Patina and Immanence

Talk delivered at "Xroads:  Built Heritage and Contemporary Art" Symposium 
2016 London Biennale Manila Pollination
Metropolitan Theater, Padre Burgos Ave., Manila
3:00 p.m., Saturday, September 17, 2016

The relationship between heritage architecture and contemporary art is a fertile one, rich in cross-pollinations.  In this talk, I will discuss the things that link the two as I have tried to understand them.  This quest to understand this relationship is at the core of my motivations as an architect. 

As I understand it, Heritage is the embodiment, through time, of the tangible and intangible expression of the values and identity of a people.  Tangible – what one can touch – and intangible – what one cannot touch.  Tangible expression – architecture, buildings, monuments, art, painting, sculpture.  Intangible expression – the rituals, craftsmanship, traditions, knowledge that are reflected in this architecture and art, through time.

Perhaps one could think of heritage as a building, and of the walls, floors and ceilings of that building, the ornaments and objects that populate it, as Tangible Heritage.  And of the space, the empty space between the walls, between surfaces, as Intangible Heritage.  The solid and the void that make the whole.

I am here to represent ICOMOS, which is the International Council of Monuments and Sites.  It is the only global non-governmental organization that focuses on the conservation of sites and monuments.  With headquarters in Paris, we are a network of experts from many disciplines – architects, engineers, archaeologists, lawyers, conservators – who aim to apply the highest professional and intellectual standards to the task of conserving our cultural heritage, our built patrimony of structures, sites, and cultural landscapes.  The 9,500 members of ICOMOS are spread in 106 National Committees, of which the Philippine National Committee, or ICOMOS Philippines, is one.  ICOMOS is a partner with UNESCO in the selection, assessment, and stewardship of the cultural sites and monuments on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Many of us know at least one site on that list.  Here in the Philippines we have at least a half dozen.  A stone’s throw away from here we have San Agustin Church in Intramuros, for example.  It is one of the four churches that comprise the UNESCO World Heritage inscription Baroque Churches of the Philippines. 

ICOMOS helps UNESCO in the evaluation of the Outstanding Universal Value, or OUV, of a site.  We must be able to answer Yes to at least one or two of these questions.  Is it exceptional?  Is it a masterpiece?  Does it demonstrate an important dialogue of ideas and values? Does it bear exceptional witness to a special moment in civilization?  Is it an outstanding example of its type of structure?

Then we judge the site for qualities of Integrity and Authenticity.  Integrity refers to the intactness of the site, the state of the materials and components with which the site expresses its exceptional quality.  Authenticity refers to the originality of these materials and components. 

Of course when one goes to a site like San Agustin Church, or Vigan, or the Taj Mahal, or the Sydney Opera House, or any other World Heritage site, one does not typically process the questions of “Is it exceptional?” or “Is it a masterpiece?” or “Does it bear exceptional witness to a special moment in civilization?” the first moment one gets there.  One does not think of criteria.  Perhaps one does not even think.  One feels.  The first moments tend to be wordless, or if there are words they tend to be monosyllabic, like “Whoa!” or “Wow!”  These are wordless reactions to the ineffable realities of the place.  These ineffable realities are what some gather together under the term Spirit of Place.  In Latin, Genius Loci.  Later do they acquire the quality of Outstanding Universal Value.

These ineffable realities are the focus of my work as an architect.  I believe that for many of you they are also the focus of your work as artists. 

These ineffable realities are rooted in meaning.  This is why they move us.  At this level of consideration, the categories of heritage and architecture disintegrate.   On a very personal level, at an instinctual understanding of things, I make no distinction between heritage and architecture.  Heritage is architecture.  Architecture is heritage.  To be more precise about it, one can say that Architecture is Trinitarian, composed of its past, its present, and its future.  Its past is what we call heritage, its present is what we may call contemporary design, and its future… the future of architecture is up in the air, and we are trying to grasp it.  

The late great dean John Hejduk of the Cooper Union, that great school of art and architecture in New York, once said:  "The fundamental issue of architecture is that does it affect the spirit or doesn't it. If it doesn't affect the spirit, it's building. If it affects the spirit, it's architecture."

The spirit in us that is affected by architecture encounters the Spirit of Place that is embodied in the architecture.  We speak of the soul. 

In school we learn of the qualities of architecture that have been passed down as the Vitruvian canon of firmitas, utilitas, venustas, Latin words for strength, usefulness, beauty.  Beyond school, and with time, we learn to understand the qualities that time brings to architecture and to our appreciation of Spirit of Place, one of the most profound intangibles there are.

Thirty years ago, I was a student of architecture spending 3rd year with the rest of my architecture class in Rome, Italy.  We were on a field trip to Verona.  Three of my classmates and I were having dinner with one of our professors – Prof. Kenneth Featherstone - at an outdoor restaurant facing a piazza.  Across the piazza was one of the houses where a key event in the Romeo and Juliet story reportedly took place.  We had just finished dinner and we were chatting.  Prof. Featherstone began to talk about materials, and about the cobblestones of that piazza, and of the time, history and emotion that resided in those cobblestones.  He instructed us to reach down and to touch the cobblestones.  We all gingerly reached down and touched them with the tips of our fingers.  We had not had as much wine to drink as the good professor.  “That’s not how to understand history!” he said more loudly.  “Get on your knees and get your hands dirty!” 

And we did.  What a strange sight we must have been.  Fortunately the IPhone and its camera had not been invented yet.  We were four architecture students on our knees feeling the patina of time on those cobblestones. 

It was one of my first and clearly my most memorable lessons on materiality and on patina and on immanence.  And their role in our appreciation of the Spirit of Place.

Patina.  The patina of time.  Strictly speaking patina is the film that develops on a metallic material such as bronze as a result of age and the passing of time.  The way we use the term now pertains to the effects of time on the character and appearance of a surface, the benign or not always benign effects of weathering that come with time.  It is something many of us find visually appealing. 

If patina is on the surface, immanence is what is beneath the surface.  It is difficult to describe without going into riddles.  It is the thingness of things, the wallness of a wall.  If you believe in the deity, it is the way in which the deity resides in that wall.  It is a powerful quality, the intangible quality of a tangible thing such as a wall, which, when combined with the ineffable emptiness of space, yields a profound experience of reality.

This brings me to my last subject, which is a brief discussion of the term Pollination.  I find this to be the most intriguing word in the title of this event.  As artists and architects, we aim to pollinate the world with profound experiences of reality.

Let me share our experience with a current project.  We are nearing completion of a project nearby, the Adaptive Reuse conversion of the former Department of Tourism building on Agrifina Circle in Rizal Park into the new National Museum of Natural History.  It was completed in 1939 as the Department of Agriculture, designed by Antonio Toledo who was then the Consulting Architect of the Bureau of Public Works.  We began the project in 2012, and expect to complete by first half of next year.    

The experience of each visit to the site has been a lesson in patina and immanence, and in Spirit of Place.  Space and Light are of course essential components of the Spirit of Place, but it is Patina and Immanence that in my opinion I find most linked to the sense of heritage as the passage of time.  Week after week, to walk down a corridor or around a courtyard that is in a state of transition, produces in one’s mind many impressions, countless impressions.   With each glance, at each turn, we would confront a moving scene of window, of wall, of light entering space, even of wall being demolished, or rebar dangling from slab, and we would be moved by how compelling these views were, these visions that had been curated by circumstance.  One day it would be Jose Joya on this wall, or Antoni Tapies on that.  The next day would be Mark Rothko, or Jun Yee.  I am talking about the links one would make between what we were seeing there and works of art we had seen elsewhere.

The medium of the architect is drawings.  We use plans, sections, elevations to capture and express design intent, a concept.  As design intent merges with the spirit of place, the experience of being in that place becomes more vivid.  Like the parable of the loaves and the fishes, the multiplication of impressions results in the Infinite abiding, residing, in the moment.  Of course this happens in new construction too, but in a heritage site, there is that added dimension of time and patina, and a deeper sense of immanence.

This is why the relationship of heritage architecture and contemporary art is a fertile one.  This is why artists and architects recognize and embrace – are fueled by - such places as Escolta, and support the adaptive reuse initiative of the Metropolitan Theater, where we are gathered today. It is these places, resonant with the creative vibe of our colleagues in art and design, which speak to us most strongly, when we feel the need to return to our roots and understand how we came to be ourselves, and where we need to go from here in our unending quest for meaning.