Finding Filipino architects

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - January 6, 2007 - 12:00am
Icontinue to get e-mail feedback on the "Invisible Filipino Architects" piece I wrote before Christmas. That piece and the sequel last week seem to have hit a raw nerve with Filipino architects and a number of clients. I have received invitations to visit the offices of some practitioners to see what they have been producing. There have been requests to have the piece reprinted in blogs and websites set up by Filipinos.

A sampling of the latest flurry of e-mails follows. First we have a client looking for the elusive Filipino architect.
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From BF, an ex-pat in Mindanao:

"Thank you for your article. I think you would do a lot of us (foreign and OFW private "would-be constructors") a favor by including in your articles a list of hungry young architects who’d love to design a house. Or, if that’s not possible for ethical reasons (whom to include and not to include) at least give us a way to find them.

"I’m sure this wouldn’t be a problem in Manila, but it sure is in a province like Cagayan de Oro where a decent plumber is hard (impossible, actually) to find, let alone an architect. We are now finishing our second project without the benefit of an architect. The third one for next year is a two- or three-story house by the seafront and I really would like to have a professional design that one!

"Where do I go? And please don’t say the ‘yellow pages’ because they are just as hard to find as plumbers, electricians and architects!"
* * *
You can get recommendations from the local chapters of either the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) or the Philippine Institute of Architects (PIA). The UAP can be contacted via their website at www.united-architects.org or call them at 412-6374, 412-6364, 412-6403, 412-3311, 412-0051 or e-mail them at uapnational@yahoo.com. The PIA can be contacted at 65 East Capitol Drive, Barrio Kapitolyo, Pasig City; call 634-2512, fax 634-1762, e-mail piaarchitect@edsamail.com.ph.
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PM, a concerned father of a young architect, voices concerns many parents have when faced with the prospect of losing their children to the overseas job market:

"I read your article with much interest for two reasons: 1) my eldest daughter is a licensed architect and 2) yours truly who once upon a time dreamt and longed to become one.

"I am now in my semi-retireable years, and while reading your piece, I could not help but feel for our young architects like my daughter. They are forced to go abroad to pursue their dreams of becoming successful architects because there are no better opportunities in our forsaken country.  

"Thanks to your article, I now understand why, despite my misgivings, she flew overseas to pursue her dream of becoming a ‘better architect’ and to avoid turning into a ‘eunuch’ in her own homeland. She is very happy in the United States and is looking forward to taking and passing the US board exams. Seeing her happy makes me happy, too, never mind the physical separation. 

"I am lamenting this sad situation for our young architects who are still idealistic, very creative and still enthusiastic to carve a name for themselves. Is there hope for the next generation?  Maybe the next, next, next generation, yes."
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I agree with you, the price to pay for professional fulfillment nowadays is beggar’s pay or separation from loved ones and a country that really needs the creative energies of those it loses by the millions each year. I should know; I was overseas for 12 years. It strains personal relationships (despite today’s technologies) and wastes the talents of a generation of professionals and service workers to improving the lives and surroundings of other people in countries with a quality of life already 10 times better than the Philippines. What can we do? One of the 12 ways to improve our situation here (from a list that’s been circulating this season) is to "Buy Filipino." Filipino real estate developers, Filipino businesses building headquarters and offices, Filipino institutions and the government itself should give design jobs to Filipino architects, who are more than capable of producing world-class work. But, they should be given world-class fees as well or at least compensated fairly (as other professionals like doctors and lawyers).
* * *
The issue of "monkey" architecture also got many people worked up. Here is an e-mail from NL:

"Many of our licensed architects are treated like monkeys or worse, many of our firms pay their staff below call-center salaries, and then work their people like kalabaw.

"Do you think these people deserve it? It takes five years of study and two years diversified work experience before qualifying for the board exam and becoming a professional and still they earn less than almost any other profession. This is why Filipino architects are going to abroad and others are working with foreign consultants in the Philippines. I used to work for a local architectural firm, but now I’m currently with a foreign architect and she pays me twice what local firms pay. I hope you will write about it and let the people know what these local firms are doing."
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Local firms cannot be blamed for paying their staff low wages. Clients do not pay them high enough fees to bring the salary scales up. I run a small consultancy office and have great difficulty charging even the most reasonable fees without diving. Some clients take advantage of local firms by pitting each against the other, or worse, hiring a foreign consultant then retaining a local just to process drawings (actually most of the work) for a tenth of the foreigner’s fees. Filipino architects and firms deserve much better. It’s a jungle out there and many are treated like animals doing backbreaking work for morsels, while foreign consultants are wined and dined, paid in dollars and not questioned for blah designs rehashed from schemes dredged up from 10 years ago. 
* * *
Finally we have an e-mail from TY, who paints a larger context for Filipino architects to address with regard to their visibility.

"My first thought as I read the article was that we all could start reflecting on what we and the institutions (or firms) we represent have contributed to the fate of Filipino architecture and the identity of the Filipino architect.

"Second, I asked myself what we may have done for the Filipino lately?  Yes, the billboards are eyesores and foreign architects are depriving Filipino architects of projects. But let’s admit it, we are concerned with billboards only because they just might fall on us as we motor along the roadways. We are concerned about foreigners practicing here because our clients increasingly prefer the global brand, which eats into our fees.

"Has anyone seen the destruction wrought by the last three natural disasters? (check out www.unosat.org ).  Surely, Filipino architects and engineers designed, built and lived in those houses that were swallowed up by floodwaters, lahar and mud. Don’t Filipinos live, work and die in those houses and office buildings too?

"If we cannot find the Filipino architect, it is because we have lost the Filipino as a client as well. Who doesn’t live for the next project, the next painting, the next sculpture to be sold?  Yes, we all have to eat.  But while we are getting along with the business of survival, perhaps we can give a thought to those whom we have helped place in harm’s way by our not speaking up about our profession’s ideals and obligations and the interconnectedness of sustainable development in our own country."
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Thank you, TY, for reminding us that architects (and allied design professionals) play extremely important roles in ensuring safe and enduring settings for Filipino lives. There has, unfortunately, been little heard from professional organizations on planning and design interventions (or frameworks for workable policy) to mitigate or avoid disasters altogether.

Of course, the even larger context of failure of rational regional planning based on (questionable) economic policy that does not input the effects of seasonal disasters or man-made interventions (like mining) makes one think that there is no physical planning at all.

It is the responsibility of those whose talent is to create the structures and sites of our personal and communal lives to ensure that their work is set in a context where such creations enhance rather than endanger, ennoble rather than degrade, give joy rather than remorse.

It is the responsibility of larger society, however, to ensure that these talented creators can at least earn a decent living, are paid fair fees and salaries, and are not threatened by the prospect of exile.
* * *
Feedback is welcome. I’m getting a new e-mail on the subject of "invisible architects" every hour now but I will take a break from the issue in the next two weeks to cover other things. I will resume coverage of the issue at the end of the month. Please e-mail paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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