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Toti Villalon: The Gentleman As Radical Heritage Champion

Heritage treasures come and go, but every generation has its heritage champion; for ours, it could be Tina Paterno who has worked long years to preserve the San Sebastian church. But to the previous generation, there’s one name that rises above the din of minor torch-bearers: Augusto “Toti” Villalon—who was old school in manner, but revolutionary in heart.

 

                 

Toti Villalon in his younger days

 

Toti passed away on May 5, 2018, but his legacy is one we hope will be lasting—not just to his family but to us, as Filipino people. To the younger generation, we can only hope that his pride in Filipino architecture and heritage translates to an abiding love for what the Filipino has made, erected, and built over the years.

 

Toti Villalon in 2015

 

Since the late 1990’s, Toti had championed heritage conservation—he was its staunchest—and perhaps most trustworthy—loudspeaker. He spread his zeal across generations—his agenda no longer a lonely one, but a national cause.

 

                     

Facade of the ancestral house in Cebu

 

             

Inside the family's ancestral house in Cebu

 

Manila memoirist, Isidra Reyes, says Toti belonged to the very wealthy Chiong-Veloso clan of Cebu which includes the socialite Helen Chiong-Veloso Torres Cu-unjieng, Vicky Belo, and President Osmena’s children by his first wife, Estefania Chiong-Veloso. “But he was not elitist in his approach to conservation. He connected with a wide array of heritage advocates from the youth to the elders, the newbies to the establishment, the grassroots to the elite,” she says. “He mentored and encouraged a number of heritage practitioners and advocates who continue his legacy.”

Renowned architect Dominic Galicia, himself a heritage champion, paid homage to Toti's efforts as early as 2013 when he wrote: “Augusto Villalon is very much a gentleman of the old school, but in agenda, he is a radical. For decades, through his work, his writing and his speeches, he has been shaking society out of its stupor, and guiding it away from mindless demolition to the brighter, more inspired plane of preservation and adaptive reuse.”

In his eulogy delivered at Toti's wake last Tuesday at the Santuario de San Antonio, Dominic told the crowd how Toti had touched his own life: “Many of us are here because we felt his generous spirit. He was by no means a pushover, and could be pugnacious when necessary, but when one reviews his life, a common theme was his heart of gold. The time, the resources, the opportunities he shared are aspects of his generosity that many of us know.” Liliane “Tats” Manahan, a heritage practitioner, and former board member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Chairperson of the Heritage Conservation Society, recalled how she was once a reluctant newbie to the heritage cause. “He told me to keep on going, and here I am now, Chairman of the Heritage Preservation Society, and this is all with Toti’s encouragement.”

For his invaluable contributions, Toti was awarded with the Dangal ng Haraya honor by the National Comission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 2002. As a former NCCA commissioner, he was known as one of the first advocates of conservation in the Philippines. Per an NCCA tribute after his death, Toti was responsible for writing World Heritage Nomination dossiers for the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, and Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. To add to his conservation efforts, Toti also coordinated the ICOMOS evaluation mission of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

He was part of the wave of architects who studied abroad, and who took his learnings back with him to educate our country— not with what it could be, but with what it already was. He was one of the last of the old-school gentlemen, mild of manner, and soft of speech, under which he hid his passion and cause: the Filipino heritage that belonged to the Filipino alone.

But perhaps, more than anything, he is remembered as a loving father, one who inspired a different kind of architecture to his children; he is remembered in poetry, as his son Renzo writes: “We let go of each other twice, my father and I. When he released me into this world, and when I released him into the next.”

 

A card from son Lorenzo Miguel from his Facebook page