More architects speak up

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - January 27, 2007 - 12:00am
This week, I am continuing my series on "Invisible Architects." The original two articles printed in December were picked up by a number of blogs and apparently have been circulating on the Net. My mailbox is filled with responses from locally-based Filipino architects and as well as those who’ve had to move to other shores to earn a living and practice the profession they love.

The feedback has been overwhelming and points to important issues that leaders of the architectural and design professions have to address for the sake of future generations of Filipino architects.

I received one-liners and whole expositions on the problems that ail the profession today. We start with an e-mail from JG, a repatriated Filipino designer:

 "On your opinion that the talent of a whole generation of Filipino design professionals is wasted abroad – I wouldn’t exactly consider it a waste, especially if they are able to acquire certain (technical) skills from the experience that would have otherwise been impossible to learn here. I am sure you absorbed a lot in your 12 years abroad and that experience has somehow helped shape you into the successful professional that you are today. Personally, I would consider it only a waste if that individual does not come home to share his expertise and experience with the younger generation.

"I also lived abroad for over 13 years and learned a lot, though, unfortunately, not in architecture but in computer programming. I came back here and through my Rotary Club (of Panday Pira, Manila) started teaching public high school students website design, Autocad, Java, MS Office, etc. as a way of technology transfer. Imagine if enough Filipino professionals currently working abroad were to come back and teach the next generation the skills they learned while working abroad, then our economic development would be accelerated.

"This is, by the way, how, in part, South Korea, Taiwan, and now China progressed. Each country aggressively sought out their overseas professionals and convinced them to come back to their homeland to help jumpstart their then-budding economy by providing various incentives such as tax holidays.

"On the issue of ‘monkey’ architecture: No one can deny that Filipino architects are inadequately paid. But having personally seen how the standard compensation scheme has evolved through the years, I think we architects have only ourselves to blame for it.

"If I remember correctly, the paradigm shift – from the percentage billing model to ultra-low percentages charged by some firms offset by unethical commissions from suppliers – started in the late ’70s. If the initial proponents who went below the established percentage had been penalized severely (and immediately) by the governing body (UAP), then perhaps the downward spiral would have been nipped in the bud.

"Unfortunately, no one formally complained about this low-balling practice by some. These firms were left largely alone and became successful. Naturally, other architects followed and started charging lower rates, with the resultant price war and the cheapening of architects’ services.

"So these days, architects who offer pure design services, as opposed to design-build services, find it extremely difficult to compete. More significantly, prospective clients also now expect architects to submit almost complete designs without any compensation since their impression is that this phase of the project is free. After all, a lot of architects, even well-established ones, offer their design for free or a token fee hedged on the prospect of a larger job. For smaller firms, this billing model ultimately means cutting front-end expenses – overhead, salaries, etc. – thus, the low pay for staff architects.

"In the same token, design-build services used to be controversial. So were the advertorials. Yet both are commonplace these days. So where will these lead us? Are architects going to be apathetic about it again and then complain when it is too late?

"So when you think about it, how can we expect others (allied professions and clients) to respect us as professionals if we ourselves do not respect and safeguard our own profession?

"Unfortunately, it is our younger architects who are bearing the brunt of the sins of omission of an older generation of architects."

 Thank you, JG, you should be commended for coming back to share your experience and knowledge. Yes, there is a growing number of returning professionals like you who contribute positively to their home communities and regions. The future global economy will be led by the creative industries and Filipinos should have a natural edge over everyone else – so long as a new generation has access to education and training.

I agree with you on the issue of professional fees. The fact is, professional regulation or regulation of what professionals should charge has been difficult to achieve, especially in a free-market environment. The waiving of fees for the promise of commissions from building materials suppliers is clearly unethical and should not be condoned. Clients’ interests are compromised and cutthroat competition based on this strategy can only mean shortcuts in design and construction that could lead to building collapses and loss of life or limb.

Architects’ professional organizations, the UAP and PIA, have been trying for years to get a handle on standardizing fees. I believe they should reach out to clients to actively promote standards and severely sanction individual practitioners or firms who "dive." These organizations could possible publish a constantly updated list of recognized firms and individuals (by region) who adhere to the approved scale of professional fees. Clients will then be assured of quality service backed by these organizations’ seals of approval.
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Our next e-mail is short and comes from a young student with aspirations to get into the design world. RT writes:

"The topic is really interesting for young, striving architects to-be like me. Although your article makes me kind of scared, it’s an eye-opener. I just wonder if it would be a good idea for me to venture instead into other creative careers like maybe furniture design. Could you share with me some of your thoughts about alternative careers in design?"

RT, don’t be discouraged by my articles. They are meant to fuel debate and hopefully action from professional organizations and the government. The future is bright for all those in the design professions. Filipino designers are worth their weight in gold. The problem is that this value can only be achieved overseas for now.

Furniture design is a good path to take since a number of Filipinos like Kenneth Cobonpue have made it big in the international scene. It is important, however, to acquire good design fundamentals with a college degree in architecture and, after that, apprenticeship in a good firm to learn the ropes.

While a student, further your skills by taking summer jobs, joining design competitions, attending seminars, and expanding your knowledge by reading anything and everything that has to do with design. Keep a sketchbook as a design diary for ideas, notes, and any inspiration that you could turn into reality in the future. All this will help stoke a passion for architecture and design that will get you through.
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Architect ML, who rediscovered his passion for architecture, writes:

"I was inspired by the article that you wrote about the Invisible Filipino Architect and have been reading all the feedback that came out of it, too. Until recently I was teaching in the College of Architecture at UST. It is because of that experience that I realized I had a passion for the profession. My love for architecture was further enhanced by taking up urban planning at UP. It was due to my exposure to planning that my concern for the development of the country was re-awakened. I still have the fire of idealism burning in me. Much of that would be my late father’s influence – it was his passion for the profession that inspired me to take up Architecture.

"I was recently faced with choices that forced me to uproot my family and move here to the US. Of course, the decision to move was mainly for economic reasons. Honestly, I was looking forward to a better life here when we first moved. But after the first six months of depression, I realized that I still wanted to practice architecture and planning in the Philippines. It is because of my concern for the profession that I have seriously thought of going back home.

"All my friends and peers in college laugh at my concerns and ideas. But unlike those who planted their roots here long ago, I know that my place is back in the Philippines. I am not only concerned about the profession, but have long been in turmoil over the continued degradation of the practice. All too often we hear of other architects allowing clients to have other architects counter bid for the same project, which allows the palengke-style haggling for fees to survive. And, likewise, it is true that we have to contend with foreign architects invading our country and relegating Filipino architects to mere draftsmen. Yes, we have to face the fact that the perception of the practice is likened to a product, which is stripped of its dignity as a service. This has resulted in a situation where clients expect additional work at no extra cost ... just like buying fruits in the market and haggling to get a cheaper price or a few more bananas without paying extra. This is further compounded by the colonial mentality of Filipino clients that anything foreign or imported is better than local. Yes, foreign firms may have the glamour (and American accent), but it does not mean we are less capable of handling big projects. Clearly, the public has to be educated. It is because of articles like yours that the Filipino client is maturing, but clearly both they and we have a long way to go."

ML, we truly have a long way to go from bananas to better architecture. Coming back is your personal decision (as it was mine). That is sometimes all it takes to make a difference. Teaching again would be good, but establishing (or re-establishing) a practice in this difficult market will be a challenge. Surely, it would also be a good idea to get together with like-minded architects to organize larger, long-term initiatives to address many of the issues we have tackled. Additionally, architects should be more vocal (and visible). Write letters to editors, call in comments on radio and TV talk shows, and get involved in civic organizations. Architects have a great role in building a strong republic.

There are many more e-mails, but we will leave them for next week, when we will also include feedback from noted Filipino and Fil-American architects as well as the head of the Heritage Conservation Society.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at Paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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