what, not where:
the filipino architect in the megacity

A month ago, landscape architect and urban historian Paulo Alcazaren asked the question "Where are the Filipino architects?" in his CITY SENSE column for The Philippine Star. The column is reprinted in this entry on Arkiboks and in this post at the Heritage Conservation Society-Youth egroup. (You have to be a member to read the egroup thread.)

So this is a belated reply to Paulo's thoughts. I offer a critique, not a reaction and I hide behind Malcolm Gladwell who thought that "the immediacy of web publishing makes some people lazy. They type faster than they think; or they believe that a reaction is the same thing as an argument."

Alcazaren bewailed the lack of visibility (and business) of local architects:

"Philippine architecture in 2006 finds itself at the edge of another construction boom. The problem today is not so much how to project Philippine architecture abroad as it is to project itself into the consciousness of contemporary Filipinos.

"Filipino architects are generally invisible. Almost no Philippine designer is a household name. This is because of the commodification of the whole process of making houses. These are known as "housing products" (the term used by developers), designed anonymously and built by model number or mass produced like burgers and fries."
I agree with him that the Filipino architect is largely invisible - the big names in the field are a generation old (Locsin, Nakpil, Santos, etc.). And yes, the local industry is not immune from the commodification of architecture into "housing products" -but that trend has been around for more than half a century. He should not be surprised that the factory paradigm (the dominant business model since Henry Ford invented the assembly line) should invade the business of real estate.

I do think, though, that he is looking in the wrong place, bewailing the wrong cause. He's not so much asking "where are the Filipino architects?" as he is asking why the architects aren't landing projects and making money.

"Where are the 30,000 or so Filipino architects and affiliated design professionals? They are invisible, save to their immediate relatives or project managers of real estate development firms who are tasked to produce the best product with the least budget (cheap but good) and if there was a budget, to pay a foreign consultant premium fees, which more often that not cut into the local consultants' fees."
Alcazaren argues that "Good Filipino architecture and its related disciplines can create the physical settings for social and economic change." Which I cannot disagree with but he ends his rant with an exhortation to the public and the profession to:
"give Philippine architecture a long hard look. Filipino clients have to give Filipino architects and related professionals the chance to do what they do best – design wonderful buildings, malls, resorts and housing to world-class standards (emphasis mine -udc). But to do this, world-class fees must also be part of the deal. If you pay peanuts, you get houses for monkeys."

This is where I part with him. I think the Filipino architect is invisible because they are worrying about the wrong problems. They look at the building boom and their own lack of commissions for the "buildings, malls, resorts and housing." They look at the money trail and worry that the big names from the western world (brands, really) have eaten their share -and this, they claim is the reason why they cannot build imaginative, inspiring Filipino architecture. Alcazaren presses their case (despite his pontifications) and unabashedly says that the Filipino architect can become visible -can be relevant -if only they get a fair cut of the big projects coming down the pike.

I contend that they are irrelevant because the problem they are bewailing is selfish and irrelevant to the current issues challenging our megacity. They worry that upper and middle class housing has become commoditized when the big problem staring Metro Manila in the face is a housing shortfall of 1M units. They worry about the big private projects when the issue at hand is the lack of civic life and civic sense in our urban life. They worry about their names on condominiums and subdivisions when we are challenged by unlivable streets and the lack of public spaces.

I do not hold it against architects to seek profit, they are running businesses not charities. But I do expect them, as individuals trained to understand the built environment, to speak out and help find solutions to the urgent issues that confront their countrymen who must live in that built environment. I hold it against them for looking at the "buildings, malls, resorts" and overlooking the dense squatter colonies and the inhospitable roads that are the fabric of our megacity.

I would be remiss if I generalized that all Filipino architects are infected with the above irrelevance, there is the work of CentroMigrante and TAO-Pilipinas. I also know that semester after semester, students from the UP and UST schools of architecture work on projects that consider design solutions to the problems of informal and low-cost housing.

I don't intend this post to just be a counter rant -but as a challenge. I leave you dear reader (perchance you might be an architect) to find inspiration in some of the work that I cite below. Innovations are coming to the field of architecture and the business of building human habitats. Our megacity presents an amazing real world laboratory for which our architects can create innovations that we can share with the other megacities that share our plight and our challenges. Instead of dreaming of achieving the monumentality of I.M. Pei, they should inspire themselves to find the sensitivity of Charles Correa. They should be an active voice in the shaping of policies that ultimately shape our built environment.

The two projects below take the idea assembly line beyond the pre-fab of products like Vazbuilt and the catalogue houses it takes its patterns from. Green technologies - new paradigms and new technologies are promising to both lower the cost and speed the roll out of housing. Our architects would do well to consider these approaches.

This article in the January 2007 issue of WIRED magazine, featured the Loblolly house.
Snapped together from a combination of modules, panels, and preformed structural frames, the Loblolly house, named for the loblolly pines here in the Maryland tidewater area, is a manifesto for a new way of building. Architect Kieran and his partner, James Timberlake, have long been known for their finely crafted and energy-efficient buildings and materials. But the Philadelphia-based pair wanted more than just high-profile commissions – they were looking for a breakthrough technology that would let them make smarter, greener structures that could go up quickly and cheaply.

In 2001, after studying how the automotive, aircraft, and shipbuilding industries had revolutionized themselves over the previous 15 years, Kieran and Timberlake realized that architecture needed the equivalent of an integrated circuit. They began to combine glass, drywall, pipe, and wood frames into finished units, each precision-engineered for cost, beauty, and sustainability. In the Loblolly house, the walls and floors are made of panels (some as tall as 21 feet) that were manufactured with wiring, insulation, plumbing, and ductwork already in place. And the main power systems of the home, including two bathrooms and the galley kitchen, were delivered to the construction site in preassembled, plug-and-play units. After the site was prepared, the 2,200-square-foot house took three weeks to assemble.

Then there is the soon to be rolled-out technology that allows construction companies to "print out" a building.

Contour Crafting (CC) is a layered fabrication technology developed by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California. Contour Crafting technology has great potential for automating the construction of whole structures as well as sub-components. Using this process, a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning.

The potential applications of this technology are far reaching including but not limited to applications in emergency, low-income, and commercial housing.

Image credit: Previ Housing by Charles Correa. (Lima, Peru. 1969-1973).


poni said...

tumpak :) it's the design solutions that need to be advocated, not recognition for the architects themselves. it will follow. there's so much to work on...(example: disaster-resilient buildings - Bicol's hospitals were in really bad shape after Typhoon Reming), schools, communities. the architects and planners need to be visible not for themselves, but for the people they are supposed to help :)

Sustainable Advocate said...

Then again there's also the work of young Filipino Architect Lira Luis who is gaining quite a reputation in the USA that the Philippines is failing to recognize. Take a look at significant projects to help the cause of lack of housing that she has been developing:


The Philippines’s growing shipping industry attracts thousands of rural Filipinos and foreign nationals to the nation’s port cities. While waiting for jobs aboard cargo ships, these so-called seafarers often find themselves homeless. Filipino-born Luis learned of their plight in mid-2003 and was soon commissioned by the Pier One Seaman’s Dorm, a seafarer organization, to design low-cost, easily transportable housing for this transient population.

Luis is currently finishing work on a prototype of the project. Measuring roughly 90 square feet, the “pod” contains a bed, shelves, and a closet. Made of lightweight composite plastic, fabric, and perforated metal, one person can assemble the pod without requiring special tools or fasteners. “It’s like a Lego set that you assemble, a kit of parts,” Luis explains. “There’s no need for screws, because the parts snap into grooves.” For easy storage and transportation, the pod folds into a case the size of a large art portfolio.

Luis’s original thought was that seafarers could rent the pods like hotel rooms, and assemble them inside abandoned buildings or parking garages. The Seaman’s Dorm was unable to generate enough funding for the project, though, so Luis is now seeking other investors. She is also hoping to partner with an organization willing to produce the pods and donate them to people displaced by the tsunami.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


I agree that recognition follows relevancy (a twist on form follows function?). thanks for crossposting on arkiboks/


Thanks for the heads-up on Lira Luis. I had actually read about her before - I think she was also featured in Metropolis.

Anonymous said...

although i think bauhaus designs are superior against closed and irregular labyrinths in terms of functionality, durability and cost-effectiveness, the trend is creating contorted shapes (i.e. twisted or folded) under the guise of hypermodernism. but the real question is, "what is the shape of hypermodern designs?", or to make it plain, "what are (or how can we classify)the shapes of buildings a hundred years hence?".

Urbano dela Cruz said...

"what is the shape of hypermodern designs?"

ok. you've totally lost me.

we can start a conversation on new construction technology and the cues it takes from fashion (and vice versa) - re: folding. re: herzog & de meuron, scott cohen, FOA, etc.

but what does that have to do with the price of bread?

or were you just trying to impress us?

Anonymous said...

you seem to be the most informed sir. pardon my interruption, i was merely asking a question. i'm not trying to start a conversation.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

i'm sorry, anonymous. I didn't mean to be such a curmudgeon.

i do welcome your question (isn't that what conversations are built on? questions, answers -that lead to more questions?)

in the context of this blog, I would like to twist it one other way: instead of asking what buildings will look like 100 years from now, we can ask, what will cities look like 100 years from now?

that's a conversation I can look forward to!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"recognition follows relevancy"; "contorted shapes"; "hypermodern design"; "herzog & de meuron"; "curmudgeon"; beauhaus designs"... very impressive, indeed, but please, "speaka da Englisha"!Salamat po.

archiandesigns said...

Hi guys,
Our architecture (or our vision of it) after 100 years might look interesting but probability speaks that if our leaders don't let visionary planners do their thing, we might be worse than now. https://archiandesigns.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/benchmarking-philippine-architecture/

Todd Notch said...

Philippine Architects are really of world-class talents. I am really proud of them.

Anonymous said...

Just trying to give a different perspective on what architecture is in my point of view. I am basing my argument on the ideas and philosophies of Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi, which is critically inclining on paper architecture. Architecture can be defined by its two essential entities which is its physical and metaphysical states, we cannot quantify architecture because architecture is not a space nor a building. It can never be defined by aesthetics as most architects think and perceive but it can only be defined by time and the events which occurred/occurring in it. In this line of thinking, we can look at architecture in a very different way which elevates it from how we currently perceive it to be which limits us in a very constricting manner.

And @archiandesigns, I don't totally agree on your point "look interesting". The case here is that the experience within our cities is not as humane/human friendly as other cities in the world. I think we should focus more on how we interact with the city than how it aesthetically pleases us.

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