The Invisible Becoming Visible, and Vice Versa


BluPrint Magazine 20th Anniversary

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Intramuros Room, Manila House Private Club

Bonifacio Global City, Taguig



Thank you for this opportunity to celebrate this important anniversary with you.



I’d like to begin with Architecture, and to discuss how we make it.  It begins with a quest for a concept.  We sift through the various components of a project: site, context, climate, client, culture, community, program, codes, etc.  All are elements that become a pragmatic clay that our hands begin to shape into a kind of narrative.


The analysis and interpretation of these elements help to generate a response that soon takes on some form or another: a diagram or word or story, and sometimes a wordless story.  It is quite organic, and as the project progresses becomes a force that comes alive.



It is an organic demanding force that will not let you rest.  You ask or cajole it with the question “What? What do you want?” and that organic demanding force looks back at you in silence and so you and your team return to the drawing board and try to answer the “What” by going into the territory of the “Why”, into the realm of reason and purpose.  If, in the process of designing the building, you have a reason and purpose for every move you make – if the arbitrary is absent – then the organic demanding force begins to take the form of architecture.  The invisible becomes visible.  It becomes visible in drawings until it becomes visible in actual built form.



When that form is built, and if the gods smile, chances are good that the visible once again becomes invisible in the sense of the sublime.  John Hejduk, the great dean of Cooper Union, the 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."



I like to think of these experiences as moments of grace.  They don’t happen very often, but when they do, you rarely if ever forget them.  This impact on the spirit may also be called an “aesthetic experience.”  I may be wrong but I think that it is the English art critic Clive Bell who coined the term “aesthetic experience”, and who said:  “The starting-point for all systems of aesthetics must be the personal experience of a peculiar emotion. The objects that provoke this emotion we call works of art.” 


We can be more specific about some of these objects and call them architecture.  Architecture as the generator of that “peculiar emotion.”


I learned the term “aesthetic experience” in my fifth year of architecture school, in a class on art theory that was quite unforgettable because it gave a name to that “peculiar emotion” that I had felt at various times, such as when I first saw the Pantheon in Rome or the work of the great Italian architect Carlo Scarpa.  Scarpa’s Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice and his Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona were my first encounters with architecture that was a conscious and sensitive dialogue between old and new, past and present, in a way that created a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.



With the design of new architecture, we speak of the process of the invisible becoming visible, of how the concept or the story becomes the built form.  In the process of conservation or of adaptive reuse, there is an extra phase that precedes that, the process of the visible becoming invisible, of how an existing site or structure enters the realm of our experience and understanding. 


A concrete example of this is the experience of visiting the Department of Tourism building on Rizal Park for the first time, when we were competing for the project to design the National Museum of Natural History.  The plan of Antonio Toledo’s design from 1939 is of a courtyard surrounded by a polygon of straight flanks, except for the main flank, which was curved, facing the main entrance stairs.  I recall the sensation of walking through the long straight corridors, and of seeing the dynamic of the straight corridors with the curved flank approaching.  That notion of the curve in plan would inspire the notion of the curve in section, which we see in the dome of the Tree of Life.


Photo by Ed Simon


This sounds extremely simple, but it is of enduring fascination for me, this alchemy of idea becoming form, and of form becoming idea, emotion or consciousness.  It is an alteration of state, like the Transubstantiation, which is indeed of enduring fascination if not salvation.


How does this happen? This is where the qualities of Significance and Authenticity are essential.



Clive Bell, the English art critic, asked “What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions?” and answered with “Significant form”, “lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, that stir our aesthetic emotions.”


Doesn’t this bring to mind Le Corbusier’s definition of Architecture as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light?”


In conservation, the term Significance refers to the sum of the tangible and intangible values or attributes that make a place important, meaningful, and memorable.  The heart of a Conservation Management Plan, or CMP, is the Statement of Significance and the hierarchy that accompanies it.



Authenticity is the quality of being genuine and real.  In conservation, Authenticity refers to the originality of these materials and components.  In design I would venture to say that it is faithfulness and sensitivity to context and purpose.  Nothing arbitrary. 



In conclusion, in commemoration of Leandro Locsin’s recent 25th death anniversary, and as a summation of this discussion on the visible, invisible, significant, and authentic, I would like to read the last four paragraphs of an article called “A Noble Simplicity: the Last Project of Leandro Locsin” that I wrote for the June 2010 issue of BluPrint, about The Church of the Transfiguration in the Benedictine Monastery of the Transfiguration in Malaybalay, Bukidnon.


“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 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 to the church was for the 5 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.”