Where are the Filipino architects?

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - December 16, 2006 - 12:00am
Last week was Philippine Architecture Week. The craziness that accompanies our Christmas season has, however, obscured the celebration of one of the most misunderstood and unappreciated fields of artistic and utilitarian endeavors. Obscured, too, are the products of the practice of architecture and its allied professions – planning, landscape architecture and interior design. How can one even see them, buried as they are beneath massive killer billboards and the urban mess we let accumulate in all our cities?

The week was not without celebrations. The two Philippine organizations of architects – the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) and the Philippine Institute of Architects (PIA) – had full schedules. The highlight was the launching of a collective undertaking by the two. In partnership with the CCP and the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects, these organizations are setting out to landmark structures and sites of the four National Artists for Architecture and its Allied Arts.

The first work to be landmarked was the Cultural Center of the Philippines by Leandro V. Locsin. The works of the three others – architects Pablo Antonio Sr., Juan Nakpil and landscape architect Ildefonso P. Santos – will follow in series. It is hoped that this exercise will help conserve our legacy of modern architecture in parallel with ongoing efforts to keep older buildings from the American and Spanish colonial periods from demolition. If these are not saved, the whole heritage of Philippine architecture, historical and modern, will disappear.
Have You Seen Philippine Architecture?
The problem with Philippine architecture is, in fact, its very invisibility. Nobody can substantially define it, the public does not know it exists beyond the nipa hut and if it does exist, it is otherwise rendered unrecognizable because it hides behind (and I really must reiterate) monstrous billboards, or underneath a foreign façade – in many instances actually designed by a foreigner.

It is Philippine art’s invisibility that was tackled in a talk delivered by culture maven Dr. Nina Baker at the Ayala Museum recently. The title of the talk was "Breaking into the Global Arena: What does it take?"

Dr. Baker put Philippine art in focus, looking at issues of national identity, the hegemonic burden of colonialism and today’s globalization of art and culture mainly through new art and multi-media forms (and by inference, architecture).

Her conclusion: we Filipinos (and our art) have been invisible to the world probably because of our culture’s innate plasticity – our ability to quickly assimilate, absorb, adapt to and adopt foreign forms (fashion, speech, art, architecture, etc). So are we cultural chameleons rendering ourselves mestizo clones from those we chose to valorize? Is our hybrid culture a culture of continuous hybridism with no end in sight except centuries more of copycatting?

Problematizing Philippine art begs a deeper look than I am capable of at the moment, or that this space can accommodate (besides, it requires a different language spoken by academics and scholars, which is foreign to most Filipinos whose concept of art is that of artistic daily survival amid the creative ineptitude of government.)

I can only tackle Philippine architecture, which is the main subject of this week’s piece.
Have You Seen A Filipino Architect?
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.

Up-sizing these "products" for the upscale market entails the slapping on of a brand. Usually the name of some foreign architect, planner, landscape architect or interior designer is plastered all over media to make the development more sellable. Blame this on real estate executives, marketing heads or advertising creatives without cultural souls or social consciousness – slaves to a colonial mentality that forever relegates anything or anyone Filipino as inferior.

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.

The only thing that was visible during Architecture Week last week was a rather plain whole page ad paid by the architects’ organizations informing the public about the dangers of hiring unlicensed architects and the existence of RA 9266, the Architecture Act of 2004, which controls the practice of the profession (similar laws cover the allied arts of environmental planning, landscape architecture and interior design).
Architects As Idols?
Of course, there have been little public glimpses into the creative genius of the Filipino designer. Winners in architecture and interior design for national events like Metrobank’s MADE annual design competition and the CCP design competition have helped shine some needed light. So have the international competition triumphs this year of furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue (in Hong Kong) and industrial/furniture designer/artist J. Palencia (at the Roscoe Awards in New York).

The achievements of these designers, however, pale in comparison to the accolades showered on boxing champions or Philippine Idols. Yes, we can sing like divas and gangsta rappers but we do it in our leaking shanties or waterless showers. We can jab our way out of any tough spot, too, but we have to anyway in our everyday negotiation of our merciless city streets.

Compassionate architecture by Filipino architects is what is best for the Philippine setting. The problem is that the physical, social and economic settings for Pinoy designers are so disheartening that many are continually lured to other lands to create modern built environments for Middle Easterners, Chinese, Malaysians, Singaporeans and yes even Americans. In those lands too they are invisible – relegated to back room production for the most part, swallowing professional pride and true artistic expression for the luxury of eating four square meals and sending home the dollars that are propping up the Philippine’s perennially-hobbled local economy.
Getting Architecture In Shape
Filipino architects have to step up. They have to make themselves visible to a public that has very little idea of the creative potential of architecture and design. Good Filipino architecture and its related disciplines can create the physical settings for social and economic change. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur were dank backwaters but cleaned up and are wealthy cities because investors like order and cleanliness. Locally, note how unruly crowds become more disciplined in the ordered spaces of shopping malls or inside the "masterplanned" enclaves of the rich and corrupt.

Churchill said, "We shape our architecture and our architecture shapes us." Our national identity is shaped not only by the abstract constructs of constitutions and laws, but also by the way we design and build our surroundings. Our constitution is based on a western model, is flawed, and should be changed, so too with our architecture. We would balk at the idea of hiring foreign lawmakers to come and change the constitution for us (so we messily and bloodily try to do it ourselves) but foreign intervention is actively sought out for our future buildings, complexes, landscapes and districts. So what gives?

The Filipino public should 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. But to do this, world-class fees must also be part of the deal. If you pay peanuts, you get houses for monkeys.
Are We Monkeys Or Architects?
It’s amazing how the Filipino architect is treated worse than a monkey. The pay is small and yet he or she is asked to throw in freebies for this or that additional scope of work. It is not enough that they are asked for tawad, Divisoria style on their fees; they are expected to also be at the beck and call of clients.

Worse still, in some situations, they are expected to kowtow to foreign architects who charge 10 times the locals fees for half the work. Finally, the saddest thing of all is the fact that many Filipino architectural firms are actually losing their people to the very same foreigners who lord it over the locals. Is there no end to this tragedy?

It is then probably good to have Architecture Week in December. Such a tragic profession needs the cheer of the holiday season to brighten its prospects yearly. So all Filipino architects need really is a simple gift from the public. They just want to be given a chance.

And oh yes, for any chance to really be able to appreciate Filipino architecture, those #*!!* billboards should be taken down. Who put them up again anyway?
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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