Thursday, April 10, 2014

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A look back: from Insular Life and Philam Life to the Ayalas and the country's banks

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As I went out to the al fresco area of Philam Life Tower’s 9th-floor canteen to take advantage of the indirect afternoon light (to take pictures of newly made accessories), I looked up at the rear façade (oxymoron?) of the Insular Life building and got caught up in explicable nostalgia. Inexplicable because I merely marvelled at the 1960s architecture that was hidden, both figuratively and literally, behind the building’s shadow. 


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I was already living in Makati (but not yet working in Philam Life Tower) in 2005 when glass and aluminum was imposed cosmetically on the façade of the former headquarters of Insular Life (now headquartered in Alabang). I didn’t realize then the big fuss among architects and modernists that the construction caused. I only know now that what I could see from Philam Life Tower is very different from present-day office façades along Ayala Avenue and on the other streets in Makati’s central business district.

Somehow (I must warn you that I have no schooling at all in architecture or design) the interaction of the brise-soleil façade and the sculptural canopy (reference) held a certain dignity, a self-assurance and confidence in being unique or different. (Though I am aware that this statement may only be the after-the-fact stubbornness of relics.) Sure, the shapes may seem awkward and out-of-place today, but at the very least, they do not come across as anonymous.


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I was already working in Philam Life Tower when another upheaval took place: the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which cascaded from the subprime mortgage fiasco to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the bailing out of banks across the world, the austerity measures inflicted by governments on its taxpayers, worldwide protests, and the widest ever gap between the world’s rich and poor – in essence: money’s trading hands. Because of this, Philam Life’s (or Philippine American Life and General Insurance) holding company AIG (American International Group) nearly collapsed. It was only saved by a rescue package from the US Federal Reserve (ie the money of the American people – as I said, money’s trading hands). For almost two years, the status of Philam Life was in limbo (ie in the hands of a “special purpose vehicle”, the equivalent for AIG being a secured credit facility).


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I’d almost forgotten about the corporate commotion  within Philam Life and AIG, but then, looking at the hidden façade of the Insular Life building, I was reminded of the tumult. This prompted me to look up the history behind Insular Life, which, just by the sound of it, feels closer to home.


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I only discover now that Insular Life (or the Insular Life Assurance company) was formerly under the Ayala Corporation. How is it connected with Philam Life? In 2009, the new Philam Life bought a 51% stake in Ayala Life and formed a joint venture with BPI (Bank of the Philippine Islands). After 2010, Ayala Life has been renamed as BPI-Philam Life.


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I don’t know about you, but looking from one building to the backside of another, and then learning how the two companies are historically connected, seems amazing to me. And sadly, this easy monetary changing of hands diminishes whatever nostalgia I thought I had for design and architecture of the past.


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Why, do you ask? Look up the history of the Bank of the Philippine Islands (formerly El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel II  before the Spanish sold the Philippines to the American colonialists). Read up on the Mexican peso, Dominican friars, sugar barons, privatizations, and mergers and acquisitions. And from there get nauseated by the insatiable greed of finance.

Did you know that the Philippine Central Depository nominee corporation owns 33% of BPI and 25% of BDO? From where, pray tell, did the PCD get its money? From whose pockets? Don’t you find it strange that so little is written about PCD (nothing on Wiki) and how come its nominee corporation does not have any voting rights in the boards the banks it partially owns? (You will also learn that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila owns 8% of BPI.)


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I do not know the precise answers, and why they have been buried for the general, inquiring public. Who knows what else traded ownership as colonialists shook hands? What I do know is that though it may sound trite to say that it is the wealthy who control the government, I am dead serious in asking: where did the country’s taipans/oligarchs get the money to get rich? The finances to build luxury business districts and subdivisions that drive out natives from their mother land?


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Taking everything (available) into account, and gazing once again upon the “lost” architecture of a former financial building (and imagining that this may only be the metaphorical tip of the iceberg), I say: let it crumble and burn to the ground.