Misis ginilitan ni mister
- Doris Franche-Borja () - May 19, 2007 - 12:00am

Filipinos consider themselves modern — at least in some ways. We are tech-savvy, proven by the fact that we are the text masters of the world. We are mall-savvy; by the millions, we flock daily to some of the world’s largest shopping malls. We are streetlight-savvy; our major cities have the world’s most modern — and expensive — lighting systems ever. But that’s about it.

We have streetlights, but only in areas for showing off, while the rest of our metropolitan districts are shrouded in darkness and terribly unsafe. Malls are sprouting up in all urban areas and consumer consumption is up, but this is for imported goods and we produce fewer and fewer products in our own country. Our agriculture is sorely inefficient and industrialization is a myth (unless you count karaoke microphones and car mufflers). Almost every Filipino is cell-connected, there is an Internet café on every corner and we write complicated software programs for the world, yet we still count our ballots manually. Is the Philippines modern? Not by a long shot, though we try.

We’ve been trying for over a century. Ever since we tried to take the Spanish colonial yoke off and govern ourselves in the late 19th century, our dream of becoming a modern republic has been interrupted by outside forces or internal interventions. The aspirations to be modern were reflected in our adaptation of modes of social or political organization, manner of dress, language and finally in our architecture and urbanism.

Modernity was indeed an urban phenomenon. Its European trajectory emanated from the cities, which themselves were the result of a new socio-economic order fueled eventually and dramatically by the onset of industrialization. This, as the world steamed into the 19th century.

To understand modernity is to finally achieve it (or a version that can sustain us). Much has already been written and debated about our continuing attempts to be politically and economically modern. The discourse on our cultural and artistic endeavors in the last hundred years has been lively and beneficial to those fields (more so than for politics or economics). We have not, however, even scratched the surface when it comes to problematizing our architecture and built environment.

We have had over a hundred years of experiments in (literally) building the project of “Filipino” and the Philippines. The American colonial period, the Commonwealth years, the post-war recovery, the martial-law years and the post-martial-law run-up to the new millennium have produced stop-and-start initiatives to create a Filipino architecture and a way to put the structures that house, feed, govern and entertain us in an urban context.

This historical and critical scope is covered in an exhibit, running till the end of May, at the Museum of the Filipino People (formerly the Finance Building), National Museum Complex, Manila. “Building Modernity: A Century of Architecture and Allied Arts” is a project of the Committee on Architecture and the Allied Arts (CAAA) of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), together with National Museum of the Philippines, for the Ani ng Sining: Philippine Arts Festival 2007.

I viewed the exhibit after the launch of a related project, the “Audio-Visual Textbook of Philippine Architecture” last April 25.  I was invited to attend the launch by architect Tina Turalba of the CAAA and the United Architects of the Philippines, along with the Holcim Foundation, which sponsored the launch-event cocktails.

The exhibit was curated by Dr. Gerard Lico, an art historian and architect who teaches at the College of Architecture in the University of the Philippines. Lico is one of only a handful of scholars in Philippine architecture who have published and curated exhibits on Philippine architecture. He has been a three-time UP Gawad Chanselor para sa Pinakamahusay na Mananaliksik (Arts and Humanities), as well as a 2004 TOYM awardee for his research in architecture.

The exhibit is the most extensive so far for modern Philippine architecture and urbanism (urban design, landscape architecture and planning). It contains pictures, paintings, drawings, blueprints and artifacts, like the seal of the Ministry of Human Settlements from the ’70s and pre-cast sun breakers from the ’60s. Fellow faculty members from the History Theory and Criticism Department of the UP College of Architecture — Rene Luis Mata, Nonoy Ozaeta, and Edson Cabalfin — were on hand and accompanied me on the tour of the exhibit.

Aerial images of an evolving metropolis (mainly metropolitan Manila) abound and give visitors grand perspectives of equally grand plans, most of which were never fulfilled. The 1950s plan for what was to be an expansive civic complex for the national government in Novaliches, Quezon City was one of the many elements in the exhibit that was of special interest to me. Another was a pre-war flyer advertising the Philippine College of Design, which offered courses in architecture, landscape architecture and regional and city planning — decades before these courses were introduced in local universities.

The Second World War prevented this college from producing graduates. The war destroyed many of the buildings erected in the American and Commonwealth eras. The first half of the exhibit covers these two phases of the development of Philippine modern architecture and “designed environment.” Lico paints a picture of the early American efforts to colonize us by regimes of sanitation and physical ordering — not unlike the original Spanish “Laws of the Indies” imposition of the plaza and church pattern that defines older settlements.

The Americans introduced the neoclassic style of architecture for a slew of civic buildings built in reinforced concrete. They also introduced the reordering of space on a citywide scale (Daniel Burnham’s 1905 plans for Manila and Baguio). The exhibit graphically shows the big plans for turning Manila into a colonial capital worthy of the emerging world power that was the United States. It also highlights in detail (based on Lico’s doctoral thesis) the extent to which hygiene and sanitation dictated changes in Manila’s housing and urban design — changes that did not go uncontested by a populace suspicious of their new masters and ignorant of the emerging science of urban sanitation, which America and Europe had to deal with as they rectified their pollution- and disease-infested cities of the 19th century.

As the Americans finally developed an exit strategy from the Philippines in mid-1910 (bowing to popular pressure to withdraw from the islands), Filipinos trained in the United States took over, producing designs for buildings and towns. The early work was still in the neoclassicism that was the default style up to the 1930s, and then eventually went into a hybrid federal style that was close to Art Deco in its simplification of façade treatments and massing. The exhibit covers this phase, also showing the spread of formal architectural design into the private realm with the first high-rise commercial buildings, hotels and large complexes.

The second half of the exhibit frames the post-colonial trajectory of Philippine architecture into the ’60s and beyond. The 1950s images and displays show the acceptance and experimentation in the international style that produced the United Nations building in New York and the new city of Brasilia. The 1960s section highlights the rediscovery of Filipino cultural roots and the application, however superficial, of nationalist motifs to civic and commercial structures. The highlight of this section is the image of the salakot Philippine pavilion at the 1964 New York’s World’s Fair designed by Otilio Arellano.

The rest of the exhibit traces the further evolution of Philippine modernism in the 1970s to early ’80s — as tool of a regime to develop an ideology and identity for its own purposes. Architecture as power gives way to People Power and the eventual building boom that the go-go 1990s produced.

The exhibit ends with images of the feverish transformation of metropolitan Manila with foreign-designed mega-structures, skyscrapers and mixed-use developments. This sets the stage for this decade’s economic recovery and the start, once again, of a new wave of stylistic importations, adaptations and physical re-ordering — still mainly foreign copied, foreign-inspired, and many actually designed by foreign architects, urban designers and landscape architects.

The exhibit forces us to look critically at the images of what we have built and what we have not. The quirks of history that have forced us to abandon tentative steps in evolving our own architecture and urbanism can be overcome with shows like this and the discourse it should continue to engender. If we do not sustain and support such scholarship and reflection, then we will succumb to the hegemonic culture of globalism and build structures and cities that only give us the illusion of modernity.

Antonio Gramsci said, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” It is easy to lose hope in this country. Last Monday’s electoral exercise came at the cost of over a hundred lives. We cannot say we are a modern democracy if even one life is lost. More Filipino lives are endangered constantly because of natural disasters and disease and that can be traced to lack of basic physical planning.

It is not modern to allow settlements in landslide-, tsunami- or flood-prone areas, but this is the reality of a huge chunk of our population. Finally, we live our lives trying to escape our own reality, in houses that are American, French or Japanese-styled, in gated communities that are socially exclusionary and in cities that are starting to look like bad copies of Shanghai — itself a demented cartoon of the western cities it emulates.

We cannot have modern architecture or urbanism if we constantly interrupt the process of evolving our own every time a building boom comes. We cannot have modern Filipino architecture or find the best ways to build our cities if we constantly resort to foreign consultants and their regurgitated designs. The only way to modernity is to question what we have now, learn from the last hundred years of mistakes and seek fundamental and radical change. There is no other way.

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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