Atalyer fuses together history and heritage with design
Atalyer’s Leon Araneta on integrating history and heritage in design
“I don’t have a fancy office or a kept gallery,” admits Leon Araneta, Atalyer’s chief integrating officer and design manager. After having navigated the busy alleys and treacherous streets of Binondo, his little admission of truth almost triggered a heart attack among the production staff, as the premise of the shoot was to feature the designer’s workspace. A few flights of stairs and about 12 minutes after, Araneta offers quick and glorious redemption: a glimpse into a historical gem hidden in Binondo’s labyrinth. “The owner of this building approached several firms, and every single one of them offered to tear the whole thing down and build anew,” he says. “Our plan, of course, was to fix it up.”
“This is the seventh floor,” he continues, stepping out of the antiquated yet charming (and fully functional) 1930s elevator. The concrete space, housing pieces of furniture and dust from several decades, resembles a gold mine, with Araneta poised to ease its transition from historical to functional. Eager to tell the building’s narrative, he starts, “It was built in 1939 by a very enterprising American military commander named Samuel Wilson. So for some time, the building, known as
the S.J. Wilson, served as an office space.” Later on, he reveals, the building would fall into Japanese hands during their Manila occupation. “You remember the Mickey Mouse money?” he asks as he signals to an abandoned furnace. “That is where the Japanese would print it!”
It’s a common misconception that buildings from before may be entirely brittle or perhaps unstable by now, explains Araneta. “The interesting thing is, we actually didn’t have to take any precautionary measures dealing with this piece of architecture.” He pauses, “Sure, we had to install plumbing since there were spaces where we had to put bathroom fixtures in, but other than that, absolutely nothing.”
As we journey deeper into what seemed to be a rabbit hole, we encounter the eighth floor. Rubble generously scattered across the concrete floor, wide holes puncturing the walls, and surreal metal ceiling bars reminiscent of a Dali painting (“The bars you see are bent because there was a huge fire here a few years back”)—it does not at all come as a surprise why Araneta and the team decided to uproot their design firm’s HQ and move temporarily to Binondo’s busyness.
“We pride ourselves with the fact that we enjoy reusing and restoring existing elements and breathing new life into them,” says Araneta. Undeniably skilled at fusing together a profusion of history, efficiency, and functionality, he and the folks at Atalyer add an element of warmth to the old structure's aesthetic. By incorporating elements from the building’s past such as the canteen and restaurant spaces that have been decorated with wooden bars that bear the names of old companies—an illuminative homage to when the building served as base camp for Makati Stock Exchange, Araneta not only succeeds at telling the building’s narrative; he and his team artfully contribute to it
Bottom: The ceiling's metal fixtures resemble a surrealist landscape, the metal bars exaggeratedly bent by a fire.
Leftandbelow: Leon Araneta's heritage building restoration project in Binondo: "The interiors were designed to have the appeal of a bank from the 1950s. Meticulous attention was given to the wooden moulding and finishing. Also, cubicles are laid out...