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Requiem for a master architect |

Modern Living

Requiem for a master architect

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren -

The country has just lost an icon of Philippine modern architecture. Carlos D. Arguelles passed away last Tuesday. He was a proponent of the International Style of architecture that had its beginnings in the Bauhaus school and the Rationalist design movements, which were transplanted to the United States where he studied architecture.

Arguelles translated this modernist ideology into buildings that have become landmarks of Philippine architecture in the second half of the 20th century. His body of work includes the Philamlife headquarters and the Manila Hilton on United Nations Avenue, the PNB on Escolta, the DBP, Manilabank, Allied Bank, and Solid Bank buildings in Makati.

The landscape of commercial centers in the ’70s was shaped by Arguelles-designed buildings. Many still remember the Magallanes Theater, which was demolished a decade or so ago, and the Quad — still there but now embedded in the Glorietta complex. Arguelles also pioneered high-rise condominiums with the Urdaneta Apartments and Makati Tuscany on Ayala Avenue.

Arguelles was an inspiration to generations of students and professionals whom he guided either as a professor then dean of architecture at the UST, or as head of one of the most successful architectural practices in the country from the ’50s to the ’90s.

Carlos D. Corcuera Arguelles was born on September 15, 1922 in Manila. He was the fifth son of Tomas Arguelles, a prominent pre-war architect, and Carmen Benedicta Corcuera. Carlos followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the architecture program at the University of Santo Tomas.

He graduated in 1939, then served a year in the Philippine Army as a reserve officer. He then sailed for the United States in 1940 to further his studies. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1941, where he first came into contact with proponents of a new style of architecture that eschewed extraneous ornament and sought to express form as a product of function.

Arguelles immediately enrolled in the master’s program but the war broke out. He enlisted in the army and was promptly sent off to train as a tank commander in the deserts of Nevada. In charge of training there was the infamous General George Patton. As he was about to be shipped off to the European theater of war, he got a telegraph instructing him to join President Manuel Quezon and the Philippine wartime government in Washington D.C. He eventually was assigned as an intelligence officer under Colonel Chuck Parsons in Australia as they planned the return to the Philippines.

After the liberation, Arguelles retuned to the United States to finish his postgraduate studies at MIT. He graduated in 1946 with a master’s degree in architecture. For the next three years Arguelles worked for a number of American architectural firms, including that of Welton Beckett and Associates. Beckett had designed the Jai Alai in Manila and was, by then, head of what was to become one of the largest design firms in America in the ’50s and ’60s.

Arguelles returned to the Philippines in 1949 and worked as an associate with architect and planner Gines Rivera, who was master-planning the new Ateneo Campus in Loyola Heights at that time. That year he also started teaching at the University of Santo Tomas’s College of Architecture. He would eventually become dean in the mid-’50s until pressure from work forced him to concentrate on his growing practice.

Arguelles first came to prominence as the chief architect of the Philamlife Homes in Quezon City. This was the first “gated” community in the country with a secure perimeter, central park, clubhouse and residential designs based on a select number of model units. Philamlife Homes has become the template used by countless developers ever since. Arguelles designed the bungalows in variants to suit middle-class Filipino lifestyles that had maids, a central toilet and bath facility and a modern garage. For this work and a number of small buildings, he was cited by architectural critic Bobby Perez in a seminal series on modern Filipino architects in the Sunday Times Magazine.

From that initial project, the Philamlife Corporation gave Arguelles his first big office-building commission — the Philamlife headquarters. This he shaped into one of the first international-style buildings in Manila. The medium-rise block used extensive ribbon window glazing and aluminum sunshades. Sculpted concrete formed entrance canopies and a roof for the complex’s auditorium. Arguelles also used the artwork of Filipino artists like Galo Ocampo and Manansala to enhance the clean, spacious and brightly lit interiors.

The building was inaugurated in 1962 and set a new standard for local commercial structures. Arguelles’ star was on the rise and his next major design sealed his reputation as a preferred architect for prestigious projects. The site was just opposite the Philamlife but the building was to be the tallest in Manila for the next two decades. The Manila Hilton was the symbol of a progressive Manila. It made the city a global destination and its architectural composition, composed of a tower on a podium deck, became the format for numerous skyscrapers after that.

These skyscrapers sprouted up in Makati and many of them were the product of CD Arguelles and Associates. CDAA became one of the offices architectural graduates sought to gain entry to and many alumni of CDAA (engineers and architects) went on to establish their own successful practices or careers. This included the likes of Romy Caparros, EL Mariano, Dong Abello, Vic Medel, Choy Protomartir, Meloy Casas Freddie Jurilla, Raul, Locsin, Tony Suarez, Jose Silvestre, Ricky Cheng, Tessie de Vera and Danny Silvestre, now the dean of the College of Architecture at the UP.

Another famous alumnus of CDAA is Ramon Orlina. Ramon likes to remind people that he started as an architect and worked for “Carling” Arguelles at the peak of his practice. Ramon kept contact with Arguelles and his “batch mates” at CDAA. The office environment apparently generated a camaraderie that created a bond for all who worked there.

The office transformed into Carlos D. Arguelles and Partners in the ’80s, which went on to design larger complexes and more towers like the Manila Midtown complex, ABS-CBN studios, the Cathedral of the Holy Child, the Church of the Holy Trinity, the IBM headquarters, the Johnson & Johnson complex and a slew of residential projects in the “villages” of Makati.

I managed to interview the architect a few years ago at his Makati office. He was turning 90 then and was still coming to work everyday. He regaled me with stories of his early years in the United States and of the design and construction of the Philamlife and Hilton projects. He was active in the Philippine Institute of Architects and was an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He took an interest and was an officer, too, of the Automobile Association of the Philippines.

Arguelles’ legacy is a body of architectural work that spans four decades. His office, because of its size and the scope of its projects, helped professionalize the practice of architecture and engineering (since it was an A&E or architecture and engineering firm). He helped train the current movers and shakers of architecture. He gave out scholarships to outstanding students of architecture in several institutions and recruited the best to work for him.

Arguelles projected an ideal image of “the master architect,” a strong, towering presence that assured clients of the quality of design produced. At the helm, herding a multitude of design consultants, engineers and contractors, he showed great leadership and management skills needed to steer complex projects to meet deadlines and produce outstanding modern buildings.

Arguelles’ structures speak of an era where the best-designed buildings in Asia were in Manila and Filipino architects were among the most respected; not as the glorified draftsmen and backroom support many are now in foreign firms abroad, but as world-class innovators and creative talents.

Arguelles used that talent to improve shelter for Filipinos, to build robust edifices for Filipino commerce, superb structures for Filipino industry and sanctuaries for our spiritual refuge. His and his generation’s legacy of building for the Filipino should be the aim of all Filipino architects and allied professionals. There can be no higher goal and one would hope the current generation of Filipino architects set their sights as high.

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