves (LRT-1 was originally referred to as the Yellow Line and has—to this day—yellow train cars. It was reclassified as the Green Line in 2012). The National Artist proposed ideas for other parts of the train, too. The post was also accompanied by black and white photos of the stations during its early days together with illustrations that reveal plans that Mañosa had for the underbelly of the LRT-1 railway.
“The importance of public spaces and ‘pedestrianization’ was also being proposed underneath the station,” the post read. It added that much of the challenge was trying to convince the Ministry of Public Works and Highways (renamed in 1987 and now known as the DPWH) to sign up for such progressive pro-pedestrian ideas.[READ: The case for a pedestrian-centric alternative to PAREX, according to urban planners]
In order to make space for shops, art galleries, outdoor cafes, bookstores, and other places of recreation underneath the railways, major roads would have to be closed, a concession the ministry was unlikely to make as it was the very thing it was trying to avoid in the first place: disrupt major roads, hence the decision to make LRT-1 an elevated railway—or so the official narrative goes.
In 1987, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) filed a complaint against Cuenca and the Marcoses, saying the parties conspired to create the CDCP in order to obtain ill-gotten wealth.
In the complaint, PCGG claimed Cuenca took “undue advantage of his influence and association and with the active collaboration and willing participation of [the Marcoses], engaged in schemes, devices, and stratagems designed to unjustly enrich themselves and to prevent disclosure and discovery of ill-gotten assets.”
The Sandiganbayan dismissed the complaint for insufficiency of evidence in 2010. The PCGG escalated the case to the Supreme Court and in 2018, 31 years after the original complaint was filed, the highest court upheld the Sandiganbayan ruling, junking along with the case the government’s bid to claim P51 billion from the estate of the Marcoses and their cronies for damages over alleged ill-gotten wealth.
Today, save for select stations, underneath some LRT-1 tracks are mostly busy roads, especially the ones along Taft Avenue. The northern stretch of the line is far luckier. In Carriedo, the station connects to a vibrant commercial center and paths that will lead you—a few hundred meters later—to the historied districts of Escolta and Binondo.
The closest approximation of Mañosa’s vision of a pedestrianized LRT-1 station might be the Central Station.
With the redevelopment of Arroceros Forest Park and the Metropolitan Theater—both are within walking distance from the Central Station—the underside of that part of the LRT-1 is alive more than ever. Just in the Arroceros area alone, there is ample space for leisurely activities and even a cafe, mind you. Heck, there’s even WiFi (and somehow a koi pond? In the forest?).
I am reminded of this idea of “third places”, a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg to refer to “public places on neutral ground that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home (first place) and work (second place).” And mass transit being the thing that ferries us to and from the first and second places of our lives is the perfect intermediary and could very well be more than a literal means to an end but an end in itself.
It may be hard to think of the LRT-1 as more than just a means to move from one point of the city to another. The grueling commute makes it doubly harder as we are wont to dissociate in moments of discomfort. The thought of what could have been a greener, pedestrian-centric version of the LRT-1 could’ve made it a lot easier.