Report from Manila



In October 2019, at the University of Santo Tomas College of Architecture, mASEANa Philippines convened a conference with the title “Defining Modern:  A Discussion on Modern Built Heritage in the Philippines”.  The three main goals were:

I. TIMELINE:  To define the working timeline for modern architecture in the Philippines, in preparation for the mASEANa International Conference and Student Workshop taking place now;

II.  TWENTY BUILDINGS:  To identify the 20 buildings of modern architecture in Metro Manila that will be documented as part of a book on the modern architectural heritage of ASEAN countries which would culminate the mASEANa project. 

III.  INAUGURAL ACTIVITY:  To serve as the starting activity for the mASEANa Conference and Student Workshop taking place now.


One candidate timeline would begin in 1910 at the dawn of the American era in the Philippines.

From 1898 until 1935 we were an American colony, and from 1935 until the end of World War Two, we were part of the American Commonwealth, like Puerto Rico today.  The American era produced Neoclassical buildings such as the Manila Hotel and Philippine General Hospital, both completed in 1910.  Both were designed by the American architect William Parsons, and introduced reinforced concrete to the country.  


One way to look at Neoclassicism is to see it as the envelope in which modern life was delivered to what was then a feudal country.  Modern governance, modern education, modern medicine, modern transportation spread throughout the archipelago in architecture with a Neoclassical grammar.


Or perhaps we could begin the timeline when Filipino architects who studied abroad came home and started to design buildings.  At the top of this list would be Andres Luna de San Pedro, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and came home to be City Architect of Manila from 1920 to 1924.  His Perez-Samanillo Building of 1928 on Escolta, the main street of Manila’s historic downtown, was considered modern architecture of its day, which today we classify as Art Deco.

The architectural historian Winand Klassen calls Juan Arellano’s Manila Metropolitan Theater from 1931 “the starting point of Philippine modern architecture” because it represented a complete break from the Neoclassicism that was characteristic of American colonial buildings.


There was also the possibility to have a timeline divided in two parts.

We would call the first part Early Modern, starting in 1928 with the Perez-Samanillo Building, or in 1931 with the Manila Metropolitan Theater, and ending with World War Two.

We would call the second part Nationalist Modern, starting with the liberation of Manila in 1945, and ending either in 1981, the end of Martial Law, or in 1986, the end of the Ferdinand Marcos regime itself.


The first half of the 20th century is considered in the national memory to be idyllic.  In reality it may have been far from perfect, but in hindsight, it is seen with affection and nostalgia as an era called Peacetime.  Its mix of Art Deco and Neo-classical buildings was the architecture of Peacetime.   This was American-era Manila preparing to be the capital of an independent republic.  A tourist map issued by the Manila Hotel to visitors in 1939 shows a young and lively city with world-class infrastructure.  “Pier 7, the Longest Pier in the World,” for example. Or the “Finest Race Track in the Far East.”  


World War Two was the nightmare that destroyed the architecture of Peacetime.  The end of this nightmare would also bring the end of the Commonwealth and the beginning of our independence.  Before the war, the national psyche was obsessed with the quest for independence.  After the war and after independence, it became the quest for national identity.


In the end, we could not have a timeline in two parts.  It would be untenable.  The cataclysm of World War Two was just far too horrible a nightmare to be part of an architectural timeline.  It destroyed 90 percent of Manila’s structures as it decimated a staggering number of its people.

This is why the timeline begins at the end of the war in 1945, and the start of rebuilding.

We also decided that the timeline would end in 1986, the end of the Marcos dictatorship which had suppressed our democracy.  Unlike World War 2, the Marcos dictatorship was marked by significant building projects which are on our list of 20.

The result is a mASEANa Philippines timeline with powerful bookends.  In between is a period in which our quest for identity finds expression in modern architecture.  This is Modern Architecture with a capital “M” reflecting the ambition of a young republic that was full of dreams.


This period, unfortunately, has not received much attention.

In an essay called “Unappreciated, Almost Forgotten,” mASEANa pioneer Augusto Villalon wrote: “The last 50 years are a relatively lost period in the collective Philippine memory. Preferring to focus our attention on the architectural heritage of the Spanish Colonial era, we seem to have shut out those momentous years of post-World War II Philippine architecture. This dynamic period evolved into the innovative modern residences and public buildings constructed during the halcyon pre-Marcos days of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the Philippines was considered among the most progressive environments in Asia.”

This dynamic period that Augusto Villalon described is the period of our mASEANa Philippines timeline.


To be photographed for the book, the 20 buildings needed to be standing, naturally.  We lament the fact that several buildings that should have been on the list could no longer be included because they no longer exist. 

A case in point is the Philippine National Bank headquarters on Escolta from 1965, designed by Carlos Arguelles.  When completed, this 12-story tower was the most expensive building built in the country up to that time.  Its façade was an elegant response to the tropical sun, a screen of concrete brise soleil floating one meter away from the glass curtain wall.  When downtown moved to Makati, the building began its descent into oblivion.  A suspicious fire led eventually to its demolition in 2016. 

The case of the Philbanking Corporation headquarters on Anda Circle from 1968 is particularly sad because its architect, Jose Maria Zaragoza, was declared National Artist for Architecture in 2014, an honor that should bring protection to his work.  The national cultural agency in charge of that protection is less than a kilometer away from Anda Circle but could not stop new owners from demolishing this building in 2018.


There are other demolished buildings that could have been on this list.  They were designed by architects with other buildings on this list, which says something about how prolific these architects were.  Rizal Theater by Juan Nakpil, Union Church by Zaragoza, and Lopez Museum by Angel Nakpil join Benguet Center, the Mandarin Hotel, and Ayala Museum, all by Leandro Locsin, in that afterlife of significant architecture.  Three of these four architects – Juan Nakpil, Zaragoza, Locsin - were National Artists for Architecture, and their work should have been protected.


    The Philamlife Building on United Nations Avenue, from 1961, by Carlos Arguelles, is on the list because it was still standing in 2019 when the list was made.  If the 20 buildings were a class, the Philamlife would have been the valedictorian because of its timeless and elegant response to the climate.  The threat of demolition had been dangled for almost a decade, and there had always floated the hope of saving it.  As of this writing, unfortunately, the Philamlife building is being demolished. 

The selected buildings needed to be located in Manila.

When we speak of Manila, we refer to Metro Manila, the group of 16 cities that include not just Manila but also Quezon City, Makati, and other previously suburban places that now form the uninterrupted urban sprawl inhabited by 13 million people.

Facing Manila Bay, at the mouth of the Pasig River, the Spanish Colonial Walled City of Intramuros was the heart and capital of the country for 350 years.  It was Manila.  One can see this in the road network that fans outward from this heart.  In 1948, the capital was transferred from Manila to Quezon City.  Quezon City was the capital for 28 years, until 1976, when it became Manila once again.

The 20 buildings are divided into two groups: ten or so are to the west at or near the heart of old Manila, with five or six of them being in the historic downtown.  The rest of the ten spread out to Makati, Mandaluyong, and of course Quezon City.  Six of the 20 buildings are in Quezon City, including Quezon Hall, the oldest on our list.

The selected buildings were not required to be of any particular typology , except that they could not be private residences, because most of the finest residences of the postwar period are in gated subdivisions which are difficult to access.

There are ten Office Buildings, followed by four Civic Buildings, three Religious Buildings, and one each of Educational, Multi-family Residential, and Medical buildings.

All of the selected buildings were designed by prominent architects of the period, ten of whom were eventually named as National Artists for Architecture.

Three were designed by Leandro Locsin, three by Jose Maria Zaragoza, two by Juan Nakpil, and one each by Pablo Antonio and the Manosa brothers.  Four of these ten buildings had IP Santos, also a National Artist for Architecture, as the landscape architect.


Like Locsin and Zaragoza, Carlos Arguelles has three buildings on this list. Arguelles was a leading proponent of the International Style in the Philippines.  The nephew of Juan Nakpil, Angel Nakpil, designed two.

Rounding out the list with one building each are Rufino Antonio, Cesar Concio, Alfredo Luz, Gabriel Formoso, and Jorge Ramos.

Among the 12 architects on this list, half of them studied at the University of Santo Tomas.  Five of the 12 obtained either bachelor’s or master’s degrees abroad.   The two Nakpils, uncle and nephew, went to Harvard University. Arguelles went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Luz to the University of California Berkley, while Pablo Antonio went to the University of London.  For those who studied at home, foreign travel became an essential part of their growth, allowing them to experience firsthand the most current international benchmarks and absorb the global architecture zeitgeist.  Locsin’s trips to Japan and the United States had direct impact on his work, as did Zaragoza’s trips to Taliesin West and Brasilia.

The mention of education and exposure helps us understand the cultural context of the time, the context of precedent and influence.  For a young republic, how does architecture express identity?  Sometimes the use of precedent is overt, such as at Quezon Hall or Redemptorist Church, but as the decades progress and our confidence grows, the use of references becomes more like a dialogue than an imitation.  

A sensitive response to the tropical climate is a consistent characteristic of all the twenty buildings.  Windows set deep into walls, brise soleil, deep canopies at every floor or over the entire building, different and creative responses to the climate that are essential elements of each building’s aesthetic agenda.  Shadow is an element in each of the 20 buildings.


    At the Capitan Luis Gonzaga Building, from 1953, deep brise soleil composed of deep horizontal ledges and alternating vertical panels wrap around the three exposed faces of the facade.  It marks the entrance to the once prime street of Avenida Rizal in the old downtown of Manila.  This could very well be the last remaining building on Avenida Rizal by Pablo Antonio who, like Juan Nakpil, was a National Artist for Architecture and was prolific both before and after the war.  Antonio’s influence helped to popularize the use of brise soleil, which to many visitors defined the look of postwar Philippine architecture.  The Art Deco Ideal Theater from 1933 was Antonio’s first major commission and stood across the Capitan Luis Gonzaga until demolished in the 1970s.  At the Capitan Luis Gonzaga, the rounded corners of the brise soleil remind us of Art Deco. 

At the Carmen Apartments on Roxas Boulevard from 1958, sublime balconies attest to Carlos Arguelles’ keen understanding of the climate.  The simple gesture of shielding from the sun produces one of the most graceful and elegant profiles in the city.

    Contrast this with what we see today in our Central Business Districts, new glass towers that glisten in the sun, aiming to prevent solar heat gain not with actual shade and shadow but with tints, reflective coatings and ceramic frit.  

    The works done earlier in the period exhibit an overt foreign influence.  One example is Quezon Hall, the administration building of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, designed by Juan Nakpil and completed in 1950.   Two wings connected by an entablature form a gateway of the university.  The modern classical expression is drawn from American precedent – in this case, Eliel Saarinen’s Cranbrook Art Museum, completed in 1942 in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA.  Modern architecture creates a fresh start, as far away from war-ravaged Manila as possible, but with the irony of using foreign precedent to make this fresh start.  This is not to take anything away from Juan Nakpil, who, like Pablo Antonio, was prolific and original both before and after the war, in projects like Capitol Theater from 1935, Quezon Institute from 1938, Rizal Theater from 1960, and the Social Security System building from 1965, 12th on this list.

Angel Nakpil was a student of Walter Gropius at Harvard, and his National Press Club from 1954 was a Bauhaus-inspired departure from the Art Deco sensibility that prevailed in the early days after the war. 


In 1960, Jose Maria Zaragoza was invited by Oscar Niemeyer to join a group of architects to help design Brasilia.  That experience is evident in Zaragoza’s design for the headquarters of the electric company, Meralco, such as in the sensuous curves of the vertical concrete louvers that rise up the 13 stories of the facade.  The Brasilia influence is clear, but not overt.


Zaragoza’s Commercial Bank and Trust Company building on Escolta is architecture as a form of international correspondence, expressions of friendship from across the seas.  People see this building from 1969 as a reaction to the Space Age, but you can also read it as an homage to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Zaragoza’s friend Frank Lloyd Wright, who would address him in letters as “my dear Zaragoza”.


A goal of abstraction is to defy reality, or transcend it, in order to aim for a deeper or more lofty reality, what some would call the truth.  The great Modernist Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa wrote: “I am not all interested in description or outward appearance, nor in the contemporary scene, but in essence.” 

The work of Locsin shows an interest in essence in the way that its massive forms seem to defy gravity, seem to defy reality.  It demonstrates an understanding of the distinction between reality and truth. 

Speaking of the Cultural Center of the Philippines from 1969, Locsin said “I was obsessed with massive forms.  I wanted something that was massive and yet light.  The two things may sound contradictory, but I felt we could do something that would not be overbearing.  It had to have a certain floating feeling.”  That floating feeling is like the frisson or flash of recognition, that emotional impact that etches an architectural experience into our memory, if not our being.  



The 20th building on the list is the San Miguel Corporation headquarters from 1984, designed by Manuel, Jr., Francisco, and Jose Mañosa, together known as the Mañosa Brothers, in collaboration with the landscape architect IP Santos. 

Eight stories emerge from a footprint of about 4,600 square meters and ascend to a penthouse of about 2,700 square meters.  The tilt of the glass of the ribbon windows prevents heat gain and glare, as well as reflects the view of the lush greenery to the person at ground level.  Each terrace is surrounded by a continuous band of greenery.  The linear band of roof canopies at each level were meant to have solar panels, but the cost of the technology was extremely high in the late 1970s, early 1980s.  In any case, the response to the tropical climate is impeccable.

It is unfortunate that this is the last project of the Manosa Brothers together.  It is a building of uncommon intelligence, lyricism, and substance, ahead of its time, abstract and original. 

On a personal note, when this building was completed in 1984, I was a freshman in architecture school in the United States.  The 1980s were the apotheosis of Postmodernism in architecture, with Charles Moore and Michael Graves ruling the covers of architecture magazines.  These were the days before the Internet and I was away for years, so the San Miguel Corporation building was not part of my formative years as an architect.  But as I think about it today, I realize how unprecedented was this merging of architecture and landscape architecture.  Emilio Ambasz’s Acros building in Fukuoka was a decade away.

San Miguel abstracts a cultural landmark in a way that is subtle.  The Banaue Rice Terraces become a stairway.


At Quezon Hall, the first building on the list, we began with a gateway, and at San Miguel we end with a stairway.  The idiom of the gateway at Quezon Hall was an almost direct quotation from a foreign precedent used to frame our longing for new horizons.  The idiom of the stairway at San Miguel is taken from our own cultural context to create a pioneering synthesis.  It responds to our specific conditions as a nation, and so it has the power to move us in new directions - to the realm of abstraction, to a new attitude of acceptance of our own national identity, and to an exploration of our own aspirations in building a new and relevant architecture for our time.


There is a famous photograph from 1962 of seven architects - Carlos Arguelles, Alfredo Luz, Gabriel Formoso, Francisco Fajardo, Manuel Manosa, Angel Nakpil, and Luis Araneta - gathered in front of a marble wall with the inscription “To all those who strive to give substance and glory to man’s need for shelter.”  These seven architects assembled on inauguration day of the Architectural Center, which they all collaborated to design, fund, and incorporate. 

Five of these architects designed eight of the 20 buildings on our list.  That we are considering their work for documentation and conservation in the context of mASEANa underscores the tradition we share in this region of respect for our ancestors and learning from the significant work they left behind.  This point is all too frequently belied, in the way significant buildings are unappreciated, almost forgotten, often demolished in Manila, which is why the point needs to be emphasized even more.

I would like to recall another inaugural activity, the first mASEANa conference in Tokyo in 2015, which took place in the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park, designed by Le Corbusier and completed in 1959.  Docomomo Japan took the delegates on a study tour of modern architectural heritage in Tokyo and its suburbs. 

The tour impressed upon me the impact that Le Corbusier had on Japanese architects like Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, and Kenzo Tange.  The buildings we visited all provoked my senses and excited my mind, but it was the work of Kenzo Tange that stirred my soul.  To use Jose Garcia Villa’s term, it was about essence.  Tange learned from Le Corbusier, but through synthesis, abstraction and originality, created work – timeless, modern - that was entirely his own.  That was a lesson I learned on that trip in 2015 and continue to learn today, as we consider these 20 buildings.