Dito Ako Lulugar: The Place of the Architect


National Arts Month

Monday, February 27, 2023

Metropolitan Theater, Manila 

Thank you to the United Architects of the Philippines and to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for inviting me to speak today.  My talk today is anchored in the aim of National Arts Month to "showcase the artistic talent of Filipinos, as well as to provide avenues for artists to channel their creative energies."   
In particular, this afternoon, I would like to talk about the creative energies of a profession that at its best achieves the pinnacle of artistry.  I refer to the profession of architecture, and specifically to the place of the architect.   
Here now on the stage of the Metropolitan Theater, a building designed by the great architect Juan Arellano and now occupied by the Chairman of the NCCA, is therefore as good a place and time as any to urge for the return of the architect into the heart of creating government-built infrastructure.







I would like to begin with a story that involves both the UAP and the NCCA.  It took place around this time 11 years ago, in February of 2012.  


I was a member then of the National Committee of Monuments and Sites, or NCMS, of the NCCA and we received a report that was troubling, of the demolition of the wings of what could possibly be a significant pre-World War Two provincial capitol building in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental, northern Mindanao.


The source of the report was Arch. Neil Manigsaca of the Ozamis chapter of the UAP. From what images we could gather, we could see that the structure expressed a strong idea of a tall central volume with single-story wings that stretched out from it symmetrically.

The NCCA obtained plans for the renovation, including the intention to use the central façade merely as a skin for a new three story building, and to add multiple floors to the wings.  What had been the play between a major central volume acting as a fulcrum of two equal wings, like a balance, was now to be flattened into something conventional and flat.





The NCCA sent a team to Oroquieta City to investigate the situation, and I was a member of that team.  We found the structure to be remarkably well-preserved.  It also dawned on us that the three story central building was also originally one tall single space.  This tall space had not been seen in decades, having been divided into three floors in previous renovations.   


The original Session Hall, a soaring and sublime space, was hidden like buried treasure within that three-story building.  You could see it in the window-type air conditioners sticking out at different levels of the north and south facades.  We left Oroquieta City convinced that the building was a beautiful window to a noble past and that it needed to be saved.


Soon after our team returned to Manila, the NCCA invited the governor of Misamis Occidental, the Honorable Herminia Ramiro, as well as the contractor of the project in order to hear the pros and cons of continuing the project.  Time was of the essence.    


The NCCA, led by executive director Emelita Almosara, made a case for preserving the capitolio as it was, and for building the necessary expansion in an annex at the rear of the building.   


In spite of the contractors protestations and in spite of the fact that mobilization had already begun – but fortunately, no demolition - Governor Ramiro there and then decided to save the capitolio.   


Time was of the essence, and so was our humanity, as expressed in architecture.  





The progress photos that Arch. Manigsaca sent reveal the glory of the original Session Hall, now free of the interrupting floor slabs.   


Also very clear now were the Francesco Monti sculptural window screens depicting the different kinds of work and industry to be found in Mindanao.    


I recall the experience of the Francesco Monti sculptural screens and the question, from that first visit, of why these strange shapes were everywhere on all the three floors, only to realize later that the strange shapes actually came together to complete large vertical compositions. 


More than a decade since its demolition was stopped, the provincial capitol of Misamis Occidental in Oroquieta City remains a high point in Philippine heritage conservation.  I havent been back since that first time, but I can imagine how the soaring space of that session hall can now act as an environment and expression of democracy. 




That visit to Misamis Occidental had such impact on me personally because of its complete experience of the unity of architecture and landscape, in a place so far away from Manila.  That ennobling sense of processional drama, not for kings, but for agents of our democracy, the elected representatives of Misamis Occidental, and for the rest of the people, hit me on that first visit and has remained ever since.   
These recent views from Google Street View show the axial approach that remains.  The Google Earth aerial view shows the original building with the annex built behind it, the kind of diagram that we really should see more of, of a significant structure conserved while new additions are built around or behind it.  




In the beginning, we did not know who the architect was, but we eventually learned that it was Juan Arellano.  He had designed it in 1935 in his capacity as Consulting Architect of the Bureau of Public Works.  


Other buildings he designed include the Metropolitan Theater where we gather today, Manila Central Post Office, and the capitolio of Negros Occidental.


An important note about Arellano is that he was a consummate artist.  He had originally wanted to be a painter.  Aside from obtaining, as a pensionado, his architecture degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he also trained as a landscape architect in the New York office of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the famous landscape architect who designed New Yorks Central Park and who himself was a talented and prodigious landscape architect in his own right.    


Arellanos talent for painting and his training in architecture as well as landscape architecture come together in the totality of the architectural experience that his work provides.  You can sense it here in the Metropolitan Theater and I definitely sensed it as I walked around the capitolio of Misamis Occidental in an architectural experience that affected my spirit.







The first predecessor of Juan Arellano in the position of Consulting Architect of the Bureau of Public Works was William Parsons.  He assumed the newly created post of Consulting Architect in 1905 and held it until his return to the US in 1914.  What brought him to Manila was Daniel Burnhams 1905 plan for Manila, which needed an architect to implement it.


William Parsons was as well-educated as any American architect could hope to be.  Yale 1895, Columbia 1898, followed by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.


Nine years of being an architect in the Philippines yielded a prodigious amount of work, including government work like Philippine General Hospital and non-government work like The Manila Hotel.   


An article called "The Work of William E. Parsons in the Philippine Islands" for a 1917 issue of the prestigious magazine Architectural Record thought highly of the work, but thought particularly highly of Paco Station. 


The article read: "The Paco Station, aside from its excellent design, is an important structure, marking the culmination of Mr. Parsons' career as Government Architect for the islands".


There would be two or three more American architects like Edgar Bourne, George Corner Fenhagen, and Ralph Harrington Doane to occupy the position of Supervising Architect or Consulting Architect before Filipinos like Tomas Mapua, Juan Arellano, and Antonio Toledo would do so.








What brought William Parsons here was the Burnham Plan for Manila.


Daniel Burnham was here at the behest of President William McKinley.  Burnham was the pre-eminent architect of his day, in large part because of the success of the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposition that he organized and the way that it initiated the City Beautiful movement.


Burnham was here for 41 days, from Dec. 7, 1904 to Jan. 16, 1905, six weeks.  And when he returned to the US, he worked on the plan for six months, drawing this majestic plan and concluding his accompanying report with these words:


Possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice, Manila has before it an opportunity unique in the history of modern times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.


Tenets of the City Beautiful movement abound in the Plan for Manila: development of waterways and parks; establishment of a government core from which radiate axial boulevards that diagonally cut through a grid street system anchored by nodes and plazas; rich and imposing experiences of the axial and the processional which of course are very much rooted in the Beaux Arts, which itself is rooted in Baron Haussmanns Paris as well as the Baroque-era Rome of the Roman Catholic popes.


Note Manila Bay and Pasig River, and Intramuros where Pasig River empties into Manila Bay.  Next to Intramuros is the new government center.   


One can of course recognize the makings of Rizal Park in the government center.  Note the strong axis of this government center, marching from Manila Bay towards the core or node that would become Agrifina Circle, and how avenues radiate from this core towards other nodes of the city, which in turn radiate their own avenues.


And of course William Parsons and Juan Arellano and the other Consulting Architects were schooled in the Beaux Arts and the City Beautiful.  The processional approach to Juan Arellanos Misamis Occidental capitolio brings the City Beautiful to mind.  So does the approach to William Parsons Paco Station.


By the way, Daniel Burnham is famous for saying:  Make no little plans, they have no magic in them to stir mens blood.


That is actually from a speech, The Development of Cities of the Future, which he gave at a planning conference in London in 1910, very much informed by his experience with the planning of San Francisco, Washington DC, Baguio, and of course, Manila.


Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men`s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.


Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.








Juan Arellano and William Parsons represented a tradition of excellence, prestige, and authority that the profession of architecture held in the Bureau of Public Works, which was expressed in the quality of architecture that survives from their time.   


This prestige was also expressed in these two organizational diagrams of the Bureau of Public Works, showing the direct link of the Division of Architecture to the office of the Director of Public Works. 


I may be mistaken, but as far as I know, that Division of Architecture no longer exists, eliminated in some well-meaning overhaul that ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water.


Vitruvius was the architect and engineer from ancient Rome who wrote that a building project must contain these three qualities:  Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas.    Strength, Utility, Beauty.   


Vitruvius wisdom inspired the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci to draw the Vitruvian  Man as an embodiment of Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas.  Strength, Utility, Beauty. 


The organizational diagrams of the Bureau of Public Works from 1914 and 1934 show a direct link of the division of architecture to the director of the bureau, which is why a lot of buildings that the government built in that era are what we can rightly and proudly call architecture.     


Firmitas and Utilitas were not the only priorities.  So was Venustas.


As long as the architects voice is strong, the voice of beauty is strong.  When we talk of beauty, we talk not only of composition and visual harmony but of deeper things that help a work cross over into the realm of art, deeper things like narrative, meaning, truth.


A quotation I often repeat, because it is essential, is from John Hejduk, the great dean of Cooper Union in New York, who described architecture in this way:  "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."








Antonio Toledo succeeded Juan Arellano as Consulting Architect in 1936.  Like Arellano, he was a pensionado, obtaining his architecture degree from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.   


He designed Manila City Hall, the capitolio of Leyte, among other important projects, which also include the mirror twin government office buildings of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Finance, facing each other across Agrifina Circle, the node that would have terminated the axis of Burnhams government center in his plan of 1905.    


My architectural firm would in late 2012 be awarded the commission to convert this government office building  -  the Department of Agriculture - into the new National Museum of Natural History.








One of the inspirations of the central form is how the curve of the main façade facing Agrifina Circle, expressed as the curve in plan, becomes the curve in section that you see in the Tree of Life.






The Tree of Life represents for me the providential rewards of architectural thinking.


Utilitas:  the client needed to cover the courtyard, and so we covered it with a dome.


Firmitas:  the centroid of the courtyard was the best place to locate the foundation of the Tree of Life, as far away as possible from the surrounding foundations in order to maintain seismic autonomy.


Venustas:  the meaning of the Tree of Life as an expression of mans desire to understand nature.  The shape of the Tree of Life, is, in my opinion, an affirmation of the providential connection of the new with the original, repeated multiple times in the exceptional grillwork of Antonio Toledo.  The pattern is like a tree, a tree very similar to the Tree of Life, and we only noticed this pattern as construction was underway.








The conservation as well as the creation of beauty promote the affirmation of providential connections, which can only be to the good of the city and its residents.  But this is not often the case, especially today. 


Today, when we have a beautiful thing, like a building or a river, we tend to destroy it.  A thing of beauty is not a joy forever in Metro Manila.


What do we make postcards of? 


That is actually a good litmus test.  What do we make postcards of? National Bookstore used to have displays of postcards of city scenes, like this postcard of the old Philamlife headquarters building designed by Carlos Arguelles on United Nations Avenue, a superb work of architecture, modernism suited to our tropical climate, a great lexicon of ideas.  Demolished not long ago, what will replace it?   


Will it be replaced by something worthy of a postcard?  Is the familiar blue fencing shown in the Google Street View image on the right a portent of a replacement that is also worthy of a postcard, like the old Philamlife headquarters building was?








Certainly worthy of a postcard is the Manila Bay sunset.  The view on the left is a perfect example, taken at the Manila Yacht Club.  The Manila Bay sunset is a gift that generations of residents and tourists have been grateful for.  How we frame these gifts tells us a lot about who we are and what we are.  


Architecture is a way for us to frame these gifts, and to express our gratitude for these gifts.  Daniel Burnhams 1905 plan for Manila recognized the Manila Bay sunset, which is why his plan included the coastal boulevard that stretched from here to Cavite, the boulevard that we now call Roxas Boulevard. 


The Sewage Treatment Plant on Roxas Boulevard next to the Manila Yacht Club is neither architecture nor a way to express our gratitude for the Manila Bay sunset.  







We need to understand the patterns of our context in order to know how to move forward.  There are patterns that surround us everywhere – patterns from nature, patterns from our past -, and we dont need to defy them in order to move forward.  The city becomes richer if we understand these patterns.  The best cities in the world celebrate their patterns. 


The fate of Paco Station by William Parsons is for me a perfect illustration of how to defy these patterns. 


The processional route on Quirino Avenue Extension leading to Paco Station brings to mind the route that William Parsons successor Juan Arellano devised in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental.   


The vista in Misamis Occidental remains.  The vista in Metro Manila is shattered multiple times by multiple lanes of the Skyway.  Not one pylon respects the axis defined by the Paco Station façade and its columns.


Skyways and PAREX are the oxycontin and the shabu of our cities, quick fixes that leave, in their wake and in their shadow, squalor.


What would you prefer to see on a postcard, the Pasig River undisturbed, or the Pasig River with PAREX? 









In the past, no public infrastructure project in this country could be implemented without the approval of a powerful, prestigious, and discerning architectural department in the Bureau of Public Works.


Today, with few exceptions, and with sad irony, architects do not design much of our public architecture.   To many eyes, including those of tourists, the design quality of our public infrastructure has been increasingly poor.  Ugly, in fact.  


One thinks of all the damage that the absence of the architect, the absence of the architects holistic global perspective, the absence of architectural thinking have brought to this country and its cities in the form of no-design government buildings, the destruction of public spaces, and the demolition of significant heritage sites.


This needs to change.  The architect must return strong and confident to the Department of Public Works and to the capitolios and city halls of our local governments.  A step in the right direction is the Mandatory Office on Architectural Planning and Design Act also known as the Mandatory Architect Act recently filed by Rep. Christopher De Venecia. 


In conclusion, and in the hope that the architect returns to his or her rightful place, sa kanyang tamang lugar, I will quote Daniel Burnham :


Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.