Benchmarking Philippine Architecture
May 6, 2012 Leave a comment
Benchmarking Philippine Architecture
By Paulo G. Alcazaren
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 “TheQuezon City Land Use and Zoning” by architect Gerry Magat. The rest of the talks featuredacademic 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 traveling 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 theCollegeof 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 Expo2000 inHanoverlast 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 inOsaka. After 30 years of absence, thePhilippinesresurfaced at the Expo 2000Hanoverwith 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 likeFinland’s. ThePhilippines’ 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 thePhilippines. Issue maybe taken with this very goal as the image projected was one that seemed to overly commodifyFilipino 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 theInsularLife Buildingby Concio and Locsin’sAyalaMuseum, have not been balanced with any new work. This situation pervaded 2000 save fora 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, mainlyundocumented. 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, globalized, throw-away architecture.
PAULO G. ALCAZAREN is a landscape architect involved in several major projects here and abroad. He recently received his M. A. in Urban Design from the National University of Singapore. He also writes a weekly column for the Philippine Star on architecture and heritage conservation.