Finding Philippine Architecture
April 7, 2011 3 Comments
By Paulo G. Alcazaren
The first year of the new millennium was a year of trauma, reflection and re-orientation for the Philippines and Philippine architecture. Little came by way of actual buildings completed, and those in progress were still mostly foreign-designed or influenced, contributing little to the development of Filipino architecture. In fact, the biggest news in the architectural world was the demolition of landmark buildings and damage caused to heritage structures and sites. Much like the political and social structure of our country, the integrity of our built heritage and emerging architecture was and is being shaken to its very foundations.
Philippine architecture, both product and profession, faces the danger of deterioration of quality and depth wrought by the economic events of the last two years and the continuing lack of intellectual discourse related to pedagogy and practice. The effects of the Asian financial crisis have taken its toll on the country and consequently on the business of real estate development, the fountainhead of architectural production in the boom years of the mid-1990s. What little activity apparent in the skyline of our cities are the tail-ends of those few projects that have found enough capital for completion.
Towers of Power
Most of these building projects, of larger scale and scope, are products of foreign architectural firms with the token creative participation of local “architects-of-record.” Construction billboards, up and down Ayala Avenue and other business and commercial districts in Metro Manila (and even other urban centers like Cebu City), proudly proclaim the names of overseas architectural “design consultants.” A listing of these forms a veritable “who’s who” in the universe of western design. The likes of I. M. Pei, KPF (Kohn, Pendersen and Fox), SOM (Skidmore Owings and Merill), HOK, Gensler, Arquitectonica and even Michael Graves have been used to “brand” local projects.
All this further commodifies architecture in the Philippines as symbols of elitist power and prestige or bottom-line profits driven by the local market perception that “foreign is better.” These structures are also signifiers of continuing cultural hegemony by the West. Our building in this framed aesthetic has the effect of further orientalizing ourselves in occidental towers rising physically and ideologically above the surrounding unequal social landscape.
On the functional level clients or developers justify the commissioning of outside consultants by pointing out that skyscraper projects in the 30- to 50-story range involves realms of expertise unavailable locally. Many local professionals would beg to differ, however, given that a good number of Filipino architects, engineers and project specialists have more than adequate competence in high-rise glass, steel and cladding construction.
This collective competence has been accumulated from experience working abroad, a result of the diaspora of Filipino professionals in the previous two decades. The problem again seems to be that of the lower regard by Filipino developers for Filipino professionals. (In the current economic setting, however, clients have reluctantly tuned back to the more reasonably priced services of locals.)
The new-modernist or retro-modernist towers that have sprung up have mostly been permutations of previous designs by these foreign architects. A cursory review of any coffee table book on contemporary architecture would prove this point. Very few have taken any more effort, at contextual or original design, than just going through the motions of adapting elevator capacities, parking-bay requirements or superficial adaptations to climactic conditions.
The same may be said, however, for the few towers designed by local architects. In the defense of the local designers though, it must be stated that little opportunity is given them to express any more than compliance to utilitarian briefs for maximum leasable space in a building. Pressure from clients also force Filipino architects towards copycat façadism; to adopting a “fashionable” (foreign-looking) style to ensure marketability but with less budget and consultantcy fees.
Noteworthy, too, in these new buildings of steel, glass and aluminum is the lack of Filipino art. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the art of Filipino sculptors, painters, and craftsmen embellished the spaces, walls and facades of our modern architecture. A case in point is the original Philamlife building on United Nations Avenue. Its architect, Carlos Arguelles, made sure that the building accommodated works by the likes of Vicente Manansala and Galo Ocampo. The new Philamlife building on Paseo de Roxas is devoid of artwork. Other new towers prefer minimalist interior treatments rather than any investment on or celebration of Filipino borloloy that had been a definition of both our vernacular and adapted architecture.
Typologically, the tower or tower-on-a-podium is the formula of choice in the speculative commercial towers that make the bulk of current work. Little contribution is made by these examples of “plunkitecture” (buildings that may just as well be from New York or London and “plunked” in Makati or Ortigas) to the urban design of city streets. This is because of their predisposition to leasing out ground level space to banks and similar institutions that produce little visual or social interface with the pedestrian. The rhythm of the street is also regularly disrupted by driveways, ramps and palisades of utility poles in older districts of Manila and poorly planned centers like Cubao and Ortigas.
Hopefully some mixed-use redevelopment projects, like those currently ongoing in Ayala/Makati’s commercial center and Greenbelt areas, will correct this and strive for more pedestrian-friendly environments. The same pedestrian-friendliness is promised in newer districts like Fort Bonifacio, the Rockwell Urban Center and even a new Ayala project in Cebu City, though little of this is evident in the built-up portions of these districts. Not surprisingly, almost all of these projects were planned by foreign consultants.
Aside from high-rise towers, the rest of architectural (and related design) production this year focused mainly on residential work, renovations or interiors. Large residential (bordering on the palatial) mansions made for a niche market by a number of architects. But despite this shift in source of projects, even the larger or more successful of local design firms that survived to the turn of the century cut back even further in staff and operations. Managing to carry on with work were the practices or offices of the likes of Bobby Mañosa, Bong Recio and Meloy Casas, Philip Recto, Jun Palafox, Coscolluela, Lor and Ed Calma, and Andy Locsin.
Defending our Architectural Heritage
The little activity in current construction was overshadowed by the more controversial event this year—the demolition of the Jai Alai building on Taft Avenue. The Jai Alai building had been a landmark in the city since its construction in 1940. Designed by the American architect Welton Becket in the art deco variant of the streamline-moderne, it was a symbol of the optimistic Commonwealth period of our nation’s history as well as of the vibrant social life of the city in the post-war years.
Plans for the building’s demolition were made known by Mayor Lito Atienza as early as 1999. The city courts needed a new building to house the overflowing salas of the judges. Concerned citizens, led by the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS), made representations with the mayor and managed to get a promise from him to reconsider these plans and to look instead at adaptive re-use. All this came to naught as the city woke up one morning in February to the sound of jackhammers gnawing away at the 60-year old edifice.
The controversy made the front pages of the national dailies. It was also picked up by television. The HCS, desperate after finding no response to normal channels of opposition, mounted demonstrations and a vigil. An e-mail barrage was also launched to try to get the mayor to reverse his decision. Some members, led by Architect Dom Galicia, took a more direct approach by physically putting themselves between the demolition machines and the building.
The drama went on for over a month as the debate continued in editorial pages and letters to the editor. Schools of architecture and the two architectural associations, the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) and the Philippine Institute of Architects (PIA), sent letters of support and expressed alarm. At this point the issue went regional as both Asiaweek and Newsweek picked up the story.
But despite the publicity, public pressure and the valiant efforts of the HCS, the building came down. Politics and government’s lack of awareness of and concern for cultural heritage won the day. Despite this, the cause of the HCS and other groups from civil society was given a boost. The sacrifice of the Jai Alai building helped fuel efforts for conservation and gather support for other endangered buildings and sites.
To date the rubble-filled site of the demolished Jai Alai building stands empty. The construction of the new courts building may have to wait for a new local government or even a new national dispensation to become a reality.
Two other controversies in Manila ran parallel to the Jai Alai issue. Nearby, the walls of Intramuros were being desecrated while by the waterfront a new complex started construction, endangering the historic fabric of the Luneta.
Charges were filed against Intramuros Administrator Dominador Ferrer for causing “irreparable damage” to the Intramuros walls. The HCS again led the struggle through the efforts of its president, Bambi Harper, and its executive director, Attorney Trixie Cruz-Angeles.
The desecration of the walls also started two years ago when a license was given to a private company to build restaurants on top. The restaurants turned out to be cheap, inelegant lean-tos meant to serve the large student population of Intramuros. Guidelines set by the Intramuros Administration (IA) for proper construction were violated. After the media and the public were alerted, the IA backed off only to resurrect the project in another form.
A lease was granted to a private company to re-use the Baluarte de San Angeles, Puerta Isabel II Chambers, Sta. Lucia barracks, American barracks and portions of the Asean Garden. The HCS discovered that the establishments which subleased these from the main company again did not follow IA guidelines and did not have any permits. The walls and interiors have been damaged by the renovation work.
A related issue, raised by both Harper and Augusto Villalon in their respective newspaper columns, was the inappropriateness of locating music lounges and restaurants within the walls themselves when there were several other areas within Intramuros that could be redeveloped for these uses. All these issues highlighted the general problem of finding a viable approach to managing the conservation of the historic district and highlighting its role in revitalizing central Manila, including Binondo, across the river on the north, Luneta on the south, and the waterfront on the west.
On this waterfront rose another threat to the historic fabric of the city and to the Luneta in particular. The Philippine Tourism Authority, under the leadership of Lito Banayo, launched its “Waterfront Development Project.” This P400-million “flagship” project proposes a new structure to be built off the existing promenade behind the Quirino grandstand. The structure, designed by Architect Froilan Hong, is a boardwalk elevated above the water and housing restaurants and related facilities.
The project was started last year. The initial designs were much criticized for the bulk of the structure, its lack of contextual connection with colonial buildings in the area, and the loss both of physical access to the waterfront and the view of Manila’s famed sunset. Again the HCS led efforts to oppose any further building on the waterfront to conserve this historical and natural resource. The Philippine Association of Landscape Architects also voiced its concern over the project’s environmental impact.
The revised design, released earlier this year, showed adjustments to these criticisms, including a study of visual corridors to the bay. Assurances, too, were given that the new promenade would be freely accessible to the public and that environmental concerns would be addressed. However, public hearings, if any were called at all, did not seem to have been given due publicity.
Endorsed by Mayor Atienza, the waterfront project proceeded with initial piling works by the middle of the year. Since then little progress has been visible. There is a danger that, like the city courts intended to be housed in the Jai Alai site, this project might have to be sidelined in view of the current political crisis and the May 2000 elections. Like the Jumbo Floating Restaurant at the other end of the bay, this project might turn into another half-submerged white elephant.
A similar controversy was brewing in Cebu City’s waterfront area. Mayor Alvin Garcia unveiled plans for Cebu’s own waterfront redevelopment with a bypass road to be built under historic Plaza Independencia. Concerned citizens and local architects raised a howl as the construction endangered centuries-old acacia trees and the overall waterfront development plan had been set with little consultation with stakeholder groups.
The common thread in all of these controversies is the lack of transparency and public participation in the process of deciding on the viability of the project, its compatibility within heritage sites or its relation to landmark structures. Of concern, too, is the expenditure of hundreds of millions of pesos in public funds (or projected loans to be paid eventually by the public) to realize questionable construction projects.
On other matters related to conservation, we have seen or will see the demolition of several more landmark buildings significant in Philippine twentieth century architectural development.
In Makati, the Neimeyeresque Union Church by Jose Zaragoza was demolished to make way for a new church. A magnificent yucca tree (Yucca elephantipes) perished in the process. The Insular Life Building on Ayala Avenue, a landmark tower by Cesar Concio, is slated for demolition soon. (Napoleon Abueva’s masterful relief on the building’s façade is being transferred to a new site or saved for the new replacement building.) Finally, there is confirmation that Leandro Locsin’s Ayala Museum will be leveled and a new museum built on a corner site nearby. The demolition reportedly comes with Locsin’s blessing (given before he passed away), and his son Andy is supervising the design of the new edifice.
In old Manila, the marvelous Marvel Building on Calle Juan Luna disappeared overnight. Many buildings in the Binondo and Escolta areas are sporting demolition permits or, like the art deco Meralco Headquarters on San Marcelino Street, are boarded up, awaiting decisions for its sale or demolition. While in New Manila, Quezon City, as well as older residential districts of Sta. Ana, Sampaloc and San Juan, we are losing heritage houses almost every week, with many being turned into standard, high-density, nondescript townhouse developments.
Hope for Heritage
There have been a few bright spots in the conservation scene. One is the conservation of St. Cecilia’s Hall at the campus of St. Scholastica’s College in Manila. The 1932 design of Andres Luna de San Pedro (renovated in 1955 by Carlos Arguelles) was used sensitively in reconfiguring and improving the layout of the hall. The hall has been improved with the addition of an orchestra pit, air-conditioning, and improvements in lighting and acoustics. The conservation and renovation architects were the O.B. Mapua Group led by O.B. Mapua and Joel Lopez. Theater design was by Dennis Marasigan and Gerry Fernandez with interiors by Joel Panlilio.
Another excellent example of conservation and adaptive re-use that opened this year is the Museo Ilocos Norte in Laoag. An old brick Tabacalera warehouse was converted into a museum on Ilocano life. Conservation architect Rene Luis Mata resurrected the edifice with the help of historian Regalado Trota Jose and Al Valenciano. Mata’s approach to conservation was thorough yet accommodating to modern functional requirements of a museum.
The Malate Church Convent and Mission Center was also inaugurated this year. The competition for the project was won the other year by the firm of P.Y. Lim and Partners. The new, four-story building replaces the old convento built in 1948. The new building fits in the context of the site and reflects the architectural style of Malate Church in details like the cornice treatment and fenestration. Though not a strictly conservation project, the new building shows how heritage sites can accommodate expanded uses without compromising historical integrity.
Other conservation efforts in places like Vigan, Taal, Silay and the southern towns of Cebu, among others, have thrived despite apathy from local government authorities and lack of public awareness. But on the main, most towns and cities still neglect their heritage. Iloilo’s Fort San Pedro, which houses a beer garden within its crumbling walls, epitomizes this. Efforts by the local UAP chapter and support from Sen. Franklin Drilon have yet to see fruition.
The NCCA, the HCS and the UAP have pursued programs for documentation of heritage sites and buildings, organized talks and seminars on adaptive re-use and heritage conservation. A Heritage Bill is also being prepared in Congress and the Senate to give more teeth to these programs and to arrest the continuing depletion of irreplaceable cultural resources of built heritage.
Architecture in Media
Architecture and design continued to enjoy increasing space and exposure in national dailies and magazines in the first year of the new century. A number of books on Philippine architecture or featuring Philippine projects were launched this year. Our built heritage was also given television coverage on cable channels such as Lakbay TV and on regular television shows like “Probe” (on specific issues like the Jai Alai and Intramuros).
Philippine Star and Philippine Daily Inquirer led most national dailies in the amount of space given. Both have regular columns on architecture and urban issues. The lifestyle and metro sections of both newspapers regularly feature architecture and design, a contrast to a number of years ago when most articles on architecture were fairly limited to the construction and real estate pages. Other newspapers like Philippine Post, The Manila Times, and The Chronicle, printed features on architecture and interior design (mostly residential work).
Design magazines have survived drastically cut advertising budgets. The field is led by veteran publication Design and Architecture and relative newcomer Bluprint Magazine (now on its second year). Other magazines like Arkikonst and Hinge manage to hang on.
In December, the University of the Philippines’ College of Architecture launched a new journal. Muhon is a semi-annual publication on architecture, landscape architecture and environmental design. The inaugural issue contained papers ranging from practical issues in “Parking Design in the Tropics” by Zenaida Galingan to a postmodernist/poststructuralist look at Filipino space in “‘Mala-Baklang Espasyo’ sa Arkitekturang Filipino: Estetika, Morpolohiya, Konteksto (Panimulang Pagtuklas At Paggalugad).”
The title of the journal was originally used as a title for a travelling exhibit on Filipino architecture funded by the NCCA that started with a CCP launch early in the year. Launched this year, too, was an NCCA-sponsored publication on vernacular building practices in the Philippines. Appropriately titled Oro, Plata, Mata, the book is the work of Ernesto Zarate, a practicing architect. The book had its origin in a series of advertisements for Amon Trading Corporation in the ’60s that featured building practices similar to Chinese geomancy.
Last June another practicing architect, Bnn C. Bautista (with a collaborator, Franklin Primo Libatique), launched Philippine Architecture 1948-1978 (Reyes Publishing, Quezon City). The project had a tentative start in 1975 involving interviews with the likes of Locsin, Nakpil, Mendoza, Formoso, the Mañosa brothers. It took another 25 years for the book to see print.
The book contains a selection of 11 buildings which the authors felt had a strong impact on the architectural profession, including Juan Nakpil’s UP buildings, the Mañosa brothers’ Sulu Restaurant, Locsin’s CCP, Angel Nakpil’s National Press Club, and Felipe Mendoza’s Batasang Pambansa Complex. The book is uneven in graphic quality and loosely structured in its writing. But it is a laudable effort, considering the dearth of writing on contemporary Filipino architecture, and the book was personally funded by the authors.
Filipino architecture continued to slowly come to the attention of regional and international readers. Robert Powell’s new book, the fourth in his series on residential design in Asia, entitled The New Asian house (Select Publishing, Singapore), features two Filipino architects. The Pablito Calma House by Ed Calma and the Chan House by Joey Yupangco are featured in a collection that includes works of rising stars in Asian architecture like Kamil Merican of Malaysia and Wong Mun Sum of Singapore.
The same houses are also featured in another book, Tropical Living: Contemporary Dream Houses in the Philippines by Elizabeth Reyes, Fernando Zialcita and Paulo Alcazaren with photography by Chester Ong (Periplus Editions, Hong Kong). This book follows in the steps of Filipino Style of two years ago but with a more focused theme and featuring more work by a new generation of architects like Manny Minana, Bong Recio, Conrad Onglao, Benny Velasco and Andy Locsin.
Discourse in Architecture
The year saw three major symposia tackling urban planning, design, and architectural issues. Two of these were hosted by academe and the third by a forward-thinking developer.
Last April the first symposium was organized by the College of Architecture and Fine Arts of the University of Santo Tomas. “Cities 2000: Sustainable and Humane” drew over 300 participants. Three days of talks covered over 70 case studies of architecture and planning interventions to cope with problems of housing and city planning. These produced much interaction among architects, planners, and public administrators from the regions and from the rest of the world.
At times it seemed that more talks had been scheduled than could be accommodated within the tight schedule. But this might be attributed to both the enthusiasm of the organizers and the increasing acknowledgement of the importance of professionally addressing the problems of cities in general and the distinctive problems of Asian megacities in particular.
Significantly, the convention led to the drafting of the “Human Cities Agenda 2000,” a manifesto highlighting the dire problems of urbanization and proposing solutions and sustainable approaches to development. The first meeting was organized with the NCCA, the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners (PIEP), the Eastern Regional Organization for Planning and Housing, ARCASIA, and the UAP. At that meeting, it was agreed that the convention would be held every two years.
The second event was a seminar presented as part of the Luis A. Yulo Memorial Series II and sponsored by Teleray Investment and Development Corp. The forum sought to “examine the impacts of the paradigm choice (of post-war models of real estate development) and its direct relationship to the social fabric.”
“The Quest for Community: New Urbanism in Asia” featured the New Urbanist couple Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk as main speakers. Also featured were Yatin Pandya, associate director of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, Dr. Heng Chye Kiang of the National University of Singapore, architect Jun Palafox, and this writer. Co-sponsors were Palafox and Associates and the local UAP chapter.
The third event was another conference on megacities hosted by the Far Eastern University. The “International Conference on Metro Manila and Megacities Development” carried the official theme of “Managing Megacities: 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities.” The timing of the conference in September was less than ideal, for there was the peace and order problem in the South and political turmoil was brewing in Manila.
Other venues for discourse were not lacking. The UAP, the Philippine Institute of Architects, and the PIEP held their respective annual national conventions with the requisite seminars and talks. The subjects of these talks have shifted noticeably in the last two years from practical issues of competitive global practice and building technology to “softer,” more academic topics of history and concerns for architectural conservation.
The UAP, which celebrated its silver jubilee this year, hosted talks that emphasized planning issues. The topics: “Proposed Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance in the City of Makati” by Prof. Geronimo Manahan, “Moral Values in Environmental Planning” by Sixto E. Tolentino, and “The Quezon City Land Use and Zoning” by architect Gerry Magat. The rest of the talks featured academic discussions of conservation and history: “Architectural Preservation of Historical Philippine Churches” by Fr. Pedro G. Galende, OSA, and “Arkitekturang Filipino: Spaces and Places in History” by Felipe de Leon Jr., Regalado T. Jose, and Augusto Villalon.
The UAP, which has a new national president in architect Prosperidad C. Luis, has also co-organized a travelling exhibition with the NCCA’s Committee on Architecture and Monuments and Sites. “Arkitekturang Filipino: Spaces and Places in History” was curated by two UP-based architects, Edson Cabalfin and Gerard Lico.
Lico and Cabalfin shaped the exhibit to bring out the heterotopic quality of our architecture. They framed it as a process developed “out of contradiction, mediation, and transformation.” The exhibit’s visuals accentuated the physical and spatial texture of Filipino architecture, but the curators also endeavored to make manifest Filipino architecture’s cultural expression as politics, ideology, and power.
That these two architects of the younger generation have pursued scholarship in architectural history, theory, and criticism is a good sign for Philippine architecture. Even more encouraging is that they and a few others have taken to sharing their research and insights as writers, given more space in print media and supported by institutions like the NCCA and the UAP.
Intellectual discourse is slowly spreading and increasing in depth. There is still a restrained air in these scholars’ critiques, but the untested, seemingly shallow waters of public and professional appreciation may lead to an acceptance of architectural criticism as a valued part of the process of evolving a Filipino architecture.
This discourse is needed, too, in architectural pedagogy. In 2000, the two leading schools, UST and UP, have embarked on programs to refocus their syllabi in response on current concerns for “green” architecture and greater exposure to aspects of heritage, and the urban context of emerging Asian and Philippine architecture.
The UST under a new dean, architect Louis Ferrer, is restructuring as a consequence of its separation from the College of Fine Arts. The UP College of Architecture, under its also relatively new dean, architect Cristopher S.P. Espina, is encouraging more research and its publication. Other schools like the FEU are taking more pro-active stances.
The rest of the academe, however, is for the status quo, producing architectural graduates to feed into the global market for competent CADD operators and backroom designers. The need is for more architects of competence no doubt, but also needed are professionals of calibers with ambition, self-esteem and leadership.
This is what we have to do internally. Externally we still need to project our architecture as our own and not just as an adaptation or mere mutation of foreign “styles.” One opportunity came our way through a piece of Filipino architecture framed as a national exposition pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hanover last year.
Exposing Filipino Architecture to the World
International expositions have always been an opportunity to showcase our contemporary architecture and benchmark ourselves against the rest of the world. Notable in the Philippines’ past participation in these events have been Otelio Arellano’s salakot pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair and Leandro Locsin’s shell pavilion at the Expo ’70 in Osaka.
After 30 years of absence, the Philippines resurfaced at the Expo 2000 Hanover with a pavilion that reflected the state of Philippine architecture, just as the pavilions of ’64 and ’70 reflected its states in their respective times. Participation was made possible by CITEM, Department of Trade and Industry, NCCA and the German government resulted in the commissioning of architect Ed Calma’s pavilion’s design. Given a tight budget and little time, Calma produced a piece of work as distinctive in form as the two previous Philippine pavilions.
While Arellano’s salakot was literal and Locsin’s shell was expressionist, Calma’s sensual weave of bamboo lines and planes was evocative. His basket-like construction of bamboo-derived elements created an environment, a deconstructed architecture that sought more to frame its contents than to contain them in a conventional envelope.
Calma’s piece differed situationally from the previous two in that it was housed in a cavernous interior space instead of in the open. There was no need to aim for a distinctive silhouette or to bother with climate control. Freed from these constraints, Calma’s design focused on an almost totally introverted delineation of space and the temporal experience of moving through it as displacements of interaction with the various artifacts and digital images contained in the pavilion.
Calma’s design was augmented by Melissa LaO’s installations. She used elements that unfolded from the logic and structure of Calma’s framework. These in turn contained the digitized or printed images and served as plinths for material that provided the layering in a texture that was to blur both message and medium. Unfortunately, the message or curatorial content was, in the opinion of many, decidedly less focused than the medium.
The trade fair was the biggest in the world this year and ran from June to October. It was popular with the expo’s visitors. There was a recurring theme of the use of timber in many pavilions like Finland’s. The Philippines’ contribution was in the use of an indigenous material, bamboo, which is gaining popularity now that appropriate downstream processing technology has been developed.
The contribution of Calma’s piece to Filipino architecture was the experiment in the process and production of form based on the goal of projecting a positive image of the Philippines. Issue may be taken with this very goal as the image projected was one that seemed to overly commodify Filipino craft and creativity. More disturbingly, it also commodified Filipinos themselves as entertainers or highly skilled exportable labor, adding value to economic or cultural enterprise in other countries, except our own. Calma’s appropriation of a foreign technology (the bamboo process is German-developed) as a tool for producing a Filipino form and framework seemed opposite to the message of our cultural and social displacement.
This may be the gist of our architectural dilemma. Content and form in our architecture, our contemporary culture and the spatial and aesthetic expression of it, are either in a state of flux and evolving or dangerously dissipating in the blinding light of a globalizing culture. Exposure works two ways—we can move forward and use the process to further develop our architecture, or we can be absorbed by the resurgence of internationalism in world architecture. We can continue to “play” with fashionable form given the natural talent we have for mimicry, or we can strive (a term connoting conscious effort) to experiment (as Calma, LaO, and a number of younger Filipino architects have done) to make form and content have real meaning.
Redefining the boundaries of Philippine Architecture
The year 2000 was a benchmark year for Philippine architecture. Heritage loss like the Jai Alai and the impending loss of other landmarks, such as the Insular Life Building by Concio and Locsin’s Ayala Museum, have not been balanced with any new work. This situation pervaded 2000 save for a few bursts of creative flair like Calma’s pavilion and the continuing expression by a younger architectural generation in residential design. Major new work in progress like the Ninoy Aquino International Airport III terminal building and numerous towers in our city are foreign-designed, relegating Filipino architects-of-record to the role of glorified draftsmen, delineating our future buildings and sites under the homogenizing gaze of western culture.
The older generation of Filipino architects have, like Felipe Mendoza, passed away or, like Concio, retired into anonymity. Their work and contributions are unappreciated and much worse, mainly undocumented. A younger transitional generation (back from stints abroad) is mainly practicing based on sheer talent, rehashing styles and forms absorbed from overseas as well as driven by marketability and fashion. With few exceptions, the goal of Filipino architecture has been to produce goods for consumption rather than to create environments that ennoble our culture and to discover viable patterns of increasingly dense urban life in the tropics.
Physical tragedies, like the Payatas and Cherry Hills incidents, have caused the profession and academe to reexamine their environmental and social responsibilities. Our schools of architecture and the various related professional organizations have taken steps to acknowledge these responsibilities and to benchmark progress along more environmentally sustainable and culturally sensitive lines.
Housing for the Filipino masses remains an unattainable dream given the continuing tight grip of the paradigm of sprawl and low-rise/high-density formulas for residential typology. Meanwhile, cultural and institutional architecture is in the doldrums, creating quickly crumbling symbols of political corruption rather than monuments and sites of civic pride.
All crises and tragedies can be turned into opportunities. Philippine architecture should rebuild on the debris of a shattered economy and shore up the foundations with a conserved heritage and more substantial intellectual discourse. Academe and professional associations must endeavor to reorient the occidental inclinations of Filipino clients and the public, along with retrofitting the mindsets of Filipino architects themselves.
The next year should bring a perceptible shift in the way we view our architecture and the process with which we produce our knowledge, our practice and our experience of it. This shift must occur, or the benchmark of 2000 may be lost in the mire of social and cultural miasma, brewing in the wake of neo-colonial, glossy, Mc-globalized, throw-away architecture.