Hubert Burda Media

THE NEW FACE OF MANILA

Don't look now, but the Philippine capital is undergoing a radical renaissance as it morphs into a happening lifestyle destination. MARGIE T LOGARTA surveys the transformation in progress

THE NEW FACE OF MANILA

THE PHILIPPINES HASN'T had the greatest press of late. A simmering low-level civil war on the southern island of Mindanao, the catastrophic effects of Typhoon Haiyan last November, and the fallout from the fatally botched rescue attempt of a Hong Kong tour group in 2010 have all reinforced the archipelago’s unfortunate reputation as the sick man of Asia, a gimcrack country best avoided by visitors.
Yet a very different narrative needs to be told, especially about the country’s capital, Metro Manila, which, partly thanks to robust GDP growth that was among the highest in the world in 2013, is undergoing the kind of thoroughgoing transformation that until recently was the preserve of cities in China. Although it can be witnessed in many areas of the urban sprawl that comprises 17 municipalities and is home to more than 12 million people, it’s perhaps best seen in and around Makati City, which for decades has been acknowledged as the country’s Wall Street for its concentration of banks and multinationals, a stock exchange and, more recently, a crop of upmarket malls that would do justice to Hong Kong or Singapore.
Makati, in fact, is undergoing a radical renaissance that aims to turn it into a highly desirable environment. I visit Manila regularly to see family and to overdose on gossip, yet even I’m amazed at the scale and speed of the changing cityscape. While it’s not progress in the league of say, Dubai or Shanghai, in the laid-back Philippine context it’s certainly noteworthy. And the transformation is perhaps even more apparent just across the municipal boundary in Bonifacio Global City, a future megametropolis that’s fast rising on a vast tract of land once occupied by the military.
Fort McKinley – site of today’s emerging Bonifacio – was established by the Americans in the early 20th century, and in the 1930s an area of swampland and wild grass adjacent to the military camp was tamed to produce Nielson Field, the first air hub in Luzon, largest and most northerly of the country’s three main islands. The airfield stood on land owned by the Spanish-Filipino Zobel de Ayala family, a leading local business clan whose name has become inextricably linked to Makati’s fortunes. The family’s 180-yearold Ayala Corporation is the oldest conglomerate in the Philippines, and its real-estate arm is a significant and trendsetting player.
After a ravaged Manila emerged from the maelstrom of retreating Japanese troops and advancing US forces in 1945, Ayala seized the opportunity to develop a brand-new enclave in Makati, creating pioneering gated communities and a central business district. Neilson Field ceased aviation operations in 1948 and its runways were quickly converted into roads.
In 2003, Ayala and partner Evergreen Holdings acquired the 240-hectare Bonifacio Global City project at the former army base. Today also known at The Fort, it’s shaping up at an impressive clip. Its main retail anchor, Bonifacio High Street – a kilometre-long, 40-metre-wide boulevard flanked with shops in themed zones – has begun to attract serious custom, even on weekdays. Ayala’s own boutique hotel, Seda, is currently the precinct’s only accommodation provider, but that should change in the next two years when either Shangri-La or Grand Hyatt wins the race as the first international chain to operate there. Visiting suits with some downtime might consider the state-of-the-art St Luke’s Medical Center Global City, which offers efficient executive check-ups in a fivestar setting.
For now, the burgeoning hub’s main dining and nightlife magnets are Burgos Circle, The Fort Entertainment Center and One McKinley Place, which boast a raft of cuisines from nouveau Filipino (Aracama) to Swiss (L’entrecôte) to Iberian (Las Flores).
As The Fort rises, so will Makati. Treasuring its reputation as a company with lofty visions, Ayala has embarked on an ambitious and large-scale reimaging of its iconic urban jewel. “We don’t just want Makati to be just about being a central business district,” says Mel Ignacio, assistant vice president of Ayala Land’s Strategic Landbank Management Group. “We want it to be a city that leads in lifestyle, leisure and entertainment as well.”
I recall Makati’s Ayala Center in the 1980s as purely a shopping precinct, anchored by the upscale Rustan’s Department Store (said to open for Imelda Marcos after shopping hours), the more mass-market SM store and Glorietta mall. When the Greenbelt development opened across Makati Avenue, the novelty was its park-like ambience featuring an airy chapel, fronted by a handsome glass-and-stone cross installation of renowned sculptor Ramon Orlina, as well as a domed aviary whose cheeky parrots were infamous for swooping down on unsuspecting visitors, swiping pens and other loose objects.
But my, how today’s Greenbelt has evolved. While the aviary is long gone, the chapel continues to attract record crowds, requiring an array of ventilators to cool it, while around it has sprung up a necklace of five commercial nodes – Greenbelt 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – each with its own character but linked by softly landscaped pathways dotted with sculptures and water features. At last, a city used to fortress-like retail structures has a mall complex that encourages outdoor dining. At Chateau 1771, guitar performances provide fine accompaniment to the beef tenderloin laced with brandy or lemon chicken; Mesa Filipino Moderne is known for its innovative take on traditional dishes – I swear by the mixed adobo flakes and sinigang with salmon head – and Lusso by celebrity chef Gaita Fores (the go-to-caterer of the moneyed set) is a haven for caviar and foie gras junkies and serves champagne by the flute.
For a different type of sustenance, Ayala Museum is a must visit, boasting an awesome diorama experience highlighting flashpoints in Philippine history. Other collections include a sumptuous trove of pre-Hispanic gold, rare 19th-century Philippine garments and exhibits of contemporary Filipino and international artists.
Time was when well-heeled Manileños jetted off to Hong Kong for their brandedgoods fix, but that’s changing, given the growing presence of luxury labels lining Greenbelt 4 and 5, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Zegna, Armani and Escada. And who could have imagined that the former “basket case” of Asian economies would attract Jimmy Choo, Repetto or Bottega Veneta?
Ayala Center itself has expanded to include office and condominium towers, and two new parks, Palm Promenade and Terraces Square, which lend themselves to lively outdoor events ideal for Manila’s balmy climate.
In late 2012, the nearly decade-long drought in the local hotel scene came to an end with the opening of two luxury properties: Raffles Makati, which offers 32 suites and 237 residences, and the 280-room Fairmont Makati. Conceived by prestigious architectural firm Arquitectonica, with interiors by Bent Severin & Associates, the 30-storey complex is unique, connecting on the ground floor with white marble designating the Raffles side and red marble the Fairmont portion, as well as on the fourth floor where the pool, Willow Stream Spa and gym are situated. Raffles guests also have their own pool on the ninth floor.
Besides a vast ballroom and various function rooms at the Fairmont, the hotels offer an abundance of spaces suitable for intimate social occasions. Raffles brought a replica of the Long Bar from Singapore, complete with the Singapore Sling, as well as the Writers Bar with piano music and traditional afternoon tea. At the Fairmont, Café Macaron and the Fairmont Lounge, featuring high tea with a Filipino twist, await those wanting to mix business with snacking.
And change keeps coming. The Ayala Triangle Gardens, formerly large unused grounds in the heart of Ayala Avenue, now offers eclectic dining options, including the eternally packed Wee Nam Kee for Hainan chicken rice, in a verdant landscape. Nearby Nielson Tower, a lovely relic of the old airfield, will soon be relaunched as a restaurant that caters to corporate events. Makati North, a planned civic space for cultural and artistic activities, will be connected to Ayala Center by covered walkways. Now, who says the denizens of Hong Kong and Singapore get to have all the fun?
 
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