Makati: Weaving modernity with distinctive history

Makati is best known as the country’s premier Central Business District. It set the mold for this over 50 years ago and it has not stopped improving on the model. Although it is a modern invention sprung from swampland, it does have historic urban fabric, heritage structures and picturesque sites from the Spanish, American and Commonwealth periods.

Makati has a long history that dates back to a pre-Hispanic settlement that grew from Santa Ana, Manila. In the early 1600s, missionaries established two churches, the churches of Saint Peter and Paul, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. The two were key stops for pilgrims, devotees of the Virgin Mary, who traveled east to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Antipolo. This led to the establishment of a town by 1670.

The small town, named San Pedro de Makati after its patron saint, was initially dependent on its pottery and brick business, the entry of the Jesuits, as well as the quarrying of adobe, which supplied much of the building stones for Manila.

The Jesuits developed a hacienda inland from property donated to them. They were also given money to build a “house of probation.” The site, called Buenavista, was an elevated plateau overlooking the river. The Church San Pedro y Paul Viejo was built here. It was damaged heavily in 1762 during the British invasion and was rebuilt in the 1800s. The façade faced the Pasig River and pilgrims made their way up via stone steps to a clearing in front of the church, which is today the Plaza del Rey.

The hacienda was eventually sold to Don José Bonifacio Roxas in 1851 when the Jesuits were expelled from the country. The Hacienda de San Pedro de Makati was the basis for the development of the Ayala Corporation’s modern business and residential district, more than a century later.

The Ayalas built their Casa Hacienda by the Pasig River. A large bahay na bato was headquarters for the family’s agricultural business which covered over a thousand hectares inland. A type of grass, zacate, was grown as feed for horses that pulled caretelas and the horse-drawn tranvias that were operated by the Zobels late in the Spanish colonial era. The 1920s saw the expansion of the town and a small neo-classic municipal hall was built across from the Casa Hacienda.

Post-independence, as the Ayalas turned their land holdings into high-end residential and commercial enclaves, the old structure and grounds were donated to the town. The house eventually was cleared and the area served as an open space. In the 1960s, Makati town built a new city hall down the street and the old city hall and the area in front were turned into a museum and park.

The other landmark church is at Guadalupe. It evolved from an early 1600s monastery built also on a plateau. Stone steps were also built to access the church from the river. Pilgrims’ contributions generated funds that eventually led to the completion of the complex by the 1700s. The church eventually became a school, orphanage, and printing house in the mid-1800s.

A strong earthquake in 1880 damaged the church and it was burned down in the fighting during the Filipino-American war. The Japanese turned the site and the ruins into a temporary garrison but after the war, it fell into disrepair once more. After the war, the remaining stones from the convent were salvaged to help rebuild the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros. In 1970, the Agustinian Order recovered the property and the complex has since been rebuilt. The complex and church is today a popular wedding venue.

Makati is more than just the country’s leading central business district, exclusive residential enclave, and lifestyle center. The original Makati core, known as Poblacion, with its two main historic landmarks, still exists and has, in the last few years, turned into a vibrant district with restaurants, bistros and bars, the choice of millennials and GenZers.

Makati is both its old and new fabric. The two sides contribute to the place’s identity, culture and character. More proactive city planning, pedestrian-oriented urban design and landscape architecture by both the city government and private developers are in evidence. Plans for subways and an extended pedestrian, bicycle, and possibly scooter networks, are being prepared.

These initiatives have started to weave both layers of the city and acknowledge the roots, spaces, and structures of the past without compromising the potential of future development. This ensures a diversity and specificity that will continue to give Makati a sustainable physical and social vibe that is truly its own.