The Spirit of Architecture

World Architecture Day
Monday, October 3, 2022
United Architects of the Philippines Headquarters
Quezon City



I would like to speak today about how the spiritual dimension can inform and inspire all the architecture we create, whether it is liturgical or secular.


John Hejduk, the great dean of Cooper Union, mentions the spirit in his definition of architecture: "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."


A building clearly does not need to be religious in order for it to affect the spirit, but the experience of designing religious buildings can definitely inform and enrich our design of secular buildings.


The path that architecture takes to penetrate our consciousness is paved with beauty and meaning.  This is a paraphrase of the Vitruvian ideals of “venustas, firmitas, utilitas” or beauty, stability, usefulness.  Inherent in this is creative response to the pragmatic context of an architectural problem, composed of its vital components such as client, site, climate, budget, and community, among others. 


In our experience, this pragmatic context is a soil to be tilled with perseverance because from this soil will emerge the beauty of architectural form and the richness of experience that will move the spirit, and elevate the architecture to the spiritual dimension.



The spiritual dimension in the architecture of places of worship is self-evident.  These places are meant to be houses of the spirit.  I feel fortunate that my first public project, small as it was, was an Adoration Chapel for Magallanes Church, also known as St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori Church, in Magallanes Village, Makati.


I had never worked on a liturgical project before, so my knowledge and experience were a blank slate, but that situation inspired the methodology that I would use from then on, for any project, sacred or secular.   


Think of a project as blank slate, minimize or eliminate your preconceived notions, and revel in the blank slate, like a child playing in the sand.  Research.  Observe.  Aim for the heart of the matter.  Begin to populate the blank slate.


One thing I realized was that research brings its rewards.  Aside from the existing architectural context of a 1968 Leandro Locsin building, I needed a cultural context, a story, if you will, which I found in the writing of the patron saint of the parish, St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguori.  A line from one of his writings became the conceptual anchor of the project:  I adore Thee from the abyss of my own nothingness.



The project was completed in 2001 but lost to fire in 2004.  It wasn’t just the Adoration Chapel that was lost to fire but also the entire Leandro Locsin church.  When we were commissioned to rebuild the church, the research from the earlier project was most useful in helping us to develop the story for the rebuilding.   
What we also realized, as we were developing the architectural details, was that the response to climate was bringing its rewards.  We were learning quite deeply the intrinsic link between climatic response and symbolic meaning.  And why not?  If Creation itself is multivalent, then Architecture must also be multivalent.

The ascension of the roof vaults, which you can see from the Skyway, is an example of this.  They ascend in succession to let in the daylight, modulated by deep eaves.  They also ascend to express redemption, and the soaring of the spirit that results.  They soar to permit the dance of light, which is the most symbolically spiritual of elements to animate architectural space.



From Magallanes Church therefore came two key lessons that have informed my practice since then:

1) the role of research in order to understand and develop the cultural context of a project;

2) the role of contextual and climatic response to provide framework for symbol.  


Both lessons were generated by a sacred setting, but have been useful for both sacred and secular projects to help elevate them closer to the spiritual dimension.



These lessons from the sacred have informed and enriched secular projects in our office ranging from a car plant in Laguna to a sports center in Nuvali to a museum to houses.  The spiritual dimension is not just for religious buildings.  The spirit of architecture is for all typologies of buildings.  It falls upon their merits to answer John Hejduk’s question of whether or not they move the spirit.


We recently completed a new building in Intramuros called Hark.  It is on Muralla Street, at the corner with Anda, across Anda from Letran.  It is called Hark because of the other building on the site further down Muralla, a post-war building called the Herald.  Hark the Herald.  Hark is a three-story building with a traditional 1890s Spanish-Filipino exterior facade that respects the Intramuros Administration’s guidelines.   


 Photo by Robert de Mesa

The interior has a dramatic central staircase that runs the length of the site, starting at the ground floor entrance and marching up to the third floor, all under a long clerestory skylight at the ridge of the roof.  The client tells me that the place feels spiritual, and I think it has to do with the way the grand stairs ascend up the central axis under a tall central skylight, with daylight entering the space in modulated ways.  I think it also has to do with the fact that the traditional exterior façade does not quite prepare one for the surprise of the modern interior with its grand central stairs.    


Photo by Robert de Mesa


The National Museum of Natural History on Rizal Park is another project that aims to use contextual and climatic response to create meaning and symbolism.  The Tree of Life at the heart of it soars to provide shade to a public space that welcomes everyone.  There is spiritual uplift in the vertical measure of the central tree that carries the courtyard dome.  Like a slow-moving prayer the dome’s triangular shadows travel over walls, floors, and stairs.  The phenomena of light, shadow and time aid us in a meditation on the meaning of life. 


Photo by Ed Simon


To conclude, the spiritual must animate all the architecture we create, irrespective of typology.  The spiritual dimension is a definite place that can be reached through specific and full measure, not through arbitrary half measures, which only lead to mediocrity.  


All building must aim to affect the spirit so that it can be called architecture.