The Church of the Transfiguration in the Benedictine Monastery of the Transfiguration in San Jose, Malaybalay, Bukidnon, achieves a certain mythical status as the last project of a great man.  I went to Mindanao to see it

My initial impressions of it had come from the evocative Neal Oshima photographs in the book “The Poet of Space: Leandro V. Locsin”, written by Arch. Augusto Villalon and published in 1996.  A March 2010 conference at the Paul VI Institute of Liturgy on the vast grounds of the monastery presented the chance to see the last church, and presumably the last structure, that the late Leandro Locsin, National Artist for Architecture, had designed. 

There are actually two monastery complexes on the property.  The “old” monastery is only 27 years old while the “new” monastery, designed by Arch. Locsin, is 15 years old.     

The conference on church architecture took place at the “old” monastery but we had four opportunities to travel to the “new” monastery to see the Locsin structure.  It was providential that we would first arrive at the “old” monastery because it turned out to be a reference point for the Locsin structure.  I was struck by the resemblance of the structures there to the new church that I had seen in Arch. Villalon’s book.

The old monastery was designed by the late Cecilio Maceren, a Cagayan de Oro architect whose work deserves more recognition.  He arranged three steep pyramids of varying sizes around a courtyard.  The largest pyramid is the chapel (where the conference took place), followed by the dormitory and the library.  The processional approach up the driveway rewards one with an exceptional orchestration of views, the kind of architectural cinematography we do not often see these days. 

The three pyramids represent the three tents mentioned in Gospel narratives of the miracle of Jesus Christ’s transfiguration, when the apostles Peter, James and John witnessed Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus.  Peter had said “Let us build three tents here.”

Catholics commemorate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6 every year.  On that day in 1981, in the company of his Benedictine companions and after a long search for an ideal monastery site, Malaybalay Bishop Prelate Francisco Claver, SJ, declared “Let us make three tents here”.

Maceren’s monastery complex was inaugurated on August 6, 1983.  It did not take long before word spread of the chanted liturgies taking place in its acoustically perfect chapel.  Small groups grew into overflowing crowds of visitors who traveled great distances to hear the Benedictines pray.  The need for more space became apparent.  The chapel would need to become a church.

Almost ten years later, and with the help of industrialist Manuel Agustines, the Benedictine monks availed of the services of Arch. Locsin to design a new church and monastery.  In the transfer from the old to the new monastery, Arch. Locsin brought with him the idea of the pyramid.  The three tents of Maceren became the one tent of Locsin. The iconic image of Locsin’s church is rooted in precedent, in the most profound and resolute way.

It is interesting to come to Malaybalay and see the context of a last work, not just the immediate physical landscape of Maceren’s three tents, but also the landscape of Locsin’s accomplishment.  Clearly the steep roof floating majestically over the ground plane was an archetype central to Arch. Locsin’s imagination.  But he had never, as far as this author can recall, demonstrated the actual archetype in its essential form, until Malaybalay.  Numerous projects demonstrated the notion of the floating object, but the object was rarely a pyramid.  The National Arts Center on Mt. Makiling, Los Banos, Laguna, demonstrates the diagram, but in truncated form since the roof stops short of reaching its peak.

Locsin’s original plan diagram is very simple:  a square 18 meters wide, centered under a pyramidal roof 25 meters wide.  Six giant steel girders at each side of the square plan project at a 45 degree angle to meet their counterparts.  The difference between 25 and 18 is 7, divided into two ambulatories, or verandas, of 3 ½ meters width each.  This ambulatory provides a transition between inside and outside, a gracious gesture that Arch. Locsin often used, while also creating a shadow-rich recess that permits the roof volume to float.  The architectural drawings showed sliding glass doors defining the interior space, surrounded on all four sides by an ambulatory, but these doors had not yet been installed when the photographs in Arch. Villalon’s book were taken.

The new church is about a kilometer’s walk from the Maceren monastery.  The road curves through trees and clearings in the trees, so the processional approach achieves a dynamic quality.  The parallax of Maceren’s three tents becomes the parallax of Locsin’s church in the midst of the Malaybalay landscape, including the mountain ranges in the distance.  It also occurs to one in the course of that walk that Maceren’s three tents become Locsin’s one tent in rudimentary explication of the Trinity.

That reverie is interrupted when one gets close to the building by the realization that the roof is not floating.  Instead of a recess between roof and ground plane, there is tinted glass in both fixed and sliding analok glass frames hugging the line of the perimeter, visually bringing the roof down to earth.  The ambulatory is gone.  The visitor is thus thrust immediately inside.

The ceiling, at 18 meters, is clad entirely in horizontal wood planks, separated by the black steel girders that carry the load of the roof.  The wood ceiling casts a warm glow.  Near the center of the space, a large boulder, found not far from the site, is used as the altar table.  The lectern is a gnarled tree trunk adapted to exalted use.  Liturgical norms stipulate that the altar table and the lectern be of the same material, but in this case, the defiance works to liturgical advantage.  The archetypal roof provides archetypal shelter to an elemental rock and an elemental tree.  It is back to basics, in a way that takes us back to our beginnings in the deep recesses of time.

Dom Columbano Adag, OSB, who had been in charge of construction prior to his retirement, explained that the interior space needed to absorb the ambulatory.  Benedictine monasteries were often the seeds of urban development in Europe.  Where a monastery was established, a community eventually flourishes.  At Malaybalay, the community is in the form of hundreds of visitors who fill the church on Sundays and holidays, and spill outside.  The overflowing crowds at the Maceren chapel have become overflowing crowds at the Locsin church.

Tall Indian trees in one straight line act as a barrier between the church and the monastery.  Dom Columbano was kind enough to give me a tour of the new monastery, normally closed to outsiders.  A series of arcaded courtyards, the monastery is still a work in progress, as about a quarter of Arch. Locsin’s original monastery plan waits for funding.  But what has been built so far demonstrates a subtle Japanese influence, a quality of quietude that Dom Columbano and his brethren continue to find conducive to their way of life.

Whereas the church building has no walls, except at the sanctuary, the monastery in turn is defined by them.  White masonry blocks of a lime-and-cement mixture were manufactured on site to become the basic building block.  The dynamic quality of Maceren’s monastery is supplanted by the serene rectilinearity of Locsin’s.  Whereas Maceren’s three tents are in some sort of confraternity, Locsin’s design places the church in clear supremacy over the monastery, which recedes into the background.  Only the bell tower competes for visual attention, seeming to mediate between the monastery and the church.

I suspect that it takes at least four visits to begin to understand any space of quality.  I realized this in Malaybalay.  If I were to have written this article after the first two visits, I would not have been able to relate the space to notions of the sacred, for the simple reason that I could not bridge the gulf between Oshima’s photographs and the reality of the vanished ambulatory.  I am therefore grateful that circumstances permitted me to witness the morning and evening prayers of the monks.  In both cases, the liturgy of communal prayer helped me to understand the space.     

On the last full day of our visit to Malaybalay, a few of us had gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to join the monks in their 5:00 a.m. Laudes, the prayers chanted before sunrise.  The pyramidal shape of the roof seemed acoustically perfect for the Benedictine chants.  Laudes was followed by mass, and at the moment when the priest was raising his arms to consecrate the host, the waking sun was beginning to shoot its first rays over the lid of the distant mountains, washing the altar rock with its concurring light.

Our last visit the church was for the 5:00 p.m. vespers.

In the last chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, the protagonist describes the flickering of the tabernacle light in the chapel of an ancient English Catholic family that he was revisiting after many years.  “Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work…a small red flame...It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew…”

As incense smoke rose in an S curve by the side of the altar rock heading towards the dark apex of the ceiling, this last chapter came to mind, as a kind of summation of my visit here.  This was the same smoke that rose by the side of many other altars, many hundreds of years ago, in many other places.  There was a power outage here in the gathering dusk of Mindanao, and as vespers were ending, the sun brought its diminishing light only to that smoke.

Arch. Locsin’s Church of the Transfiguration was completely one with nature and with the liturgy.

(Published in BluPrint June 2010) 
(photo from "Leandro Valencia Locsin: Filipino Architect" by Jean-Claude Girard, Birkhauser, 2022)