First Impressions

When I first visited the Philippines, I had no preconceived notions about it, especially as an architect encountering its building styles and designs for the first time.  Media have been so pervasive nowadays that it’s easy to have preconceived notions, even subconsciously, when visiting a new place. Cities and countries are depicted in films.

 Many products are branded together with visuals of their country of origin, and so we are made to feel that we have glimpsed Switzerland through an advertisement for chocolate, and glanced at Brazil through an ad for trendy rubber slippers. My previous exposure, however, consisted only of friendships with Filipinos I knew from overseas, and not of any notion of what architecture and design heritage I would find.  

What I encountered was a complex and multifaceted scene that draws from the distant past, the recent past, and a dynamic present.  I have now been living and working in the Philippines for nine years, and it continues to engage me. I knew immediately that the Philippines was unique when I saw the wide range of styles that coexist.   

There is Spanish heritage, which resonates in church architecture, and American influence in the planning of many neighborhoods, with single-family villas, laid out in suburban style.  There is also the heritage of Filipino master architects like Leandro Locsin, dating from the 1960s and ‘70s, in buildings like the CCP and its siblings.

Perhaps most intriguing to me was the explosion of allusions and references that fill the spaces in between, often sharply contrasting.  Even fast food restaurants are built in starkly contemporary styles and may share the street with a church bedecked in baroque flourishes.  Some high rises may be of steel and glass while neighboring ones are topped with cupolas or accented with Grecian columns.  The colonial design heritage of many churches is often echoed by Mediterranean influences in spaces as commonplace as commercial centers or expressway rest stops.  

What can we make of this eclectic mix?  Is this freedom and diversity an asset to celebrate? Or is it a disarray that begs for order?  In my opinion, the matter is subjective, and there is no right answer.  One possible perspective, however, is that every-day Philippine architecture has taken the same turn as painting, and many other Filipino art forms.   Visual art in the Philippines was once inspired almost exclusively by religious themes.  Over time, however, this orthodoxy eroded, and the result was an explosion of different experimentations and styles, so that Filipino visual art now covers a range of disparate forms as varied as Philippine architecture.  Religious art is still present, though no longer devoid of irony.  The subject matter of local contemporary art is as varied as a modernist restaurant down the street from a terracotta-roofed villa and glass-fronted shop.  Both art and architecture are vibrant and far from regularization.

A building’s style may represent a particular time and a particular aesthetic. As an Italian architect and designer now making my home in the Philippines, and as the CEO of Italpinas Development Corporation, what do I hope to contribute to all this?  Perhaps this diversity of everyday architectural styles raises the question: what traits are universally desirable?  In my own architectural practice, I underscore performance.  A building’s style may represent a particular time and a particular aesthetic, but all built habitats ought to perform well.  As a design principle, this is not new.  The bahay kubo performed by encouraging ventilation through the floors and walls.  The bahay na bato performed by melding the solidity of its stone foundations with the perforated facades of the second floor, always light and climate-appropriate even when built to be rock-solid.    

Today, I believe that performance again calls for lightness and solidity.  We live in a unique time when the Philippine economy’s rates of growth are the envy of the region.  Cities beyond Metro Manila will slowly but surely develop their own skylines and forge the characters of their new commercial and residential precincts.  In this era, we build solidly for the future, and it often appears that the lightness is the real challenge.  Can we leave a lighter footprint, not just lighter in consumption to benefit the planet, but lighter in inefficiencies, to benefit our everyday cityscape?  Can we live closer to work, and yet manage the resulting density well?  Can our homes and offices ventilate, shade, and power themselves?  It is my hope as an architect, and a lover of the story of Filipino architecture, that smart design will answer all these questions in the positive. by Romolo Nati/IDC Chairman/CEO (The article was published in the Manila Standard. )

Romolo Nati is the founder of Italpinas Development Corporation, the first green developer that invested in the city of Cagayan de Oro.