Philippine architecture in the 1950s
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - September 7, 2002 - 12:00am
Researching for and writing this columns have been, for me, like episodes of time travel. Opening old books, looking at archival photos and reading narratives of each era can transport us back and give us an understanding of past events and a better perspective on current ones.

Last week, we looked at 1959 via a colorful travel brochure. Since my research material is clustered together (and I am still unpacking my stuff from countless boxes) we will look at another aspect of that decade – Philippine architecture.

Again, the material is culled from a document of the era – a commemorative magazine of the Philippine Institute of Architects. 25 Years of Philippine Architecture was published to celebrate the institute’s silver anniversary. The Institute was established in 1933 and in 1958 (the year of publication). It had established itself as the premier professional association of architects in the Philippines.

The magazine contained a roster of architects of the era, established ones like Arellano, Nakpil, Barreto, Antonio, Concio, Arguelles and Da Silva, as well as emerging names like Mañosa, Mendoza, Gabriel, Espina and Locsin. Today’s architects and architectural students would be hard pressed to recognize all but one or two of these names and their built work.

This is exactly why it is important to revisit these personalities and their obras. We have almost no written history of modern Philippine architecture and our architectural heritage of the American and immediate post-war periods is disappearing fast.
A Century Of Professional Architectural Practice
This particular publication is also of note because it contains one of the most comprehensive chronologies of the evolution of the Philippine architectural profession. Architect Carlos Da Silva, a former president of the institute, was a prolific writer and in the magazine he outlines the history of the profession – from the point of view of the first practitioners, the first associations and the important events that led slowly to the profession’s acceptance by a public increasingly in need of their service.

The first Filipino architect with an academic title to practice in the country was Felix Roxas y Arroyo (GMA’s relative?). Don Felix studied in London and returned in 1858. He served as municipal architect of Manila from 1877-1880.

The first academic school to train maestros de obras (master builders) was the Escuela Practica y Professional de Artes y Oficios de Manila, which was established in 1890. Among the first graduates of this school was Arcadio Arellano, elder brother of Juan, who later became active in city politics in the early part of the American period.

The first professional architectural organization and precursor of the Philippine Institute of Architects was the Academia de Arquitectura y Agrimensura de Filipinas. It was founded on September 14, 1902. Architects have been organized here in the Philippines for over a century, just a few years after the Americans established their own AIA and well ahead of any country in Southeast Asia.
Recognition, Recovery And Renaissance
Architects had difficulty in the early years in terms of recognition from government, clients and the general public. Competition for what they did came from the civil engineers who were more recognized and acknowledged by the public. It was only in 1921 that the National Assembly passed a law to recognize engineers and architects. In that year, 32 architects were officially registered. Registration No. 1 was given to Tomas Mapua, followed by Carlos Barreto (the first pensionado architect) and Antonio Toledo. There were 22 Filipinos, seven Americans, two Germans and one Spaniard registered to practice architecture in the country. By 1941, this number reached close to a hundred. A new law with a separate statute for architects was about to be passed then but the war got in the way.

The country’s post-war recovery was helped to a great extent by Filipino architects, who quickly reorganized just four months after "liberation." The organization changed its name to the Philippine Institute of Architects to reflect the group’s maturity and stature. The first post-war board included Fernando Ocampo as president, Gines Rivera as vice president and members including Juan Nakpil, Carlos Barreto, Luis Araneta and Gabriel Formoso.

The 1950s was the decade that Filipino architects sought to emerge from the constraints of post-war difficulties. Modernism in architecture took a while to reach these shores due to lack of building materials, technology and opportunity. But the increasing economic recovery of the later 50s saw an equivalent increase in building both in quantity, quality and quirkiness. Experimentation in cast concrete led to façades, massing and building silhouettes never before seen. Locsin’s UP chapel, Concio’s Protestant Chapel (also in UP), and Marcos de Guzman’s saucer house are prime examples.

Also emerging were new typologies in terms of scale and use. Buildings over 10 stories were never heard of before the war. In the Fifties, Makati saw the start of vertical buildings that were the seeds of today’s crop of stratospheric towers. These new towers by the likes of Locsin, Concio, Arguelles and Zaragoza also accommodated newer or larger scale uses like high-rise apartments, multi-level parking and commercial offices with in-house cafeterias, convenience stores and centralized air-conditioning.

Not all the new buildings were in Makati. The late ’50s saw the construction of the Philamlife Building on United Nations Avenue. This sleek modernist block by architect Carlos Arguelles set the standard for over a decade and still stands today as modern-looking as when it opened. Then there was Angel Nakpil’s National Press Club building, which became one of the landmarks of the era. Finally there was the presentation of the designs for the country’s first modern international airport, the original MIA. Things were looking up for Philippine architecture.
Of Airports And Winds Of Change
The Manila International Airport is featured in the PIA’s silver anniversary magazine along with other planned government buildings which were to be built at the new National Government Center in Quezon City. The government buildings were designed by a consortium of private architects and were to accommodate the Justice Department’s requirements. The airport was, of course, sited at Nichols in Pasay and was the handiwork of Federico Ilustre.

Both projects were completely government-funded. Only some of the National Government buildings were eventually constructed (notably the Batasan by Felipe Mendoza). The airport was completed in 1962 and when it opened, it was the largest and most modern in Southeast Asia. None of the hospitals, water plants, markets airports or infrastructure then had to be privatized. Until the 1960s, most government works were well-designed, constructed and delivered to a country that was aiming to industrialize and become self-sufficient.

Times have changed. Government today is so overwhelmed by problems that have piled up from the last half-century of socio-political adventurism and graft-driven deterioration that it now has to resort to strategies like Build Operate Transfer (BOT) and privatization.

If only we had had the guts to carry out programs of industrialization, food self-sufficiency, and land reform without succumbing to the manipulations of international institutions supposedly out to help us "undeveloped" countries economically. We have been misled and we have probably misled ourselves into thinking we could not do it ourselves. Of course, we have been plagued by a dictatorship, natural disasters and too much show business/politics, but have not learned from sins of the past?

In all of this present-day problems, where have Filipino professionals like architects, landscape architects, planners placed themselves? Architect Da Silva quotes Rizal at the end of his essay, a quote that should go for all of us wishing to help the nation: "It is a useless life which is not consecrated to a great ideal, it is like a piece of stone wasted on the fields without becoming a part of an edifice..."

Architecture does not exist in a vacuum. It is that "great ideal," an ideology, that may be lacking in our pursuit of a proper way to build our buildings, our cities and our nation. Are we doing enough to define and refine such an ideology without defaulting into globalized versions of such frameworks?

Finally, public lives and public architecture may need to stay public ... or at least we should make sure that the public good, not private greed, is satisfied.
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