The Philippine Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale: The City Who Had Two Navels

April 26, 2018

Inspired by Filipino National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s novel “The Woman Who Had Two Navels,” published in 1961, the Philippine Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia confronts the tension between the vicissitudes of the past and the challenges of constructing contemporary

Following the call for examining an idea of “Freespace” by the Biennale 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 to an ever-changing world.

Titled “The City Who Had Two Navels” as a critical response to Joaquin’s important literary work and celebration of his birth centennial, the Philippine contribution to the Biennale highlights two “navels” that are in constant dialogue: first, how colonialism impacts the formation of the built environment; and second, how the process of neoliberalization alters the urban landscape.

First Navel

The first “navel”, “(Post)Colonial Imaginations”, presents major expositions and world’s fairs showcasing the Philippines, including the 1887 Exposicion General de las Islas Filipinas (Madrid, Spain), the 1904 St. Louis Fair (St. Louis, Missouri, USA), the 1998 Expo Pilipino (Clark Airbase, Pampanga), and other expositions during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Through images and artifacts, the first section looks at how Philippine displays in expositions reproduced colonial narratives of the exotic and the primitive. The first section of the pavilion presents the question: can we truly escape the colonial?

Second Navel

The second navel, “Neoliberal Urbanism” presents the development of Philippine cities as embedded within processes of neoliberalization. Under a neoliberal agenda, cities are placed in a hierarchy based on their ability to compete for capital following principles of privatization, deregulation, free market, and minimal state intervention. Examples include mixed-use developments and business process outsourcing (BPO) offices, enclave central business districts, peri-urban residential subdivisions, and informal settlements as part of urban growth. By exposing
contemporary issues in Philippine cities, the pavilion poses the question: is neoliberalization a new form of colonialism?


In the central part of the exhibition, a video installation explores the intersection of the two forces of colonialism and neoliberalism. The juncture of these two “navels” represents an emergent wave of postcolonial anxieties born out of the process of exiting the colonial condition. This immersive experience asks visitors to contemplate on their own experiences with the colonial and the neoliberal. Through a transnational and transhistorical investigation, the pavilion argues that the Philippines does not exist in a vacuum, is implicated within power relations, and is inextricably intertwined with other nations and people.


To address this emerging postcolonial anxiety, the Philippine Pavilion invited future architects, planners and designers to respond to the two “navels” in the exhibition. As part of the exhibit, a think-tank consortium was created comprising students and faculty from select architecture, design, and planning programs in the Philippines. They are: (1) Yason Banal, contemporary artist and filmmaker; (2) TAO (Technical Assistance Organization) Pilipinas, Inc. a women-led, non-stock, non-profit, non-government organization that assists urban and rural poor communities; (3) De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde; (4) University of San Carlos – School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design; (5) University of the Philippines Diliman, College of Architecture; and (6) University of the Philippines Mindanao, Department of Architecture.

The consortium was commissioned to conduct research on the current state of three Philippine cities of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao and were tasked to respond to the identified issues and to present proposals about the future. Through the speculations about the two “navels” and the concomitant architectural and urban issues, Philippine “Freespace” or “Pookginhawa” anticipates possibilities for renewed life and hope.

The Curator

Edson G. Cabalfin is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the University of Cincinnati. He received his Ph.D. in Architecture (Major in History of Architecture, Minors in Historic Preservation and Southeast Asian Studies) in 2012 from Cornell University. Under a Fulbright Fellowship from 2001 to 2003, he received his M.S. Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati. Prior to coming to the U.S., he received his B.S. Architecture (cum laude) and Master of Architecture degrees from the University of the Philippines – Diliman in 1996 and 2001 respectively.

National Participation3

The Philippine participation at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia is a collaborative undertaking of National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda.

Cabalfin’s curatorial concept was selected among 12 proposals that were submitted to the Coordinating Committee in response to the open call for curatorial proposals for the Philippine participation at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.

The Commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion is Virgilio S. Almario, NCCA Chairman and Filipino National Artist for Literature.

Almario said, “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 explained, “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.”

Meanwhile, Senator Loren Legarda, the visionary and principal advocate of the Philippine participation in the Venice Biennale, stressed the importance of the country’s presence at the Architecture Biennale.

“As an advocate of the preservation of Philippine heritage, I see architecture as a crucial element of 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.

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 November 25, 2018.