Martyrs, monuments and modernity

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - February 10, 2007 - 12:00am
This is the third in the series of articles on the topic of "invisibility" that I started last December. That and a second article are still circulating on the Net mostly among Filipino architects working or who have migrated abroad. Pinoy architects have written me from the United States, Singapore, Sweden, the Middle East and Dubai. They mostly wrote to share their frustration at not being able to practice their art and profession here in the Philippines. They are our modern martyrs whose cause is mainly personal — "they have to earn a living" — as well as economic; they are among the 10 million plus OFWs contributing to the present diaspora-based economy of our country. We often forget about these hardworking exiles unless they hit the news by being kidnapped or killed.

I ended 2006 by attending a ceremony for a long gone, but not forgotten martyr. I attended the flag raising ceremony at the Rizal monument on Dec. 31. It was my first time to attend such an event, which marked the day that Jose Rizal was shot for treason. The occasion was also to inaugurate the historical marker of the sculptural vignette and garden that memorializes the martyrdom. This is the second in a series of such plaques being put up by the NCCA, the NHI, and the architects’ organizations, to mark masterpieces of contemporary Philippine architecture and landscape architecture. The first was at the CCP, Lindy Locsin’s grand masterpiece. This Rizal Park corner was the creation of recently-named National Artist for Architecture, landscape architect Ildefonso P. Santos.

The site is a modernist assemblage of outdoor rooms and sculpture settings that depict the last days of Rizal. The indefatigable metal sculptor Eduardo Castrillo created the pieces that IP Santos then laid out within the site. It is a blend of landscape and art, history and technology, sacred space and sanctuary for park goers. The marker was unveiled by Manila Mayor Lito Atienza with Ed Castrillo, former Supreme Court Chief Justice and now permanent Philippine representative to the United Nations Hilario Davide, representatives of the United Architects of the Philippines, the Philippine Institute of Architects and the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects. Of course, IP Santos was there. It is great that we are starting to acknowledge the design professions and the body of work our architect/artists have produced. The Filipino designer architect, landscape architect, interior designer, urban designer or environmental planner will be less invisible with programs such as this. This should lead to better understanding and appreciation of a vital art form and its contributions to national culture, identity, and progress.
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This leads me to a letter from Gemma Cruz-Araneta, president of the Heritage Conservation Society of the Philippines, who responded to my "invisible architects" series. She wrote: "One of the reasons why architects are invisible in the national scene is because ‘architectural’ is not included in the vocabulary of national laws and local legislation.   The Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) has finally succeeded in including ‘heritage’ in the vocabulary of local government units, the Housing Land Use and Regulatory Board and other government agencies that are related to heritage concerns (whether they know it or not).  At the moment, Senate Bills 54 (introduced by Juan Flavier) and 1089 (by Edgardo Angara) and a few others are being discussed by a senate technical working committee where the HCS and government institutions are represented.   In existing legislation, heritage is either historical or cultural, or built and artistic. We are including ‘Architectural Heritage,’ meaning a building or structure can be significant (even if no hero lived and died there) simply because of its architectural features.  Perhaps we should also introduce ‘engineering’ (for heritage bridges, waterworks, ports as well as the rice terraces), as well as ‘industrial’ heritage."
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Thanks Gemma, for the update. The HCS is doing a great job championing the conservation of our built heritage. Even contemporary buildings less than 30 years old are now being conserved in the United States and Europe, so long as they are important examples of an artist’s work, an era or movement in architecture or planning. Such iconic structures as Aero Saarinen’s TWA terminal in New York and American landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s Lovejoy Plaza in Seattle are examples. How many high-rises on Ayala are left that were original works of modern Filipino architects of the ‘60s? Only the Insular Life building by Cesar Concio and two by Locsin remain. Many e-mails I’ve received come from exiled Pinoy architects. Some escape to earn a decent wage while others have loftier goals that would remain unattainable if they were still here. An example is Lira Luis, a Pinay architect who left Manila to study at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Academy. She graduated and has since established a successful small practice in the US that has been noticed by American design publications like Metropolis. She shared this: "Architects at some point in their careers envision creating monuments for posterity just like the legendary architects we learned about in school. In my case, my inspiration was Frank Lloyd Wright. He and his work drove me to dream and dream big.

"Architecture is not the only profession among the arts that is experiencing a lack of appreciation from the Filipino public. The true nature of architecture, like other arts, is inaccessible to most Filipinos whose main concern is surviving to the next day. This imposes smothering constraints upon emerging Filipino architects and designers wanting to shape Philippine realities of the 21st century. This is further compounded by Hollywood depictions of architecture as an elitist and glamorous profession. "Sadly, too, the mindset of contemporary Filipinos is that anything imported is better. This is a product of repetitive media articulation manifested in print, broadcast, and now the ubiquitous billboards flanking city streets." (These conditions apparently forced Luis to take the decision to leave.)

Lira continued, "To quote architect Frank Gehry (of the Guggenheim Bilbao fame) ‘I don’t go where I’m not wanted.’ If Philippine society does not want or is unable to accept what architecture is or could be, then I’d rather be invisible to this society. Gehry, a Pritzker-prize winning architect who is Canadian by birth, is not practicing in his own country. Neither is I.M. Pei. But look at where they are now. They rose above plebeian comfort objectives and became the invincible architects they are today. They made this decision with sensitive respect to nationalism — they didn’t forget their roots. I’d rather be an ‘invisible architect’ for now; until my country is ready to embrace an architectural ideology beyond commonality. (I’m better off helping shape architecture and its 21st century role in another country.) In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the ride."
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It’s great to find young architects like Lira who still have dreams and still get inspired to reach for the moon. Many of our unappreciated, low-self esteem-ridden architects have set their sights much lower and dream only to save enough to assure they can support themselves and their families.Have we no local architectural heroes to motivate and serve as role models for our young designers? Some of those who’ve written me have also said that the era of iconic "godlike" architects like Wright, Gehry or Lord Foster is gone and that the important function of architecture and design is to improve people’s lives without the glory of accolades. But heroes are important and function is but one of the three classic attributes of great architecture (Utilitas, Venustas, Firmitas). The other two are robustness (of construction) and beauty.We lack heroes and have too many showbiz personalities instead. We are hard pressed to find beauty in our surroundings, which is a mangle of traffic-clogged roads, La Vegas architecture and foreign-designed anomalies peddled as "master-planned communities for those with modern aspirations."Modernity is a goal we claim in our endeavors as a nation. Yet modernity escapes us because we seek a commodified modernity, one that is pre-packaged, over-processed, culturally-foreign and sold to us by (mainly) the hegemonic West.A great pre-condition of real modernity, is being able to define one’s self, community and environment in what we do, where we go, how we live our lives, and where we celebrate communality. We cannot be truly modern if we live second-hand lives, enjoy pre-owned culture, and live in structures and settings copied from Beverly Hills.

Filipino architects leave because they are not wanted here. Many of our modern monuments valorize nothing but kitsch and now symbolize the death of Filipino creativity. Pinoy architects are sacrificed daily as we kowtow at the altar of architectural mimicry and hire foreign consultants to create nowhere places with no sense of place, cultural authenticity or civic warmth.This February is a cold month, but let us try to celebrate National Arts Month by pondering how we can bring back the thousands of architect/artists who’ve left, how we can make use of their immeasurable talent and creativity to house 88 million Filipinos, build better cities and, yes, find better ways to improve our surroundings other than just covering them up in those pesky billboards.
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For a glimpse of how we have been shaping our modernity, view the amazing exhibit "Building Modernity: A Century of Philippine Architecture and Allied Arts" at the National Museum in Rizal Park. The exhibit traces the evolution of architecture and designed environment in the Philippines in the 20th century, structures that have been created within the framework of modernism. The exhibition is composed of archival photographs, paintings, vintage graphics, blueprints, building components and ornaments, and related artifacts to underscore the larger stylistic tendencies, movements, ideologies, and technologies that have shaped the complex Filipino architectural culture of the last century, and acknowledge the plural expressions of modernity. The exhibition is the contribution of the Committee on Architecture and the Allied Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), together with National Museum of the Philippines, for the "Ani ng Sining: Philippine Arts Festival 2007." For details and inquiries, visit www.ncca.gov.ph.
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Feedback is welcome. E-mail the writer at Paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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