The SSS Building: Super stylish skyscraper
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - November 16, 2002 - 12:00am
One of my favorite landmarks in Quezon City is also the most stylish; this, despite its being close to 40 years old! I used to mark my daily trek to the UP in the 1970s with this building. Actually, my trip from my home in Pasig put me through four landmark sites or buildings – Ortigas crossing (marked by the old Tropical Hut), Cubao (with the coliseum) and the Quezon Memorial. I only looked out my lawanit-sided bus, however, when I went past that dip in the road mid-way along East Avenue. This was to gawk at the elegant headquarters of the Social Security System, better known as the SSS.

The SSS building was, and still is, one of the best examples of "international style" architecture in the Philippines. I’ve always marveled at the great composition, massing and bearing of the building. It is a handsome structure composed of a low podium and a tall (at least in those days) slab tower, which is serviced by a functional external spine housing the elevators.

I also admired the restrained ground level landscape design, which served to humanize the complex’s scale and integrate it with the street. The bus stop across the road was also built to reflect the main building’s canopy, a wonderful touch one rarely finds in today’s urban design. You always experienced the feeling of passing through a special area rather than just passing by a building. At least that’s what it felt like for a young architecture student.
Student Of Style
I’ve been a student of the international style since, admiring prime examples in my travels. The style developed in the evolution of 20th century modern architecture. Following the transition style of Art Deco in the late 1920s and the ’30s, a new type of architecture espousing the ideology "form follows function" emerged. New technologies of steel, glass and high-strength concrete allowed taller buildings that did not have to clad themselves in classical dress to be appreciated or used.

The 1950s saw the works of architects like Corbusier, Mies, Neimeyer, Saarinen and Gropius transformed from the drawing board to reality in the world’s capitals and centers of commerce. Filipino architects aspired to emulate the deeds of their idols. The second generation of architects in the country was coping sadly with limited resources and few clients. It was only in the late ’50s that the opportunities came along for them to try their hand at these new forms.

One of the few clients that actually could afford to commission architects then was the government. Till the late ’50s, most government buildings were designed by the architecture department of the Bureau of Public Works. This changed as private architects, through professional associations, sought active participation in designing civic architecture. Private architects in other countries like Brazil, France, and the United States were doing so in the new idiom and Filipinos did not want to be left behind. Besides, we were then the most progressive in Southeast Asia. Our architecture had to express that spirit of progress.

Progress then had to do with an emerging economy based on increased agricultural and nascent industrial production. Factories and jobs bloomed to absorb a growing post-war population. The urban workforce was increasing in number and by the mid-’50s, it was necessary for government to ensure that their welfare was taken care of, part of the country’s social justice program.
Space For Social Security
This need led to the Social Security Act of 1954. The act ensured that the government would "provide meaningful protection to the members and their families against contingencies resulting in loss of income or financial burden and to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country through a viable insurance program."

The SSS began its physical life on the mezzanine floor of the GSIS building on (by architect Federico Ilustre) Arroceros St. It soon needed more space as the law was amended to make SSS membership compulsory for employees in firms with at least 50 employees (from the original 100). The SSS then moved to the Phoenix Building in Intramuros. In 1960, that stipulation was further amended to cover all businesses regardless of size. The SSS needed more space.

The government then sought the services of professional architects to design a new complex, which was to be built in the new government district of the capital, Quezon City. Chosen for the job was the firm of Juan Nakpil and his sons, Ariston, Francisco and Eulogio.

The older Nakpil was already towards the end of his career and the project appears to have been mainly the collaborative work of his sons. Ariston and Francisco were both architects who graduated from UST. Both furthered their studies at Cranbrook Academy in the US (where the famous father and son duo of Eero and Eliel Saarinen taught). Eulogio was a civil engineer. (His father, Juan, also had an engineering degree from Kansas University. Go Jayhawks!)

The plans for the building took over a year to prepare and the building was eventually completed in 1965. But it was none too soon as SSS membership had ballooned to the millions by then and the Filipino employee started to get acquainted with benefits including the popular salary loan.

The building has changed little all these years. The main podium block has managed to accommodate increasing traffic. The Nakpils’ generous allocations of space in the halls and corridors have been able, till recently, to cater to the heavy flow of people. A move to turn digital in the late 1990s has further increased efficiencies in visitor management.

The Nakpils were able to use the vocabulary of modern architecture to address the functional requirements of the building. Aluminum louvers in continuous bands are found on both main facades of the slab block. These help keep the interiors cool. The orientation is east—west and canopies at ground level are also oriented to provide maximum protection from sun and rain. Contemporary architects often forget this basic rule of design for the tropics (content as many are to fulfill basic client’s wishes of maximum leasable-floor space at minimum cost).

The brothers also sought to adapt modernist elements in building with abstracted Filipino themes. The vertical brise soliel panels, on either end of the tower, are reminiscent of patterns in Filipino barongs, modernist buildings being more masculine than other styles. The architects also brought Filipino art into the building in the form of murals and understated interior embellishments. As we cross into the 21st century, we find few civic buildings that have such distinctive touches, strong overall themes or any character whatsoever. (Most civic buildings today are now just full of shady characters.)
The Gift Of Style
Today, I can still appreciate the SSS building. I try not to pass the perennially choked East Avenue but I can spy the building from my condominium balcony … just barely through the thick smog. Taking a quick tour recently showed that the facility has maintained its presence and function well. The number of employees in the National Capital Region has swelled, however, to megalopolis proportions and additional space may be needed soon.

Whatever plans the SSS has in store for expansion, it is hoped that the building is conserved. The SSS is part of the architectural heritage of 20th century Filipino modern architecture. Few will deny that it stands proud along with other key structures of the era – like Arguelles’ Philamlife, Angel Nakpil’s Picache and AJ Luz’s Magasaysay buildings in Manila, the Insular Life by Cesar Concio and other early Locsin buildings in Makati — as the prime example of Filipino creativity and craft.

It was an era, when Filipino architects’ services were patronized by an enlightened local clientele. It was an era when local flavor and Philippine art found space and a place in buildings. It was an era when government was still trusted to fulfill basic services to its citizens, employees and employers alike, without defaulting to privatization or giving up the public realm to commercial interests.

As far as can be seen, the SSS is still safe. Operationally, it has been through a lot of changes and hopefully will improve its services. We wish it well. It is also the wish of the concerned public (like the Heritage Conservation Society’s and other NGOs’) that we do not lose another heritage site or landmark to the wrecking ball. There is no second chance for buildings lost. They cannot be spirited away to be auctioned off by Christie’s or Sotheby’s, only to be bought back at controversial costs and reinstated on their sites.

As we all ease maddeningly into the Christmas season, we should think of all the gifts of architecture and nature we already have in our midst. Style in craft and creativity is also a gift, and the home-grown variety is always the most culturally appropriate. We should appreciate all these more and keep them rather than exchange our patrimony for money and our style for someone else’s.

ANGEL NAKPIL ARCHITECTS ARCHITECTURE BUILDING BUILDINGS EAST AVENUE FILIPINO QUEZON CITY SSS
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