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The facade of San Pedro Cathedral, city's historical landmark erected in 1847 and redesigned by Manning Chiew in 1964. Photo by Alexis Matthew Reyes

Beyond the Vernacular: The Promise of a Truly Filipino Architecture

Perhaps the finest approach to understanding a country and its people, is by studying, and by understanding its culture: from their history and lore, to their traditions, rituals—their crafts.

Though, despite encompassing a broad spectrum of aspects that make up a civilization, “culture,” in this context, may arguably be most present, or at least best represented, in a country’s art and architecture.

Renowned scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said that culture is most present in a country’s art and architecture; it’s what makes a country its own, it’s what sets it aside from others.

“When I think of culture, what do I think of? You visit other countries, and then they show you what it is that makes them ‘them,’ and not you. And in almost every case… you are looking at their art… their architecture—you are looking at aspects of civilization that has been empowered by science and engineering,” Tyson explained during a 2015 episode of his talk show for National Geographic, StarTalk.

Tyson’s statement holds true with how we recognize and associate feats of architecture to a country’s culture.

For example, we associate Egyptian culture with the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. We associate Greece and Rome with their iconic, and often, colossal structures: The Temple of Hera (Heraion), the Erechtheion, and the Colosseum. And we also associate the intricate and often colorful bas-reliefs of Hindu Temples (i.e. the Ganesha Temple), with India.

Unlike the examples mentioned above however, the Philippines holds a culturally diverse history but has nonetheless failed to establish and develop an approach to architecture that is wholly unique to the country and is beyond the native Bahay Kubo, and the Bahay na Bato.

For decades now there has been an ongoing dispute on the existence of a truly Filipino architecture.

On the one hand, we have had experts saying that it has no real representation beyond the vernacular, and on the other, we’ve had experts claiming the exact opposite.

When the former rejects the very notion of “Filipino” architecture, the latter argues that when we cannot find the “Filipino” in the structures’ design per se, one can still surely find it in the planning, the materiality, and even in a building’s spaces themselves.

Such polarizing stands on the existence, and even on the very nature of Filipino architecture, has been an issue of intense dispute in the country since the early 70s.

Though attempts at “nation-building” through architecture was a pervasive movement during that decade, what resulted may have been something more of an exhibition of expressionistic, or Brutalist designs, which later came to be known as “Marcosian Modernism,” rather than “Filipino.”

Icons of Filipino architecture like Leandro Locsin (Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, Tanghalang Pambansa), and Juan Nakpil (University of the Philippines Administration building) have also partied themselves with the architectural stylings of the Beaux-Art movement, the Bauhaus school, and the works of modernists like Gehry, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright, in the past. With that, much of the development of Filipino Architecture as a reflection of Filipino culture has undoubtedly stagnated.

Colonial(ized) architecture

 Locsin, who was honored as National Artist of the Philippines in Architecture, once defined the nature of Filipino architecture as the “…residue of the different overlays of foreign influences left in the Philippines over the centuries.”

This architectural style, when put simply, is the by-product of the different cultures that have rooted themselves in the country which includes vestiges of Malay, Hindu, Arab, and Chinese cultures, and as well as a ubiquity of Spanish and American influences.

This definition, however, is arguably not applicable to modern context.

Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa, the champion of Filipino architecture, had time and time again lamented of the state of architecture in the country: “form should follow function, but here, form follows fashion.”

In an article published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in February 2013, Mañosa expressed his dismay as Filipinos would often always prefer Western architecture, despite its incompatibility with the country’s climate and geography over local ones.

It’s as if architecture in the country had now fallen into an architecture of conformity to the fads and trends set by the West.

For him, foreign architectural styles constructed and endorsed in the country are simply not suited for the country’s climate, lifestyle, and is, moreover, “…a horrible blight on the otherwise beautiful landscape of our beloved motherland.”

 Sharing the same views as Bobby Mañosa is Architect Manuel “Maning” Chiew—a pioneer practitioner of architecture in Davao City with over half a century’s worth of experience in the field. With innumerable projects undertaken, his most notable contribution to the city is perhaps his redesign of the San Pedro Parish Church during the 1960s.

In an interview, Architect Chiew explained that “[there is] a lack of appreciation rooted in, number one, owners themselves who don’t want Filipino architecture because there is this stigma that it will look provincial; and number two, because of economics.”

Chiew also noted on how we are brought up in a culture that perpetuates colonial mentality which, for him, is to blame for the people’s preferences for Western design.

The 88-year-old architect also puts his blame on the attitude of architects themselves for the underdevelopment of Filipino architecture.

“It’s the architect’s ego that gets the better of him; he conforms to Western fads because he or she believes these are better. There is no conformity, no cohesion—it’s horrible! Most architects, don’t have the right attitude of preserving design and culture,” Ar. Chiew expressed.

“…Museums, restaurants—this is the only time where an architect can express their want for cultural design,” he added

Architect Chiew, however, also admitted that beyond the demands of the clientele, translating what he calls “provincial” Filipino architecture into modern architecture had always been a challenge.

“Mahirap ang translation ng Filipino architecture into something multi-storey… unless we can find a way to translate vernacular architecture into something that can be used or be a basis for commercial structures—something that can be mid or high-rise that will click. If you cannot do that, you’d end up back to the provincial,” he explained.

Davao City Hall, located along the famous San Pedro street, is one of the city's significant structures. Photo by: Alexis Matthew Reyes
Davao City Hall, located along the famous San Pedro street, is one of the city’s significant structures. Photo by Alexis Matthew Reyes

 

Beyond the native and the provincial

 Contrary to Leandro Locsin’s rigid definition on Filipino Architecture as being the amalgam of the different cultures that have once been present in the country, Bobby Mañosa instead provided a more flexible definition for the style.

According to Mañosa, it’s with Filipino values, the structure’s suitability to Philippine climate, and the use of indigenous materials, which make architecture “truly” Filipino.

With these three factors defining his design approach throughout his career, the 86-year-old architect has produced iconic structures that advocated, and promoted, Filipino identity. Among his most notable works include the Coconut Palace, the EDSA Shrine, and Davao’s very own Pearl Farm.

Mañosa’s devotion to developing Filipino Architecture have also inspired many of his contemporaries. Some of the most prominent names in this roster include Rosario “Ning” Encarnacion-Tan, author of “100 Things About Building with Bamboo,” and Emmanuel Miñana, who has been acclaimed for his “Neo-Bahay-na-Bato.”

However, despite his acclaim and influence, Mañosa had nevertheless earned ire from his contemporaries. With many of the criticisms aimed primarily at his “archaic” approach to design, and for his designs being too “Filipiniana,” and therefore “unexportable.”

Yet, through it all, Mañosa remains stalwart in his stand and in his practice. Silencing his critics with an adage that can only come from a person of his stature: “I am a Filipino architect, and I only design Filipino.”

Certainly, there is much ado surrounding the very nature of “Filipino Architecture.” With so many different interpretations and takes on what it truly is or what it should represent, it’s not hard to imagine that we are still miles away from a conclusion—miles away from settling with a singular definition.

With so many factors to consider, perhaps it’s not in the literal where we can find the “Filipino” in architecture, or maybe it is. Or perhaps it’s in the making, the designing—or in the intent, where we can find it—or then again, maybe not.

Through this all, however, one thing is for sure, and that is in order to develop our architecture, we must first understand our culture—or in the verbiage of Mañosa himself, “in order to design Filipino, you must understand what it means to be Filipino.”

 

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