A tale of two navels

May 5, 2018

The Philippine participation at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale was formally introduced last week at the offices of the National Committee for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in Intramuros. Presenting were key proponent Senator Loren Legarda, NCCA head and National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario, DFA Assistant Secretary Leo M. Herrera (representing DFA Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano), Italian Ambassador Giorgio Gugliemino and Philippine Pavilion curator Dr. Edson Cabalfin.

Dr. Cabalfin is an alumnus of the UP College of Architecture and completed his graduate studies at Cornell University. He now teaches architecture at the University of Cincinnati. I met Edson years ago because of the UP connection and we shared the same academic interest in architectural history, theory and criticism. Two years ago I also wrote about a wonderful children’s book on Philippine architecture, which Edson authored, and which was nominated for the National Children’s Book Awards.

Edson’s more serious body of published work on Philippine architectural theory and history is substantial. However, one must not underestimate the challenges of writing for kids. His child-like and wide-eyed passion for Philippine architecture was evident when he spoke to explain his curatorial concept for the Philippine Pavilion that will open at the end of the month in Venice.

Cabalfin calls the Philippine pavilion the “The City Who Had Two Navels.” It is, as he puts it, “…a critical response to Joaquin’s important literary work …and highlights the two “navels” that are in constant dialogue: first, how colonialism impacts the formation of the built environment; and second, how the process of neo-liberalization alters the urban landscape.”

He further expounded that the concept follows, “… the call for examining an idea of ‘Freespace’ set by the Biennale overall curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. The Philippine Pavilion seeks to interrogate architecture and urbanism’s ability to empower and transform people’s lives. “Freespace” or “Pookginhawa” in the Philippine context underscores the strategies by which Filipinos use the built environment as modes of resistance and appropriation in the face of an ever-changing world.”

The pavilion’s exhibits were curated and designed by Cabalfin but augmented by installations of a select group of future architects, planners and designers, who were asked “to respond to the two “navels” in the exhibition.”

The group was made up of Yason Banal, contemporary artist and filmmaker; TAO (Technical Assistance Organization) Pilipinas, Inc. a women-led, non-stock, non-profit, non-government organization that assists urban and rural poor communities; students and faculty from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, the University of San Carlos-School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design, the University of the Philippines Diliman, College of Architecture, the University of the Philippines Mindanao, Department of Architecture. Representatives from the schools also spoke briefly at the event and outlined the areas of the city they interrogated within the context of the curatorial direction.

The Commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion is Virgilio S. Almario, current head of the NCCA and Filipino National Artist for Literature. Almario noted that, “…the Philippine Pavilion places a spotlight on the discussion of how our cities have transformed, an important global conversation seeing how more than fifty per cent of the world’s population live in urban settlements.”

He expounded, “It is relevant because if we can make sense of our cities and how it is shaped by our past as well as by neoliberal agendas then learning about the presence of these invisible forces empower us to make better choices for the future of the cities and the people that occupy it.”

Senator Legarda for her part thanked the NCCA, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale (PAVB) Coordinating Committee for supporting her advocacy and helping her turn this vision for Philippine culture, vis-à-vis participation in the Biennale, into reality. It was a vision she explained, that sought “… to make the Filipino talent be part of the global contemporary art scene, because I know we can. The curatorial proposals we receive every year prove the talent, creativity and intelligence of our curators, artists and architects.”

The good senator also expressed the hope that the Philippine participation in the Venice Biennale would open new avenues for “…the growth of our curators and artists and encourage more Filipinos to unleash their creativity. I want Filipinos to realize the importance of art, that it is an expression of one’s self, of one’s society, of one’s nation.”

“As an advocate of the preservation of Philippine heritage, I see architecture as a crucial element in building equitable, sustainable and inclusive societies. Through our participation in this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, we relate our truths as we also learn from the realities of other nations. It serves as a reminder of how architecture is not only about building structures but also about inspiring life, shaping society, and building a nation,” said Legarda.

Contemplating our architectural navels may indeed bring enlightenment and lead us down the right path to create viable constructs for nation, community, and identity.
The Philippine Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will be housed at the Artiglierie, Arsenale and will run from May 26 to Nov. 25.

Source: Philstar