Looking for Filipino architects in 2007

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - December 30, 2006 - 12:00am
I received an amazing number of e-mails reacting to the piece "Where are the Filipino architects?" I’m sharing some of them to help paint a picture of what can be expected in the architecture and design scene in 2007.

First from PGC, a Filipino architect based in mainland China:

"I would like to say thank you on behalf of the tens of thousands of Filipino architects surviving with meager pay in our country or like me and my wife, slaving for foreign bosses in foreign lands. What you wrote is truly the sentiment of all of us trying to make Filipino architects known in a little way. If you could just see how influential Filipinos are here in China – we are practically designing the entire Chinese mainland in terms of architecture and urban landscape.

"Our deepest desire is for Filipino architects to be recognized not abroad but in our homeland. If only we can be given the chance to do in our own soil what we are doing here, it would be the rebirth of Filipino architecture. If all foreign-based architects could come home – wow, that would a dream come true.

"Sadly, we have to watch distantly as Philippine architecture is being designed by foreign consultants while Filipinos abroad are regarded as geniuses. China is developing into a first-world nation, and in two years’ time it will probably outrace even the US in growth. The works of Filipino architects slaving day and night with the simplest of computer tools will be imprinted in the blueprint of modern China’s success. Hopefully, authorities back home in the Philippines will see this glaring waste of Filipino creative resource."

Thank you, PGC. Yes, few realize that what many have seen in amazing Shanghai and Beijing as well as in Hong Kong and Macao is the handiwork of Filipino architects, landscape architects, interior designers and planners (except maybe the overly strombotic street lights). How can we stem this creative flow back into the Philippines? This creative capital flight is surely worth more in the long run than the short-term flow of overseas remittances, which only reflect the basic instability of our country and the inutility of its current institutions.
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Next, we have a note from CF, a new overseas graduate:

"That was an excellent piece and I agree on the many points you made. Allow me, however, to bring up a few of my own.

"First, we are a developing nation, and I believe we will be for many years to come. Most here are concerned about getting a roof over their heads rather than getting a pretty house to exemplify modern Filipino architecture. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, creativity or aesthetics is at the top of the pyramid – to be considered after the physiological needs, safety / security, belongingness and esteem. True, these needs are applicable on a personal level. However, society as a whole is composed of individuals, and a conglomeration of individual thought forms the collective psyche. The Filipino public is not equipped to appreciate art and culture as more advanced societies are. I’ve just come back from London (and some other European cities) and the difference is striking. Their cities teem with galleries and theaters and concert halls, most of which are housed in architectural masterpieces. And the average citizen will spend time and money going to exhibitions and shows. They can afford it. Their economies have stabilized, their per capita income is higher, and their governments provide good social services when they fall through the cracks.

"And in the Philippines? We know the answer to that one. This is why architecture and most of the arts do not progress in our country. There is no market for it. Look at the advertising industry in contrast. It is growing, and even the most kitsch of advertising campaigns now has a bit of a global edge. Production, conceptualization, scriptwriting – it’s all there because there is money in it. Like it or not, Philippine society is a consumerist society. You grieve at the creation of ‘housing products’ yet this is merely a response to the market. We do what we have to do in order to survive.

"Second, the average Juan is more concerned about making a decent living than promoting Philippine culture. I went to London to get my masters’ degree in the hope of getting a brighter future for myself. I was thinking I could help push local architecture forward. But that is a secondary concern. My main objective was to get a job where I don’t have to rely on my parents to survive. I am in my late twenties and I make less money than my sister who is in her mid-twenties. She is in finance. Even my youngest sister who just graduated from a business course is now earning a little more than I am.

"Architecture in the Philippines does not pay. Will you blame us for wanting to leave and work elsewhere so that we have at least a comfortable life? So we have to be someone else’s CAD monkey. It’s a small price to pay for a lifetime of financial security. Besides, at the end of the day, we will probably be a CAD monkey here anyway – and be paid peanuts to boot.

"As a friend of mine puts it, designers decide to go abroad because there they can 1) design better, 2) get paid real money, and 3) all of the above.

"Third, and I think this is a very important point to make, architecture graduates worldwide are some of the worst-paid in any profession. The fact of the matter is, architecture hardly pays well anywhere, unless you are a big-name, hotshot architect like Zaha Hadid or Rem Koolhaas. So architects in other countries get paid better, but that is partly because the minimum wage is higher in the first place. And if you earn in US dollars then spend in Philippine pesos, well, you can probably build your own Philippines by the time you hit retirement age.

"Fourth, architectural training here is insubstantial. I say this in comparison to what I have seen in London and other develop nations. My brother-in-law (who is Singaporean) told me, ‘When I have kids, I’ll send them to the schools in the States because in the US, they train you how to think. Here, they just train you how to do. And when you’re trained to think, it’s something of lasting value. You can always learn how to do things, but thinking is something that becomes inherent in you.’

"We already think that the education in Singapore is good, yet here is a Singaporean who says otherwise. What does that say of our standards? I was educated and trained in UP, which is supposedly the best architecture school in the country. I excelled in my class. But when I got to London, I was only average. The works of my peers there were lightyears ahead of mine. You can say it is a difference in cultures, perception or understanding. A difference in approach does not make one less valid, that is true. But we are moving into a global society where the multi-billion projects will be fair game to anyone from Cape Town to Siberia. And if we do not equip our graduates to compete in this global marketplace, then you can forget about raising the flag of Philippine architecture. American architects can design towers in Manila, but can Filipino architects conceptualize commercial complexes in New York? Maybe we can, as we have the ability to do so, but will they let us? Not really (unless we are working in one of their firms). Why not? It is because our standards are not up to scratch. Whether that is just perception or reality is another debate. But the fact of the matter is, we are on the losing end, and we need to do something about it.

"If I sound a little too abrasive, it is only because I feel strongly about these things. I apologize if I have offended you or your colleagues in any way. These are, as I have said, just my opinions and I know of other people who share my views, and perhaps that is enough to say that I am not entirely off the mark."

Thank you, CF, for your e-mail. Good point on the fact that we are now a nation of consumers and a developing nation. I agree that the housing "products" real estate developers force Filipino architects to design cater to the market. The crux of the matter is what "sells" are usually kitschy clones of European or American homes. These do not reflect appropriate responses to either our tropical climate or our true culture. To make sure that our culture survives western hegemony (and we survive tropical calamities) our architecture must develop its form and substance based on more than just marketability and the quota targets of developers.

On the capacity to appreciate art and culture – I believe Filipinos could be provided with both the venues and the opportunities other societies have. Imagine how many concert halls, performance venues, art schools and galleries, archives, libraries and museums could be built at the cost of one (unopened) overpriced NAIA III, or one hastily built (and by that nature – overpriced) PICC. Just the pork barrel of the Philippine Senate for one year will be enough to rebuild the CCP, build our National Archives and rescue all our art and culture programs from the clutches of death.

On your second point, I also agree that Philippine architecture does not pay. Salaries of young architects or designers here cannot compare with those offered by other professions or other callings (no pun intended). Call centers offer twice the starting salaries even the most successful architectural offices can shell out. There is nothing wrong with looking for financial security here or overseas. The problem is that architectural practice in the Philippines is unappreciated, little understood and under-compensated. Most big companies still treat architects as contractors or suppliers rather than professional consultants like lawyers or doctors. No one can hire a doctor or lawyer to come take a look at a problem for free. Doctors and lawyers don’t get out of bed for less than a few thousand pesos for a look-see, much less a diagnosis or legal advice. On the other hand, Filipino architects are expected by many clients to hand over scheme after scheme (involving hundreds of man-hours) before the contract is even signed! The onus is on professionals and their professional organizations to educate clients and the general public on the true value of architecture and the immense benefits of properly compensating hard-working professionals in all the design fields. Just compensation ensures excellent service and commitment from any professional, no matter what field.

It is true that architecture graduates the world over are the worst-paid staff in any profession but this is linked to the apprenticeship period that is traditionally the way an architect is educated. His or her education actually begins in the real world with real design problems and not the "crit" sessions of academe. Architectural practice is also called a practice because, like doctors and lawyers, it takes time to develop a stable of clients and the body of work needed to be recognized.

There are a lot of chicken and egg issues here but this is the dilemma of those who seek CAD monkey work here or employment abroad. In either case, you cannot start establishing yourself until you set up a practice here in the Philippines.

Architectural education here (and Philippine education in general) can stand a lot of improvement. It’s good that English has been reestablished as the medium of instruction since it is the lingua franca of the international architectural world. Architectural students should seek, actually read books and have better access to books on global and Philippine architecture (not just look at the pictures and copy facades and details). Architectural libraries at the UP and other schools are well-stocked, though not as good as foreign schools (but the Internet has leveled the field somewhat). More books on Philippine architecture must be produced but this presumes that we sustain and increase research and writing on Philippine architecture and design. As it stands, we rarely produce more than one book on architectural design a year. The total production of Philippine architectural writing in books can fill only half a shelf in any library. Magazines are an improving venue for the dissemination of architectural knowledge and examples of current work but most of the writing can be improved to be more critical and heftier in content than is currently accommodated (due to lack of editorial pages or pressures from publishers to go "lifestyle").

Architectural professors should also be better paid so they can devote more time to teach rather than have to look for other work to make ends meet. The syllabus and teaching methods could also be improved with more group work (requiring interdisciplinary collaboration with students in planning, landscape architecture and interior design) and individual as well as creative development with critique sessions that bring practicing architects to academe. (Filipino architects are sensitive to criticism and this is not good. No one can improve without making mistakes or going through several cycles to build up both design intelligence and character.)

 Never apologize, CF, for feeling strongly about anything. It is good to get feedback like yours. With young architects like you, I know that there is hope for the next generation.

There’s more feedback, but I have to leave it for next week.
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I’d like to thank all the readers of this column for keeping an eye out for our cities and our collective future… and let’s be careful out there. Billboards have been known to fall from the noise of firecrackers. Both of them should be banned anyway! Here’s to a future with less noise – visually and politically.
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Feedback is welcome. E-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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