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Markers of our city’s memory, chaos & hope

December 10, 2016

In a darkly lit room with a perfect grid floor, nine muhons begin the narrative of Manila’s architectural past, present and future. The first that one sees from the entrance is a glass-and-light sculpture that depicts the Pasig River winding its way across Manila. The light from it pierces the dark room with clarity, a kind of cleanliness that stands as a metaphor for the river of the past.

The room is one of three on the second floor of Palazzo Mora, home of the Philippine Pavilion in this year’s Architecture Biennale, and located in the Cannariego neighborhood of Venice. The Venice Biennale concluded two Sundays ago with the Philippine team holding a finissage (ceremonial closing) for the Filipino community in Venice.

Called “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City,” the exhibit was conceptualized and curated by Leandro V. Locsin Partners with architects Andy Locsin Jr., Sudarshan V. Khadka Jr. and Juan Paolo dela Cruz.

Senator Loren Legarda who, together with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, brought Philippine participation back to Venice starting with last year’s Art Biennale, was not around but she sent a message of congratulations and thanks to the NCCA and the curatorial team.

Senator Legarda called NCCA chairman Felipe de Leon Jr.’s “passion and leadership” as the “spark to develop and promote the richness of our arts and culture.”

To the curatorial team, she said their “vision has started a dialogue that allows us to ponder the realities that surround us, particularly our built heritage.”

Locsin’s firm won the open call of the NCCA last year for proposals to the country’s first ever participation in the Architecture Biennale, which was supported by the Office of Senator Loren Legarda, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Tourism. NCCA chairman Felipe de Leon Jr. was the Philippine Pavilion’s chairman.

Muhon is a Filipino word unfamiliar to most of us but is a term used every day by architects and builders. It means “boundary stone or placemarker” and refers to those concrete cylinders they half bury in the ground to demarcate properties and determine ownership.

NCCA’s Riya Lopez, head of the PAVB Coordinating Committee, says, “We received 13 entries from architectural firms and universities with architecture program.”

Andy, Sudar and Jimmy’s curatorial proposal was entry No. 13, emailed to the NCAA a few minutes before the midnight deadline on Aug. 30, 2015.

“There were other good proposals but what won us over was the idea of muhon as metaphor for identity,” says Riya.

And to think Andy was hesitant to submit. “Kami lang ni Sudar ang makulit,” Jimmy says.

They wrote the proposal in one night, but the discussions started weeks before — in the office and over beer after work — and revolved around the question of identity. “That question started this whole thing off and was followed by other questions on ownership, memory — all the intangibles in our city,” says Jimmy.

Sudar adds, “When you create a muhon, it’s an act of staking a claim or possession.”

Coincidentally, when they submitted the proposal, the Lindy Locsin-designed Mandarin Hotel was still standing and when they found out they had won in December, it was already torn down.

Sudar adds, “Our firm is in the middle of a lot of projects and we felt that we needed to stop for a moment, that it was our duty to participate. The heritage issue was something we considered important.”

“The Architecture Biennale’s theme was ‘Reporting from the Front,’” says Jimmy. “We adhered to that theme but felt that the more pressing issues of sustainability, displacement, hunger and disaster would be tackled by other pavilions because these issues are always in the headlines and were the obvious answers. We felt the issue of identity and the disappearance of important structures were just as urgent. These are always bubbling under the surface but they’re as important because the repercussions are longer.”

Sudar says, “During the Second World War, almost all the buildings in Manila were destroyed and leveled off. Everything that we had was suddenly gone. We feel that this exhibit is trying to grapple with the sense that we have no reference to our history and identity. It feels like the city was born after the war. That’s why we’re calling it ‘adolescent.’ We felt that to understand our buildings is to understand ourselves.”

With the NCCA, the curators shortlisted nine muhons or placemarkers to anchor Manila’s past, present and future. The three rooms in Palazzo Mora — History, Modernity and Conjecture — would hold nine muhons each and a total of 27 in 150 sqm. space.

UP’s Vargas Museum curator and art studies Prof. Patrick D. Flores, architects Paulo Alcazaren and Dominic Galicia, and curator Marian Roces became consultants to the project.

How were the collaborators — six architects and three visual artists — chosen?

Jimmy says, “The main criteria was people whom we knew would create compelling work — beautiful, intellectually sound and substantial pieces,” says Jimmy. “Also, that they could fabricate their pieces. These are people we know, friends and competitors of the firm whose capabilities we know. We wanted each collaborator to see what each of this muhon means to them and help them understand themselves. We wanted more people to see what these buildings mean to us, what their value is. This was the conversation we wanted to start.”

The first nine people they asked all said yes — three young architects in their 30s, three established ones at the peak of their practice, and three visual artists whose works are social commentaries.

With P150,000 budget for each collaborator to create three pieces each, they only had a month to finish them because a life-size mockup was in order before packing up the pieces to ship to Venice — a 45-day journey by sea — to make it in time for the May opening of the biennale.

These are the collaborators and their chosen muhons:

EDUARDO CALMA: Philippine International Convention Center by Leandro V. Locsin, 1976

Muhon curator Sudar relates a story that Ed told him: that when he was young, Ed would go to the PICC with his architect-father Lor Calma and it was one of those experiences that would influence his love of architecture.

Ed chose the PICC as one of the few remaining Lindy Locsin buildings surviving. Yet there is still no guarantee that it would survive in the future. If it is destroyed, the only hope is to preserve a memory of its presence and its architectural qualities in a new proposal.

Ed’s piece in the “history” section of the exhibit is a solid mass of 700 lbs. and it took seven people to carry it. In the succeeding rooms, the structure is seemingly lifted off by the famous chandeliers of the PICC.

MAÑOSA & CO. INC.: Tahanang Pilipino (Coconut Palace) by Francisco Mañosa, 1978

Coconut Palace is a physical example of the bayanihan concept. It was born out of the idea of exhausting the possibilities one can do with the humble coconut. In the “projection” or future interpretation, the most structural way to use it is to cut the elements into hexagons.

JORGE YULO: Mandarin Hotel by Leandro V. Locsin, 1976

For Yulo, the hotel stood as the pivotal urban element sitting in the cradle of Makati’s urbanization, on the crossroad of Makati Ave. and Paseo de Roxas. The Brutalist expression and interpretation of that junction’s urban significance set the rest of the CBD’s development. Muhon curator Jimmy says, “Jorge pointed out that Mandarin is to Manila what the Flatiron building is to New York, that junction is a mental imprint to a lot of people.”

8×8 DESIGN STUDIO: Ramon Magsaysay Building by AJ Luz Associates, Pietro Belluschi, Alfred Yee Associates, 1967

The building is designed like a big tree with the columns as its deep-rooted trunk that sways with the wind and movement of the ground. At the time it was built, it was a pioneer in using pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete beams and multiple in-place floor slabs and wall panels.

The Magsaysay Center celebrates its 50th year next year and hence will be protected by the heritage law.

Jimmy says, “The 50-year mark is the law but in terms of collective emotion, is 50 years enough for us to recognize these buildings? To fall in love with them?”

Sudar adds, “Fifty years is the time when people actually start thinking the building is ugly, when buildings are seemingly neglected. We see the value of the Mandarin Hotel now that it’s gone but when you ask people, they say the Brutalist style was ugly, gray and dirty. Once a building gets past the 50-year mark, it seemingly starts to become beautiful again.”

C | S DESIGN CONSULTANCY: Pasig River

The light and glass sculpture that depicts Pasig River shows a clean river that flows through the adolescent city of Manila. In the “present “room, it depicts a river polluted by corporations and informal settlers.

NCCA chairman Felipe de Leon Jr., who was at the biennale’s finissage, looks at the sculpture and says, “Growing up in Pandacan, when I didn’t like the food in the house, our barkada would go to Pasig River to catch fish and cook them. We were nine to 12 years old then. Manila was really very idyllic. When there was a flood, everybody went out to enjoy it because the waters were very clean.”

LIMA ARCHITECTURE: Makati Stock Exchange by Leandro Locsin, 1971

Don Lin and Andro L. Magat of Lima Architecture say the issues of heritage preservation and moving forward to stir economic growth have been the center of an ongoing battle in architecture: retaining cultural identity and creating the future. Lima Architecture explores the Makati Stock Exchange building and deconstructs it to discover if it merits preservation without hindering new developments that help the economy to move forward. Lima asked, “Is it possible to design something new but still have heritage and cultural identity without sacrificing modern-day solutions?”

POKLONG ANADING: Km. 0

Anading’s three video installations examine what Km. 0 and Luneta (Rizal Park) mean to people — as a convergence place, as picnic grounds for families. According to the Muhon curators, he crowd-sourced pictures from Facebook and other social media to show different points in Luneta’s timeline: from when it was a beautiful park in the 1950s to how the skyline is now ruined by the Torre de Manila building.

TAD ERMITAÑO: Pandacan Bridge

Ermitaño’s works tackles how iconic architecture and informal settlements are each other’s shadow-twin. The lack of affordable housing means that all large enterprises — factories, malls, subdivisions — effectively generate informal settlements within their vicinity. He also made use of an actual trolley, which he dismantled, which people used as transport on the train tracks.

Prof. De Leon says, “Pandacan was a very beautiful place. I grew up there, it was just a rice field, there was no oil depot at the time. I used to catch mudfish and talangka then. I became very nationalistic because of Pandacan. Because in 10 to 20 years, Pandacan became very ugly. In the ’70s, it began deteriorating. All the things that made Pandacan very pretty were lost, even Beata River was lost, and that’s where Francisco Balagtas courted Celia. It used to be a very idyllic, romantic place.”

MAR SALVATUS: Binondo

Salvatus shows how Binondo was the center of the hardware and construction trade back then. His third piece, in the Conjecture room, paints a picture of the sweat and blood of construction workers to produce the dream condominium of homebuyers. That behind the clubhouse and swimming pools are the workers whose lives haven’t necessarily become better as they built your dream home.

Walking these three rooms at Palazzo Mora is walking through Manila’s history, identity and memory. The second room, the present, depicts our chaotic reality, of how the plans of the past to maintain a beautiful city have all been abandoned and sold to corporations.

We cannot go back, but Prof. De Leon quotes architect Paulo Alcazaren who says, “We can transform Manila — one block at a time.”

The question then is: Is there such a thing as Filipino architecture? Should there be one in a global world?

Prof. De Leon says, “If there is no Filipino architecture we will be lost, we will be following other cultures. The only way to project yourself in the world is by having an identity. Having no Filipino architecture is like having no name. Wala ka sa listahan.

Source: Philstar