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José María Zaragoza: A forgotten architect |

Arts and Culture

José María Zaragoza: A forgotten architect

ARTWEB - Ruben Defeo -
One of the largest churches in the country is the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City. A glowing architectural landmark along Quezon Ave., it is both traditional and modern. The church-tower-convento plan and the arches around the courtyard are reminiscent of the colonial period, while the simple and sleek design of the church façade typifies the modern spirit when it was built.

To date, it enjoys the distinction of having the largest nave with no rows of column to divide the aisles. The nave is so wide that as many 6,000 devotees can be contained at one given time.

The Dominican church, fashioned after the European Romanesque tradition with a cloister at the left side, became a historical site in 1983 when it was used as the venue for the weeklong wake for Ninoy Aquino. That time, the people trooped to the site to pay their last respects to a fallen hero. Though the church was only a mute witness to the unfolding of a stirring event in Philippine history, everyone must have seen the church. As the wake was all over the media, the church was photographed, videoed, filmed and beamed on national and international television while the nation was in mourning.

The church interior was a suitable backdrop for many reasons. The unusually ample space of the crossing in the transept area, the expansive and awesome nave, and the hallowed feeling of the interior brought by the diffused lighting coming from the stained glass panels in the apse area, provided a somber setting to the grief-stricken situation.

Twenty-one years have passed since those fateful days in August. But nothing extensive has ever been written about the church, much less about the man responsible for the design and construction of the structure.

Lest history forgets, it was José María Zaragoza who took the arduous task to design and construct the church and nearby convent in 1951.

The Santo Domingo Church as it stands today is a completion of a historical cycle, so to speak. The old Santo Domingo Church in Intramuros, Manila was designed by his granduncle Félix Roxas Sr. in 1864. The church made history because it was the first earthquake Gothic church in the country. In December 1941, however, the church became the first casualty of the accidental bombing of Intramuros by the invading Japanese Imperial Army. From the ruins, only the images of the La Naval, Sto. Domingo, and San José were later installed at the new site in Quezon City. The present church boasts eight paintings of Botong Francisco on the life of Sto. Domingo, portrait paintings done by Antonio García-Llamas of the four evangelists adorning the pendentives in the dome area, the stained glass panels designed by Galo B. Ocampo and executed by the Kraut Art Glass, and sculptural reliefs on the façade by Francisco Monti.

Joseling, as he was fondly addressed by family and close associates, belonged to a family of artists. Another granduncle, Miguel Zaragoza, did the painting decorations of the Recollects Church and monastery of San Nicolas de Tolentino, also in Intramuros of colonial Manila. He also did botanical drawings for Fray Blanco’s book on Philippine flora.

Zaragoza’s architectural passion rubbed in in his son, Ramón, who in his own right is an architect of note, and now more known for his architectural restoration projects. Ramón’s interest in antiques has propelled him to be actively involved in archaeological expeditions. Recently, together with the most benevolent efforts of Admiral José Ignacio Gonzales Aller, former director of the Museo Naval in Madrid, they were able to pave the way for the permanent display of a handsome part of the San Diego archaeological collection gathered from an expedition undertaken by Frank Goddio in Batangas in the 1980s.

The Museo Naval in Madrid ranks as the finest naval museums in the world. The San Diego artifacts, a gift from Goddio himself, constitute the largest collection of Asian underwater archaeological finds on permanent exhibition in Europe. The objects occupy a sumptuous space in the Museo, and which is now known as the Salon Filipino.

Zaragoza was born on Dec. 6, 1912. During that time, the Philippines was steadily experiencing American influence, even as the country’s Spanish heritage was very much in evidence.

At the time of Zaragoza’s birth, Manila was being designed to suit Daniel Burnham’s plans. Burnham, who was known for his work as the director of works for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was aiming for something simple yet acknowledges Philippine conditions and traditions. To execute his plans and designs, Burnham chose William Parsons, whose works in the Philippines included the Manila Club (1908), the Philippine General Hospital (1910), the Manila Hotel (1912) and the first University Building in the University of the Philippines (1913).

One Philippine condition that Burnham recognized when he planned Manila was the strong influence of Spanish architecture in the country.

For close to three centuries, the country was a Spanish colony. Spanish architecture constructed large cathedrals and government buildings as statements of power. City planning during the Spanish occupation had the church as its focal point, as in the case of the Manila Cathedral. The Manila Cathedral, rebuilt in 1880, due to the earthquake that damaged the first edifice completed in 1595, resembles many traditional churches in Europe.

Like other European churches, it was made of stone and based on a cruciform plan. It has a freestanding bell tower and a traditional façade divided into three portals, the central being larger.

In spite of the evident Spanish marks, indigenous architecture in the country remained. In many Philippine provinces, particularly in city outskirts, the traditional bahay kubo (nipa hut) could be seen. The organic materials used (bamboo, nipa, thatch) abound in the country. They were favorable for air circulation inside the house because of the country’s tropical climate. This type of native architecture reflected simplicity – providing only the immediate needs of its inhabitants.

It was in this milieu that Zaragoza grew up.

Zaragoza was one of the first Filipinos educated in architecture in the Philippines. He graduated with a BS in Architecture from the University of Santo Tomás (UST) in 1936. One of his professors was National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil, who belonged to the first generation of architects educated abroad. Another architect was Tomás Mapua.

Zaragoza passed the board examination in 1938, making him the 82nd registered architect in the country. One of his early achievements was his winning design for the new headquarters of the San Miguel Beer Corporation. This put Zaragoza and his firm (José M. Zaragoza and Associates) in the forefront of architectural scene in the Philippines.

A crowning achievement of Zaragoza’s early career was the completion of the Santo Domingo church and convent in 1951.

At that time of the commissioned work, Zaragoza, a staunch believer of the Filipino capability to execute things exceptionally well, was president of the Philippine Institute of Architects, an aggrupation of professionals aiming to put the Filipino talent at par with his counterpart anywhere in the world.

His position afforded him to represent the Filipino architects in many gatherings around the world and in many occasions, was the only Asian present at the conferences.

Zaragoza’s travels allowed him to meet other architects and in effect, exposed him to the different architectural movements in the world.

One major figure he met was Frank Lloyd Wright whose ideas influenced Zaragoza’s works in the 1970s, as seen in the Virra Mall and the Escolta Bank.

In the latter part of the 1950s, Zaragoza traveled to Rome, Italy to attend a conference on the new standards of design for Catholic Churches at the International Institute of Liturgical Art, an effort to bring the priest and the parishioner closer. He was the only Asian present in the conference. It was also there that he earned his diploma in liturgical art and architecture.

In 1960, Zaragoza was a guest architect of the Companhia Urbanizadora Da Nova Capital Do Brazil, a project of Brasilia, Brazil’s new modern capital. There, he was able to hobnob with Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, the latter also an influence to Zaragoza’s architectural style.

Like Niemeyer, Zaragoza was exposed to similar challenges in his designs. Niemeyer had to balance Brazil’s colonial past of baroque with the new technology and the needs of the government, together with the country’s climate and physical conditions. In a similar vein, Zaragoza had to balance his designs with respect to the country’s’ colonial past and the modernizing trend in Manila, plus the country’s climate and physical conditions.

In all his architectural projects, Zaragoza was ably helped by his wife, Pilar Rosello. At the height of the architectural career of Zaragoza, the husband and wife tandem was a team to beat – Zaragoza doing the structural aspects, and Pilar doing the interiors, particularly wood carpentry and furniture. In the Meralco Theater, for instance, the wooden paneling in the auditorium was designed by Pilar, the strongest feature of which was the interplay of textures involving the natural grains of wood.

Living with the motto "land should not be wasted," Zaragoza was honored in 1973 with the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award by the City of Manila. Four years later, the PIA presented him the Gold Medal of Merit, bestowed to him by no less than his mentor, Juan Nakpil.

Apart from the Santo Domingo Church, Virra Mall and Escolta Bank, Zaragoza also designed the Union Church of Manila, the Saint John Bosco, the Meralco Building, the Zaragoza building and the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. He was also one of those who designed the National Library on T.M. Kalaw in Manila, being a member of the Hexagon Associated Architects and the Bataan Power Plant of the National Power Corporation.

Zaragoza passed away on Nov. 26, 1994, 56 years after he joined the architectural profession. Throughout his career, he had made a mall, a bank, ecclesiastical buildings and an array of residences, both here and abroad. One church that Zaragoza built in 1975, which visibly reflected the spirit of Filipino architecture, was the Union Church of Manila. The shell exterior of the church reflected the Philippines’ tropical location. It also resembled the Philippine Exposition Hall in New York in 1936. Unfortunately, it was leveled to the ground in the late 1990s to give way to a new structure of the same church.

A book on Zaragoza will be forthcoming, authored jointly by his daughter, Ma. Lourdes Zaragoza Banson on her father’s life, and this writer on Zaragoza’s architectural works. Data that readers may wish to share for inclusion in the book are most welcome.
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