The Making of a Filipino architect

The Making of a Filipino architect

By Eric S. Caruncho


Forging a truly modern Filipino architecture was Francisco T. Mañosa’s life’s work.

It was a mission to which he dedicated all his talent, skill, and energy in a six-decade career, creating landmark designs such as the Tahanang Pilipino, the San Miguel Corporation headquarters, the EDSA Shrine, the Moonwalk “nature church”, and countless resort, institutional, religious, and residential projects.

Away from the drafting table, Mañosa was a tireless advocate for Philippine architecture, giving generously of his time through seminars, tours, lectures and talks in an attempt to counter the colonial mindset that, he felt, kept Filipino design from acceptance and ascendancy in its own land.

The architect gave a succinct summation of his architectural philosophy in a 1988 interview with Mimar, an international architectural journal:

Two important aspects give identity to the architecture of a country:

1) the architecture should be a reflection of the culture in which it is found.This is seen in the symbolism of the structure.

2) A building should respond to the local conditions, to the climate, to the materials and the techniques, and to the budget available. In other words, the built environment reflects man’s expression of his way of life, his emotional, philosophical, religious, and material values.

This relationship between culture and the built environment, between culture and technology, is woven very closely together and each is capable of modifying the other. If one is not careful and selective of new imported technology, one inevitably destroys the fabric of a nation’s cultural traditions—and architecture.

The task at hand for Filipino architects is to stop the disastrous haste with which our architecture is rushing towards an empty, costly and at times impractical formalism. An architecture that belongs to a people is a repository of profound meanings and beauty; it can aid people in confronting the fact of their mortality with courage and serenity, for they participate, like in all the arts, in the truest and perhaps the only kind of immortality. Thus, enlightened, let us continue the propagation of tradition and craftsmanship, which are far from being irrelevant relics of the past, and express the true soul of the Filipino, synthesizing the genius of the Malay civilization of which we are a part.

Mañosa was born on February 12, 1931. His father Manuel Sr. was a Harvard-educated pensionado who became the country’s first sanitary engineer, in charge of Manila’s water system. His mother, Maria Tronqued, was a star of the zarzuela and silent films.

As a young man he had musical inclinations, but his father steered him toward architecture. His mature work would prove the truth in Goethe’s observation that music is liquid architecture, and architecture is frozen music.

THE USE OF VERNACULAR FORMS

Even while still an architecture student at the University of Santo Tomas, Mañosa firmly believed that vernacular forms—the bahay kubo and the bahay na bato – embodied the inherent genius of the Filipino, perfectly adapted as they were to the climate and the way of life of the people. Through his own exploration, he would find that in their design templates lay the key to modern Filipino architecture, as interpreted through the individual architect’s vision.

“Viewed from the prism of contemporary architecture, the bahay kubo provides a surprisingly practical template for designing sustainable, climate-conscious and energy-efficient homes and buildings that also express our distinct cultural identity as Filipinos,” he later wrote in the foreword to Beyond the Bahay Kubo (2012). “I can only appreciate the irony that what was once considered ‘quaint and old-fashioned’ might prove to be more relevant to our needs in the 21st century than what was once considered the zenith of modernism.”

Mañosa began exploring neo-vernacular forms in 1958 when he joined his brothers Manuel Jr. and Jose in the Mañosa Brothers firm.

One of his early neo-vernacular designs was the Sulô Restaurant, completed in the early 1960s. Drawing on design forms found in the traditional Maranao torogan, its dramatic, steeply-pitched roof with its prominent ridge and sweeping curvature made it a Makati landmark.

Mañosa’s last project with his brothers, the corporate headquarters for the San Miguel Corporation, showed a marked evolution of his ideas about modern Filipino design. Inspired by the Banaue rice terraces, he envisioned the building as a green pyramid, each storey forming a “terrace.” It blended seamlessly into the surrounding landscaping.

When it was completed in 1978, it was one of the earliest examples of green architecture in the country with a climate-responsive envelope that allowed passive cooling and natural light. This was decades before sustainable design was even a concern.

As Mañosa conceived it, Filipino architecture was green architecture, being adapted to climate and using indigenous materials. His own firm, Francisco Mañosa and Partners (later Mañosa & Co., Inc.) would be wholly dedicated to it. “I design Filipino, nothing else,” he would later tell his clients.

The same year, Mañosa was commissioned by then First Lady Imelda Marcos to design a guest house for visiting performers in the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex. The brief was the design had to embody the best that Filipino culture had to offer, and because of the ongoing coconut replanting program, it had to make use of coconut products.

Mañosa came up with an architectural tour-de-force in the Tahanang Pilipino, a Baroque expansion on the bahay na bato template.

He adopted the six-sided polygon as the unifying design theme, inspired by the way woodcutters sawed coconut trees into planks. The floor plans show multiple interlocking assymetrical hexagonal shapes, repeated in different variations in the staircases, the swimming pool, the ballrooms.

Seven bedroom suites were decorated in the style of the country’s various regional cultures. The construction led to the creation of myriad downstream industries for transforming indigenous raw materials such as capiz shells, coconut shells, various natural and woven fibers, and hardwoods into building materials.

When it was finished in 1981, it was nothing less than the grand architectural statement that Mañosa wanted to make: that Filipino design was capable of grandeur as well as an honest simplicity.

THE VISIONARY

A year after the Tahanang Pilipino was completed, Asiaweek magazine included Mañosa in its survey of “Seven Visionaries at the Forefront of Asian Architecture.” The accompanying article suggested that the experience of building the Tahanang Pilipino had further refined and clarified Mañosa’s ideas about modern Filipino architecture:

Mañosa has made some startling innovations in his use of local materials, and his Tahanang Pilipino, or coconut house, remains his tour de force.

“If we Filipinos in general—and we architects in particular—strive to develop an architecture true to our country,” he says, “in the future, other Asian countries may in turn also be brought to the awareness that each should retain and develop its own architecture and not be swept into anonymity in the current of Western architecture and technology, thus being able to hand down to the future generations its wealth of diverse cultures and traditions, which is what makes our world a more interesting place to live in.”

“Let us define who we are first, and take off from there. Any venture that becomes purely commercial threatens to cut out the aesthetic interests of a nation. Even our Asian neighbors whose skyscrapers have taken over the green environment run the danger of wiping out their rich civilization. Commercialism downgrades consumers to ‘mechanisms’ that are fed with fad and fancy. Simplistic solutions under the guise of high technology dehumanize.”

 

Mañosa (standing, second from right) at the Mañosa Brothers firm in the late 1950s

Still riding on the momentum of the Tahanang Pilipino, Mañosa set about to designing a home for himself and his family. Like the Tahanang Pilipino, it would distill the essence of what Mañosa had learned about Filipino architecture, but on a smaller scale. He fully intended his house to be a model home for other designers and a teaching aid for architecture students.

Mañosa (left) at the drafting table

The floor plan reveals two distinct “modules” linked by a foyer: a square structure with two truncated parallel corners—an obvious carryover from the Tahanang Pilipino—that contains the house’s private spaces, and a larger square structure that contains the house’s public spaces. The latter combines elements of the bahay kubo and the bahay na bato, including a steep double roof, stone pillars supporting the main floor that echoes the traditional Filipino house on stilts, and an expanded zaguan that is an evolution of the silong, the open space underneath the bahay kubo.

Showing a detail of the Tahanang Pilipino to then president Ferdinand Marcos

Nearly every design element and decorative motif in the house is a contemporary interpretation or expression of a counterpart in traditional homes. Decorative ornamentation, with extensive use of capiz shell, mother of pearl, black pen, coconut shell, coconut fiber wall coverings, etched and stained glass, is another carryover from the Tahanang Pilipino.

Playing the vibraphone with The Executives Jazz band, with the late king of Thailand on clarinet

A deeper examination reveals the house’s climate-conscious design: the exposed apex of the roof allows hot air to rise and escape through vents at the ceiling line. Two walls open completely to a wide, L-shaped balconaje that also allows cross ventilation of the inner spaces. Water features such as a fishpond outside the master bedroom and extensive landscaping also lower ambient temperatures.

Mañosa’s residential designs flow from his deep understanding of the Filipino way of life, in which family, and then community, are central. Many feel that his private residences are his most successful designs.

A NEW CHURCH ARCHITECTURE

As a devout Catholic, Mañosa was always ready to place himself at the service of the church for its design needs. But even for these usually pro bono projects, he insisted on his own neo-vernacular designs.

In 1986, following the EDSA revolt that installed Corazon Aquino in Malacañang, he was approached by Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin to design the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace, a people’s cathedral to commemorate the nearly bloodless coup that overthrew the Marcos regime.

Mañosa’s design was for a Filipino church—the apotheosis of the humble bahay kubo. Initial drawings for the planned church show a pyramid reaching skyward composed of clusters of bahay kubo forms coming together into a unified whole.

It was a radical vision of a house of worship—perhaps too radical. The donors of the land for the project, perhaps expecting a more conventional cathedral, rejected it as “too indigenous.” In response, Mañosa did away with the cathedral altogether and in an equally radical redesign, took his inspiration from the traditional church plaza found in parishes throughout the country. As he described it in his presentation:

Because this church symbolizes an authentic Filipino event, one is welcomed by a plaza that is typical of our old Philippine churches, where people meet, socialize and assemble. Flanked by twin cascading stairs and a ramp that provides accessibility for the handicapped, this plaza may hold the annual Feb. 25 celebration and is equipped with a stage. In this plaza, the monument of Our Lady Queen of Peace, designed by sculptress Virginia Ty-Navarro, shall stand over the tinted hexagonal dome, which directly towers over the church altar and the rest of the open space. It shall face the corner of EDSA and Ortigas Ave., beckoning the people to say a little prayer, reminding them what this place stands for.

The EDSA shrine showed that devout Catholic though he was, he would not be bound by the conventions of church architecture.

In the same period, with the Mary Immaculate parish in Moonwalk Village, Las Piñas City, he would radically redefine what a church could look like. The so-called “nature church,” though lying inside a residential suburb, evoked nothing so much as a rainforest canopy, with a hexagonal roof of thatch and woven rattan supported by steel cables that appeared to float above the worshipers. Open on all sides to a lush green landscape, the church called forth the living presence of God in the natural environment.

Cottages at the Pearl Farm resort inspired by Samal houses on stilts
A detail of the Tahanang Pilipino showing columns made from inverted coconut tree trunks

CHAMPION OF FILIPINO DESIGN

It was clear by this time that Mañosa had pushed the envelope of what Filipino architecture could be further than most of the architects of his generation. In fact, a newspaper article that appeared in 1988 called him “the datu of Philippine architecture.”

San Miguel Corporation building, Ortigas

“For Mañosa,” the article went, “the Philippine-ness of his architecture stems mainly from his nationalism and in part from his realization that the housing problems of any Third World country can never be solved without the development of indigenous building materials. The former he has put down as design dogma (he says to himself before starting any design: ‘I’m Filipino. I believe in my country.’); the latter he has translated into a veritable archive of researches into novel and innovative use of abundant and inexpensive indigenous materials.”

Hand in hand with his championing of Filipino design, Mañosa also promoted the use of indigenous materials as an essential element. As he said in the Mimar interview:

A vision of a future Filipino architecture in our country cannot help but open doors to an awareness, assimilation, and acceptance of indigenous materials, and to our vernacular heritage generally. These materials are coconut as well as bamboo, cogon, nipa, wood, stone, clay and rattan. The use of these materials is more economical than importing from abroad. There is, then, need to do research on what is one’s own, to go back to our roots, to identify which elements and aspects of our roots are still applicable in today’s society. We must also be aware of our indigenous materials—on how they have been used in the past, on how they are being used today, on the new technologies that can be applied on these raw materials to make them more responsive of our needs today. The architect must get a foundation by research and information on what makes up the psyche of his people, the needs of the different levels of his society.

It was in his resort architecture that Mañosa was able to explore these ideas to the fullest. Freed from the strictures of institutional and residential zones and codes, he could give free rein to his design ideas.

In the Pearl Farm Beach Resort on Samal Island in Davao, completed in 1991, he once more drew on the traditional Maranao house for a series of houses on stilts built along the seafront. An octagonal pattern was used as template for six private houses, linked with pathways of coral stone, and built with extensive use of bamboo and rattan.

In the Aman Pulo resort in Palawan, Mañosa returned to the bahay kubo template when designing the 40 casitas scattered throughout the island. Rather than a simple square hut on stilts, he bisected the kubo along the diagonal into two triangular modules, a harmonious twist that fit the needs of the intended users, with one triangle forming the bedroom and the other the bath and dressing area.

Scale model of LRT Carriedo Station in Sta. Cruz, Manila

These two high-profile projects just happened to coincide with what was to be one of the most popular architectural trends of the 1990s, which was “tropical design,” inspired by traditional Southeast Asian houses.

“Tropical design” encompassed a variety of trends and tendencies in architecture, ranging from designing residential buildings with a resort feel, to climate responsive strategies to control temperature and natural light for comfort and energy savings. The term could also be stretched to include neo-vernacular architecture from tropical countries that made extensive use of indigenous natural materials.

Ateneo Rockwell, Rockwell Center, Makati City

Ironically, this was precisely what Mañosa had been advocating for decades.

“In the making of his architecture,” architectural scholar Robert Powell wrote in the foreword to Designing Filipino: The Architecture of Francisco T. Mañosa (2002), “Mañosa asserts that Filipinos should design their structures in unity with the natural world. Filipinos, he asserts, see themselves as part of and not separate from their surroundings.”

“To talk to Mañosa is to be caught up in the zeal of an architect with a mission in life, a fervent desire to change the world for the better. He argues against ‘the disastrous haste with which architecture is rushing toward an empty, costly and at times impractical formalism,’ and for a more friendly, enlightened and relevant architecture; an architecture which is a repository for profound meanings and which ensures cultural continuity through its transformation of vernacular tradition and craftsmanship.”

Toward the end of his life, the architect devoted more of his time to promoting the design concepts and principles he had worked out over 60 years of practice. His selection as National Artist confirms what the architectural community has come to realize: that he is a key figure in the development of modern Filipino architecture, not only because of his groundbreaking designs, but more so because of his perseverance in promoting it among his peers.

In the architect’s own words:

We must be aware of what we have. Philippine architecture is an attempt to capture the Filipino psyche. Therefore the Filipino architect must be aware of the forms, spaces, symbols and materials that surround the Filipino and abound in his country to successfully interpret them. We must also be aware of our indigenous materials—how they have been used in the past, how they are being used today, and the technologies that can be applied to these raw materials to make them responsive to our needs today.

After knowledge and awareness must come acceptance. We must remove the mantle of inferiority that foreign domination has placed on us. We must believe in ourselves, our capabilities, innovativeness and creativity, and stop imitating alien cultures and architectures. We must believe that in accepting what we are and what we have—both their limitations and their potentials—we can finally emerge as equals.

Finally, we have to assimilate all the properties and elements that make the Filipino, and create from them. It may begin with the humble bahay kubo but it shouldn’t end there. With the right frame of mind, the creative architect can create limitless possibilities from its simple forms.

With his passing on February 20, 2019, at the age of 88, he leaves behind a legacy and a path for others to follow toward their own vision of Philippine architecture.

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