“You think of simpler times when you don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”
José Acuzar, owner and founder of New San Jose Builders, Inc. and Las Casas de Filipinas de Acuzar, raised his three girls in the grasslands by the beach, in a modest box of a house in Balanga, Bataan. “In front of the river, where the swimming pool is, was where the house used to be,” points out Jam, one of his daughters. She goes on to describe how the vast land is, where over 40 heritage houses were resituated and rebuilt; how small the river used to be before her father carved out a lake that is now central to all the heritage houses; how there were more stars visible then; and how quiet the evenings were.
Las Casas de Filipinas de Acuzar was the Acuzar patriarch’s brainchild. As his architecture business thrived, José began upgrading his own house and started a collection of antiques. “He filled a house with his antiques, from old floors to old doors, then he realized, ‘Why collect parts of the house when I can buy the whole house?’” Jam recounts. That’s when he thought of moving old homes to one location, bayanihan-style, but instead of nipa huts being carried by men on their backs from one barrio to another, he moved Spanish colonial structures and even a traditional Maranao house across provinces and bodies of water. As he was in the business of construction and real estate, José went the more inventive, bordering-on-crazy route of dismantling an entire house, numbering each and every part, transporting them to Bataan, and then rebuilding the house for restoration.
“These houses could no longer withstand the pollution in the city. A lot of them were being abandoned. They have no use anymore and were being inhabited by illegal settlers,” says Jam, who is also very much involved in her dad’s passion project. With a major in Art History and Economics, she came home after finishing her studies and doing several jobs abroad to help in the family business and with Las Casas.
She has a supplementary vision of her own for Las Casas, though. Aside from creating all the materials and crafts for the restoration and recreation of some of the structures’ details in-house, she’s also incorporating art into the mix. “My dream was basically to provide a space for contemporary art in a heritage-inspired location,” she says. Thus, the old meets the new: while contemporary art is more symbolic, heritage houses reflect the day and age they were built.
“Art preserves a message or a memory that cannot be immortalized through historical records, documentation, or archiving alone.”
The first house relocated to and restored at Las Casas is the Escuela de Bellas Artes or Casa Quiapo, which housed the first U.P. School of Fine Arts and was the former mansion of Filipino intellectual and painter Rafael Enriquez y Villanueva; he would hold workshops here with his peers José Rizal, Juan Luna, and Félix Hidalgo. The house was also the inspiration behind the Bellas Artes Projects, which Jam founded in the belief that the first step in introducing contemporary art to a community is through an exhibition.
Consequently, she invited artists Alfredo Esquillo Jr., Renato Habulan, and Geraldine Javier to showcase their works inside the historic space. “The best way to communicate ideas and philosophies were always done through art or visual culture. I strongly believe that’s how culture is built and how communities gather around a common interest and eventually embody the visual culture,” she says fervently. “Art preserves a message or a memory that cannot be immortalized through historical records, documentation, or archiving alone. It’s important that we treat it this way rather than just putting it in our private spaces.” Jam has also organized a residency program for both local and international artists. Closely working with curator Diana Campbell Betancourt in polishing the program, she has invited international artists to produce work that can be exhibited in Las Casas or in her new venture in Makati, The Outpost.
“The whole point is to get people to understand that art should be viewed and experienced and talked about. It’s not something you walk in and out of and then say, ‘it’s cool!’ or simply take photos.”
With the goal of disseminating art among a wider audience and cutting across different sectors of society, The Outpost at the Karrivin Alley in Makati will serve as a community center, providing the youth uninhibited access. “Even if you’ve studied art history, contemporary art remains a completely different language. You can’t simply study it; you have to go to exhibitions and see the works for yourself.”
With The Outpost’s opening, Jam intends to bring the works of Bataan craftsmen to the metro, as well as contemporary art from both local and foreign artists and books from different institutions, museums, and galleries all over the world. “The whole point is to get people to understand that art should be viewed and experienced and talked about. It’s not something you walk in and out of and then say, ‘it’s cool!’ or simply take photos.”
With bigger plans ahead and more opportunities related to heritage conservation and art falling onto the Acuzars’ laps, both father and daughter are always in motion, hopping from meeting to meeting, controlling the quality of every aspect of the business, and thinking of ways to improve their current vision. Looking back to when she was younger, Jam reflects on how much the times have changed. “One of the most special memories I have was when we would swim in the beach at night. Back then, no one was there, except for people from local towns. We would all just float in the water, watch the stars, and feel the soft waves. Now, it’s completely different; I can’t even get quiet time with my dad.” She admits, however, “I don’t think [I’d] want anything back, but it’s nice to hold on to those memories.”
Even with the world now hyper-connected, forgetting the past seems too easy. More than ever, heritage and art are substantive means for remembering. “They are the easiest and mildest reminders of parts of our history—the things we shouldn’t forget. Now, we are facing collective memory loss in our society; perhaps we should have done more with exposing our ideas through art and culture.”
This story was originally published in Northern Living, December 2016.
Writer: DENISE DANIELLE ALCANTARA
PHOTOGRAPHY JOSEPH PASCUAL