Just as the protagonist in Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels finds herself caught between traditional values of the past and the present, “The City Who Had Two Navels” — curated by Edson Cabalfin — focuses on the architecture of our colonial past and neoliberal urbanism.
‘The City Who Had Two Navels’ explores colonial and neoliberal architecture
Sandra Palou (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — This year the Philippines, for the second time in its history, has a national pavilion at the Architectural Biennale of Venice. This endeavor is largely due to Senator Lauren Legarda with support from Virgilio Almario, chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

The theme of this year’s 16th Venice International Architecture Exhibition is “Freespace.”  Co-curated by Yvonne Farrel and Shelley McNamara, it explores new ways of thinking and seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the well-being and dignity of each citizen on our fragile planet.

According to the curators, “Freespace” can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene. Architecture has an active as well as a passive life.

“‘Freespace’ encompasses freedom to imagine the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.”

The curator of our national pavilion, Edson Cabalfin, draws on Nick Joaquin’s 1961 novel, The Woman Who Had Two Navels, as his theme for the Philippine entry.  Just as the protagonist in Nick Joaquin’s story finds herself caught between traditional values of the past and the present, “The City Who Had Two Navels” focuses on the architecture of our colonial past and neoliberal urbanism.  The latter term refers to architecture that is patronized by entrepreneurial and private wealth.  Cabalfin’s catalogue essay talks about the dominance of these two trends and how they hinder the ability of architects to form a future style.  The physical installation of the pavilion itself is dynamic and inviting.  The large square room with a high ceiling is divided by two oval convex free-standing panels, almost the entire length of the room.  These panels, representing the projects of the groups chosen to work on new ideas, create a central area showing Yason Banal’s video of prominent landmarks within the greater Metro Manila area and beyond: the Manila Cemetery, Chinatown, Mount Pinatubo, Subic US Naval base, Bonifacio Global City, Rockwell, a call center, Manila Hotel, among others. 

The viewer, immediately drawn to the film, is made aware of the effect colonial architecture plays in shaping neoliberalism structures and development.   Personally I do not see these styles as conflicting, but rather as building upon each other in creating our cities. 

Granted that Western architecture was not intrinsic to the ancestral Philippine way of living, but with colonialism we embraced it and moved on. Many of our neoliberal architects have taken motifs from the neo-classicism and art deco styles, often unsuccessfully.  A lack of proportion and refinement of taste is often a challenge but our architecture is in a transition. Learning from the past, incorporating our intrinsic sensibilities and finding the balance between both, in my opinion is what needs to improve.  Already one sees many younger architects integrating the past more successfully into their work.  I would agree with Cabalfin that the city, i.e. the environment, is like the human body, not existing in and of itself but shaped by the changing needs of those who inhabit it. 

For architecture to be successful it must accomplish this in an aesthetically uplifting manner. In historic times, cities were built to show the beauty, the power and the wealth of a people. Structures were testaments to these and were made to stand the test of time. Today, showing wealth and power tend to be more important than beauty.

Malls as social spaces, the expansion of residential subdivisions encroaching on peripheral farmlands, the homogeny of commercial areas having the same fast food chain restaurants, fast fashion shops, convenience stores, etc. as well as traffic congestion are among the visual topics addressed by Banal’s video, “Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound.”  One sees that neoliberalism architecture has often been reduced to a formula without creativity.

Another theme of the Philippine Pavilion focused on studying how colonialism and neoliberalism could best work toward shaping our future. A consortium of an NGO of architects and planners, TAO-Pilipinas in Quezon City and four universities: UP, Diliman; UP, Mindanao; University of San Carlos in Sulog, Cebu; and De La Salle College of Saint Benilde, was established.  Each group chose a site to study and develop in whichever manner they saw fit.

The University of San Carlos in Sulog chose to focus on Colon Street, the oldest in the Philippines. Their project, titled, “Currents of Unity” envisioned Colon Street as a major thoroughfare linking co-existing with a new development of high-rise structures encompassing current buildings.  Doing so reinvents the area into a hub of social activity.

UP Mindanao, chose the existing informal settlement of the ocean’s edge of the poblacion in Davao City.  To counter the extreme modern trends they foresee Davao City developing, the group uses indigenous motifs in local architecture to recreate the floating village into what they call Badjao Eco-Village: Empowerment Through Indigenous Architecture.  In like manner the high-end Samal Island Pearl Farm Resort uses indigenous southern architectural motifs for their main structures and interiors.  Their rooms are built on stilts in the sea.  Contemporary yet with a feeling of being in the south, the rooms are elegant and comfortable.

De La Salle College of Saint Benilde chose the Pasig River, Manila, focusing on Binondo and Intramuros. Foreseeing the Philippines in 2050, it explores these areas under the three colonial powers we were subjugated to as well as being a hyper virtual reality city.

UP Diliman, a colonial institution, chose its own campus as its project.  “HyGrids” (a contraction of “hyperrealist projections” and “conceptual grids”) explores the possibilities of colonialism and neoliberalism, of being highly built and minimally built, highly vegetated and minimally vegetated within the framework of interacting conceptual grids.

TAO-Pilipinas is a non-profit organization created by two women architects and has helped those without the financial means to design low-cost structures that are functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Although our exhibition offers various ways of dealing with the needs of the Filipino people and shows the talent of our young architects, sadly it did not take home any of the coveted prizes. 

The Golden Lion award for the best national pavilion went to Switzerland for the humorous and interactive way critical issues of scale in domestic space are addressed in “House Tour.”  For example, one has to tiptoe to turn the handle of the door.

Great Britain won an honorable mention for their pavilion called “Island,” which explores emptiness as a platform for events and as an expression of “Freespace.”

The Golden Lion award for the best participant went to Eduardo Souto de Moura of Portugal for pairing two aerial photographs revealing the “essential relationship between architecture, time and place.”

The Silver Lion for the young promising architect went to a group of young Belgian-based architects:  Jan de Vylder, Inge Vinck, and Jo Taillieu for a project that deals with slowness and waiting to allow architecture to be open to future activation.

This year, there were two awards of special mention. One went to Rahul Mehrotra, born in Mumbai, India, and a professor of Harvard, for his humane approach in his projects dealing with intimate and socially hierarchal space, and the other to Andra Matin from Bandung, Indonesia for his sensitive installation integrating traditional form and material into modernism.

Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement went to British-born Kenneth Frampton, who lives in New York City.

For those who have not seen “Freespace” at the Venice Architectural Biennale, there is still time. It ends on Nov. 25. 

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