Between the devil and the deep blue sea

June 3, 2018

I’ve always thought of architecture as a very technical field or at least too technical for me. Although it is among the seven fields of arts, I regard it as very scientific, drawn from a very particular set of skills that have more to do with applied and industrial sciences than with art.


This year is the second time for the Philippines to participate in the prestigious architecture biennale. It debuted on this platform in 2016, just following the Philippines major comeback to the art biennale in 2015 that ended its 51-year absence on this world stage in Venice. This dramatic return is thanks mainly to the vision of Sen. Loren Legarda, who in 2013 asked the question, as she told me, “Why aren’t we at the Venice Biennale? Panama is here. The Maldives is here. Everyone is here. Why not us?”

In 2015, we were back, with the senator joining forces with the National Commission on Culture and the Arts and the Department of Tourism, as well as a curatorial team led by Patrick Flores handpicked from numerous entries that responded to the open call.

The theme that won Flores and his chosen art collaborators, filmmaker Manny Montelibano and installation artist Jose Tence Ruiz, along with Manuel Conde’s 1950 classic movie Genghis Khan, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, was—aptly titled “Tie A String Around the World”—succeeded in mirroring the Philippines’ own unique experience of such global issues as identity crises, geopolitics, imperialism, and the quest to mark historical, political, and cultural boundaries in this age of globalization.


Apparently, art is not enough, though our participation last year, this time curated by Yeyey Cruz, “El Demonio de las Comparaciones,” drawn from National Hero Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, stayed on track by exploring nationhood in the context of “otherness,” with Cruz choosing France/Canada-based concept artist Lani Maestro and Spain/US-based painter Manuel Ocampo to make sense of the theme from their places of exile.

In 2016, with Leandro V. Locsin Jr. and his architectural firm LVLP at the curatorial helm, we joined the architecture biennale for the first time, joining the global conversation from the curatorial standpoint of “Muhon,” the Tagalog word for historical markers, by which through monuments or building design or city planning or our infrastructure we, as do other nations, establish our identity. The exhibition was taglined “Traces of an Adolescent City.”


Our concept of space in the Philippines is a reflection of our rich, if convoluted, history, from which, sprung from a past so heavily influenced, if not dictated, by colonial forces, we are marching toward a future that, with hope, is ours alone, shaped by our own circumstances and sensibilities, our hope and dreams, as well as by the resources we harness in our own interest, as a people, as a society, as a nation, and as a member of the community of nations.

Architect, University of Cincinnati assistant professor, and curator of this year’s Philippine Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale in Venice Dr. Edson Cabalfin follows up on our ongoing architectural explorations in this ongoing biennale, which opened to the public only last weekend, to run until November in Venice. In collaboration with major architecture schools in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, as well as a women-led NGO committed to urban social housing, he sets up a thought-provoking exhibition, “The City Who Had Two Navels,” inspired by the 1961 classic The Woman Who Had Two Navels by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin.

Like the novel, the exhibition mirrors both the reality and fantasy, both the practicalities and the neuroses, “the colonial past and the neoliberal present,” the two navels, by which the spaces we inhabit shape the people we are today and the future that awaits us.


Cabalfin examines the Philippines’ colonial past and its market-driven or neoliberal present and their effect on the urban landscape as well as the identity and culture of its dwellers.

He would emphasize, however, that his task was not to provide answers but, as art by definition is supposed to do, to provoke questions. His wish is to make the spectators indulge themselves in global interactions and, subsequently, challenge the realities of their perceived identity.

“The idea of ‘Two Navels’ in this exhibition talks about the forces of colonialism and neo-liberalism as they affect the Philippine built environment,” Cabalfin explains. “My hope is that the Philippines will contribute to this conversation because colonialism and neo-liberalism are two forces that do not only affect the Philippines but also the world.”

To the curator, the architecture biennale has the potential to be an instrument of change. “There are many perspectives here and not everybody might agree, but it is exactly what I want because that’s when the conversation begins,” he says. “Oppositional ideas, differing opinions are necessary in creating a healthy and important discussion that will then, with hope, instigate change.”

But, indeed, the questions remain: How much of our history must be embedded in the architecture of our present and how much of our present architecture must give way to the future in order to prepare for it, adapt to it, and yield to its demands, especially at a time like this when the changes around us—personal, social, economic, political, climatic, universal—are making us, both individually and collectively, alternate between hope and distress, between exultation and dejection knowing, suspecting that the future will be nothing like the world as we know it now.


While it is true that, of all art forms, architecture demands the most in terms of scientific methodology and numerical precision, it does require artistic sensibility and a certain philosophical introspection, if not even existential angst.

The built environment draws from the blueprint of our inner lives and naturally reflect the kind of people we are who live, play, work, or dream in it or the kind of people we wish to be.

What does Philippine architecture say about who we are within these external expressions of our past, present, and future dreamworld and realities?

The 16th International Architecture Exhibition, head curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, runs until Nov. 25. The Philippine Pavilion, curated by Dr. Edson Cabalfin, is at the Artiglierie, the main exhibition hall of La Biennale di Venezia, in Arsenale.

Source: Manila Bulletin