Insular Life and Its Iconic Makati Building

As the premier commercial and business district in the country, the Makati central business district has gone through many changes since it was first developed in the 1950s. More so during the last 30 years, as towering glass skyscrapers were rising all across the district and have since dominated the cityscape.

Because of these recent developments, aggravated by the growing limitations of space in the area, inevitably there were some spots in the district that had to give way. Former parking spaces and empty lots were eventually buzzing with construction activity, while some old buildings that had less than 20 storeys in height were demolished to make way for new buildings that would have more floors and office spaces.

Fortunately, there are still some landmarks that have remained in the district, serving as landmarks of the old Makati business district that our parents were familiar with. Among these landmarks is what can be considered as the oldest building in the district today: the Insular Life Building.

A history of Insular Life

To know a bit more about this building, it is important to know a little bit about the company behind the building, Insular Life. While it is easy to overlook Insular Life these days with the likes of Philam Life and Sun Life among others dominating the insurance industry in the country, it remains an influential force with a rich history to back it up.

Insular Life was the first Filipino-owned insurance company, founded in 1910. Originally, it had the Zobel de Ayalas as incorporators and majority owners of the company, up until 1976 when it was mutualized – meaning that the ownership of the company was now transferred to the insurance company’s policyholders, effectively becoming shareholders. But that’s another story.

The old Insular Life Building in Binondo (courtesy of the Presidential Museum and Library via Manila Nostalgia Facebook Group)

Up until World War II, Insular Life was the largest insurance companies in the country. As such, its head office in Binondo near Plaza Moraga was iconic in itself. Initially designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the architect son of Juan Luna who also designed the First United Building and the Legarda Elementary School, for some reason, it was finished by Spanish-Filipino architect Fernando de la Cantera in 1930. In any case, the old Insular Life building in Binondo was not only the tallest in the country at the time (7 storeys was considered tall already then) but was also hailed as the best office building in the country.

But like many of Manila’s beautiful prewar structures, the Insular Life building in Binondo was damaged during World War II. While it seemed to have remained in use after the war, by the 1960s, the building was gone as Insular Life moved down south to the new development of its Zobel de Ayala owners in Makati.

The move to Makati

Given the common Zobel de Ayala link between Insular Life and the Makati business district development (at that time at least), it should be no surprise that Insular Life was one of the first, if not the first company, to establish its presence in the then newly-developed business district. As such, it was able to secure a prime address, the corner of the district’s main thoroughfares of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas.

The Insular Life Building in Makati in the 1960s (courtesy of the book Arkitekturang Filipino)

For its new headquarters, Insular Life tapped the services of a renowned architect of the postwar era: Cesar H. Concio, who designed the Palma and Melchor Hall buildings of the University of the Philippines Diliman and the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran. Concio’s design took advantage of the building’s location to create a curved edifice of concrete, glass, and aluminum that would be a landmark in itself.

Architect Cesar Concio (courtesy of Geni)

In addition to the structure, the 14-storey building also featured a bas-relief artwork by National Artist for the Visual Arts Napoleon Abueva installed depicting Philippine history, industry and culture on its facade.

The Abueva bas-relief artwork at the building (courtesy of Manila Nostalgia Facebook group/Philippine Art Scene)

Construction began in 1960 and would conclude 3 years later. Aside from serving as the corporate headquarters of Insular Life, the building also served as the first home of the Makati Stock Exchange, one of the country’s two bourses which would later merge to become the Philippine Stock Exchange.

Moving out and redevelopment

The growth of Insular Life’s operations over the next 30+ years warranted a need for a larger office space which the building could no longer provide. It was decided that Insular Life would move its headquarters to Filinvest Corporate City, the business district being developed in Alabang, Muntinlupa City by 2001.

Insular Life Corporate Center in Alabang as seen on Google Street View, 2017

At that time, there were serious considerations to have the building demolished to build a new office tower, with the company as developer (which is somewhat similar to the development of its neighbor the Philam Life Tower by Philam Life) Fortunately, the iconic status of the building was enough for it to be spared from the wrecking ball and have it redeveloped instead to make it more contemporary-looking.

The first redevelopment of the Insular Life Building was completed in 2005. Supervised by the firm Mohri, Architect & Associates, Inc., the building was given a radical makeover. Most striking of which is the facade which now lined with columns of glass strips in jade color. There was also a narrow LED display which also served as a ticker display during trading hours of the Philippine Stock Exchange, no doubt a homage to the building’s history as a trading floor. The ground floor of the building was leased to some tenants such as banks and a fastfood chain. Sadly, the redevelopment meant the loss of the Abueva bas-relief which was relocated to the company’s Alabang headquarters.

The Insular Life Building, 2012; note the narrow LED display at the bottom

A decade later, the building went through another redevelopment which was completed in 2017. Supervised this time by Casas+ Architects, most of the changes were evident in the interiors as well as the rear portion of the building. Still, some changes were made to the facade. For one, the narrow LED display though as a tradeoff, it received an LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certification. (lame joke, I know) Also gone were some of the old tenants on the ground floor were gone, replaced by new ones in their place.

The lobby of the Insular Life Buildding

A continuing legacy

Much like the company that owns the building, the Insular Life Building in Makati remains an iconic landmark that has managed to weather the changes that have occurred in the landscape over the years. It has managed to strike a balance between keeping the spirit of the old Makati alive while adapting to the changes happening in the modern business district. One can only hope that the Insular Life Building will continue to weather the changes ahead.

Acknowledgements as well to Insular Life, The Manila Project, and ABS-CBN News

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