Wednesday, November 10, 2010

SM Supermall redefines 21st century Baguio

Built where Pines Hotel used to be, SM is Baguio's top tourist sight today
by Joel R. Dizon
     It's considered by many to be the most beautiful and scenic mall in the entire Philippines. For one, it has Baguio City's patented "centralized natural air-conditioning." The year-round subtropical climate of Baguio makes this mall the most comfortable to roam around in. Wraparound verandahs on all floors aboveground give you a seamless view of Baguio City's central business district (CBD), but the view of the surrounding suburbs if unobstructed as well. If you are from Baguio, then you know that this site (Luneta Hill) used to be the location of Pines Hotel (which burned down in 1984).  It's the highest point in downtown Baguio, even higher than the Baguio Cathedral which it now overlooks.
     The shopping is great--as in any SM mall--but perhaps SM Baguio is one of only a few shopping malls where you won't feel so bad even if you coudln't find anything interesting to buy. The outdoor cafes scattered around the verandahs are wonderful places to catch up with stories about the old neighborhood. Because, now, the first place that most residents and tourists go to get a taste of the Baguio community life is SM.
     What sets this mall apart is its use of a radical roof design. Instead of a rigid roof, architects stretched a specially-designed tarpaulin across the topfloor area, suspending it on reinforced tubular frames and stretching it taut with a complicated system of pulleys and guyropes. At night, the tarpaulin gets lit from underneath bythe ambient light of the mall interiors. During the daytime, its light color reflects the sun's heat, keeping  the temperature inside the mall a balmy 24 degrees Celsius regardless of the weather outside.  It is only five storeys tall--two of which are basement floors housing the indoor parking lot. A central scenic elevator serves aesthetic purposes more than transportation (the elevator car holds only 20 people). But getting to the upper floors is not a problem, thanks to five flights of escalators and a scenic semi-spiralling staircase on the opposite end.   The mall boasts of globally-recognizable franchises--McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, ACE Hardware, Watson's--just  to name a few--mixed in with some very successful local  shops. Its supermarket is world-class. Its four moviehouses are equipped with the latest big-screen imaging technology and chest-thumping Dolby sound systems. James Cameron's Oscar-winning "Avatar" was the first 3D movie screened here just a few months ago.   As you can see from the panoramic photos of the Baguio landscape (below) the view from the west verandah of SM mall is truly captivarting.  The landscape is expectedly dominated by Burnham Park, on the far horizon is Quirino Hill. One can walk around the whole perimeter of the mall on any floor above ground and get a seamless vista of Baguio from all angles. At night, the view is even more exhilirating, with a thousand points of light illuminating the mountainscape, and the perennial Baguio fog reflecting some of that light to blanket the city with a gentle wispy, almost ethereal aura of mystery. It is tricky to capture even with advanced digital camera equipment, one has to remember some the old-film basics on color shifts and reciprocity adjustments.
     Before this mall opened, it is estimated that the population of the city was only around 400,000. Since this mall opened in 2003, that population is now estimated to swell as high as 600,000 on weekends. Foreign and local tourists pour in from the surrounding provinces, from Manila and other points south, to experience shopping in this unique mall. It is also estimated that the downline employment generated by the mall's operation probably spawned another 10,000-15,000 new permanent residents, finding work in the mall and its many smaller  concessionaires.
     One thing local photographers appreciate about SM is its strong support for the local arts community. It regularly hosts photo exhibits  and other art events in its spacious premonades and foyers. In fact, its upper basement foyer serves as a year-round venue for art exhibits. (all photos copyright 2010 Joel R. Dizon)



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