The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial (MACM) in the Philippines is building a new visitor center designed by Richter Architects of Corpus Christi. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has approved the design, though a completion date had not been set at press time.
MACM is the United States’ largest graveyard for its soldiers who fell in World War II. Occupying 152 acres on a plateau near the center of Manila, the former site of Fort William McKinley, it is the final resting place of 17,201 souls — American military and allied Filipino scouts — most of whom lost their lives in operations in New Guinea and the Philippines. The headstones are arrayed in 11 plots laid out in a semi-circular plan and interspersed with a wide variety of tropical plantings. At the center of the circle is a white masonry chapel adorned with sculptures. In front of this building, on a wide terrace, are two hemicycles containing 25 mosaic maps that depict the achievements of the American armed forces in the Pacific, China, India, and Burma. Within the hemicycles are Trani limestone piers inscribed with the names of the 36,285 Americans who went missing in this theater of the war.
“When you visit the site it is just so stunning,” says Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA. “When you go there and you see all the marble crosses that are lined in that semi-circular configuration, and you walk down the path, you’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of loss and you start thinking about who were these people and what they gave up.”
The American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees MACM, hired Richter Architects from a short list of three invited firms, on the strength of its proposal. Richter has completed a number of other visitor centers, including several for TxDOT and the Texas Historical Commission, and designed the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg. The Commission wanted a space to more explicitly tell the story of America’s involvement in the Pacific theater of World War II in general, and in the Battle for the Philippines in particular.
Richter’s proposal is minimal and respectful of the context. Sited in a grove of trees just down the slope from the memorial, its low profile does not obstruct the view. Flat slab concrete floors and roofs and steel framing keep the structure as transparent and unobtrusive as possible. Expanses of glass connect the interior with the surrounding landscape, and elements of limestone on the facade reference the existing monument and gravestones. The 8,000-sf building includes exhibition space, a 50-seat theater, an office and reception area, and support functions.
“There are lots of subliminal messages conveyed by the cemetery,” says David Richter, FAIA. “It’s such a contrapposto to the urban environment around it. The visitors center is trying to put more explicit messages out there in addition to these subliminal messages so that somebody can walk away with a really clear sense of historical context.”
The exhibition design is part of Richter’s contract, and the firm has teamed with D|G Studio of Houston, which it worked with on the Museum of the Pacific War.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.