Ultra Complex Not Suitable for Large Events
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Filipinos have been quick to agonize over the stampede in Manila that tragically killed 79. The victims were trying to get into a special anniversary episode of a leading game show. The causes of the stampede remain unclear: Investigators point to a combination of factors, ranging from media hype (people had been lining up for days), insufficient security and other staff and plans, limitations in the venue (30,000 people trying to get seats in an open-air field capable of accommodating only 17,000), someone shouting there was bomb, people trying to climb over fences and waiting sheds to sneak ahead others, and even a staffer announcing that there would be a special raffle for those unable to find seats.
To be sure, there is more than enough blame and responsibility to go around. The game show organizers are bearing the brunt of the blame. To my mind, not enough is being aimed at the direction of city officials (for days and days, tens of thousands of people slowly, then more quickly, trickled into the narrow streets of the area; people camped out, slept and defecated in the streets), and the national police seemed unworried by massive crowds in narrow roads. Even the audience itself, composed overwhelmingly of the poor, who came from all over, has been the object of a kind of criticism: In the immediate aftermath of the stampede, with dead bodies laid out in plain view, thousands still demanded that the show should proceed.
But observers forget the main culprit: Imelda Romualdez Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos.
Mrs. Marcos caused the construction of the Ultra complex, which was built as a kind of Olympic village for Filipino athletes within the larger grounds of what she grandly called the University of Life. A new sports center was part of the senseless redundancy of the Marcos dictatorship — there existed, at the time the complex was built, the Rizal Memorial sports complex in Manila where, indeed, Filipino athletes train up to the present.
Instead of form following function for Mrs. Marcos’ sports complex, it was the other way around: Function was handicapped from the very start by the form the former first lady’s sports complex took. Mrs. Marcos chose a picturesque location for her pet university, perched on a kind of cliff, with roads carved out of the adobe rock in the vicinity, and much of the Ultra sports complex itself nestled in a kind of depression (an enclosed stadium, near the entrance where the stampede took place, was located higher up; one has to line up on rather steep covered walkways before walking down a series of cobblestone ramps to the open air arena).
We are used to stadiums being located in the midst of vast expanses of concrete. There is, after all, the need for parking; and there is the need to provide space for long lines, and for the orderly and efficient entrance and exit of crowds. The Ultra sports complex neither had extensive parking facilities (where emergency vehicles and first aid stations are usually also located), nor a particularly well-thought-out system of entrances and exits designed for large crowds. The steep, and at times, winding nature of many paths, also made for splendid scenery for people on a stroll, or joggers, but definitely not for large, potentially swiftly-moving, crowds.
Some might argue that Mrs. Marcos’ Ultra complex was never intended to deal with crowds dealing in the tens of thousands, particularly crowds that were tired, anxious, and yet in a frenzy in expectation of being not only entertained, but of winning cash prizes. That may be so, though for the past two decades since it’s been completed, the Ultra has been the site of sporting events and concerts. Even if no one thought a 17,000-person capacity open-air stadium would ever be deluged with 30,000 eager spectators, the facilities of the place alone are unsuitable for accommodating such a large number of people. I happen to have attended an international school leasing space in the complex, and during our daily activities (not to mention larger events), the place was clearly shoddily built, badly planned, and not suitable for the handling of crowds. I recall slipping down its steep paths on many occasions.
The remarkable thing isn’t that a disaster happened in Mrs. Marcos’ complex, but that it took so long for one to take place. The craggy, at times cramped, complexities of the Ultra complex points to a disastrous case of urban planning. Its individual parts might have been architecturally pleasing, and I’d even grant that the whole thing might have been motivated by muddled, good intentions. But it was the wrong complex, in the wrong place, built for mainly wrong reasons — and it has now all gone horrible wrong. In the hand wringing, finger pointing, and mourning that have followed the tragedy, this central fact is being overlooked. There should be no large events, again, ever, in the Ultra complex.