What makes a Filipino city?: The Philippines at the Venice Architecture Biennale

May 31, 2018

Venice, Italy (CNN Philippines Life) — “The Architecture Biennale is a different beast,” says Senator Loren Legarda when asked whether she prefers the Art or the Architecture Biennale. At the epicenter of Venice Biennale, the world’s ‘art olympics,’ the senator sits calm, even throws a joke or two, a day after the official opening of the Philippine Pavilion. The senator has been the instigator of the country’s participation at the Venice Biennale and has led the efforts to sustain it since our return in 2015.

In her speech at the pavilion’s opening, she says, “It was in July 2013 when I first asked the question: why are we not in the Venice Biennale? A small country of a million people like Maldives was here and [the biennale] has been host to the best contemporary artists and curators, but the Philippines was conspicuously absent for more than 51 years. So with the wealth of talent, I thought that perhaps we should try to get government to support it.”

And now, another year of hard work is finally over. For the next six months, “The City Who Had Two Navels” will be at the mercy of viewers, architects, critics, and other curious onlookers who will fly from all over the world to Venice and see what the architectural world has to offer to the global conversation.

“The City Who Had two Navels” is the Philippines’ fourth time at the Venice Biennale after its return in 2016, the second at the Architecture Biennale, and the second at the Arsenale, one of the Biennale’s two official venues.

Looking at the works on display, the Architecture Biennale is a cross between an art exhibit and an architectural study. There are structures on display, in scale or ones you can enter, climb, or walk through. There are evocations of buildings, immersive experiences that allow the viewer to have an out of body experience.

The first two appearances of the Philippines was at the Palazzo Mora — an afterthought if you’re only invested in seeing the works at the main venues: the Arsenale and the Giardini. It was, as Legarda admitted, a bit of an unofficial start for the country’s return to Venice (the first and only pavilion then was commissioned in 1964 and featured Jose Joya and Napoleon Abueva). Finally, the Philippine Arts at the Venice Biennale (PAVB), the [small] team, mostly from Legarda’s hardworking staff, that handles our official participation (all national participations are usually coursed through the Biennale and the respective governments), was able to secure a location at the Arsenale’s Artiglierie. The Philippines finally felt like it was in the big leagues.

The Philippine Pavilion is at the Artiglierie — a former shipyard and armory that includes a long corridor that spans several rooms containing other national pavilions such as Thailand (proposals on the life of spaces after architects hand them over), Ireland (the slow death of the Irish small towns), Bahrain (the structure surrounding the ritual of the Friday khutbah), Croatia (a cloud pergola installation that intersects art, robotics, and engineering), and at the back, Italy (architecture in the Alpine arch) and China (an inquiry into the rapid urban development and experiments in the Chinese countryside).

And right at the entrance of the Artiglierie, is the Philippine Pavilion, which examines how the two giant forces of colonialism and neoliberalism shape the way we build and experience our cities — and our lives as well. So how do we fit in the conversation about “freespace”?

A tale of two navels

“The conquering Yanquis might jeer at the quaint architecture, the primitive plumbing, the ceremonious manners; behind impassive faces, people shared a secret pride, a secret exultation, and a lengthening litany of names.” — Nick Joaquin, “The Woman with Two Navels”

To know the city is to know its people and to know its people is to know their history. From the neoclassical buildings of Old Manila, the attempts at national pride in the National Government Center, to the housing projects in Pandi occupied by the Kadamay protests, all our structures are steeped in colonialism. Philippine Pavilion curator Edson Cabalfin uses colonialism in “The City with Two Navels” as “the imposition of control by one entity over another and there’s always this process of domination and subjugation.”

He grounds this viewpoint, by first, setting the perspective on how colonial eyes have seen the country in international exhibitions such as the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo where “primitives” from the Philippines were flown in and made to live in exhibit villages; or the 1998 Expo Pilipino in Clark, Pampanga, which also used replica villages of the Kalinga, T’boli, etc., as well as Spanish-era architecture.

With colonialism being the first ‘navel’ — a meditation of national identity, if you will — of the pavilion, Cabalfin asks, in the context of the Venice Biennale, how are we supposed to “exhibit” our country now?

“What we are also seeing throughout the 100 years is there are certain themes that are in play and we can’t simply blame the colonial masters and colonizers for representing us,” he says. “Because after World War II we are the ones representing ourselves. What kind of message are we then communicating to others outside the Philippines?”

“The señora’s world of mansions might sit uneasily on its avenues, the hovels of the poor squatted no less nervously on their gutters [..] Paco sensed unreality in both worlds, the people who occupied them did not seem to be living there at all.” — Nick Joaquin, “The Woman with Two Navels”

The second ‘navel’ is neoliberalism, free market capitalism or, according to Cabalfin’s usage in the context of the pavilion, “the types of policies that emerged from Thatcher-era UK and Reagan-era US that focus on themes that advocate for trade, market, competition, privatisation, deregulation, and minimal state intervention.”

He cites the developments in urban cities such as Manila, Cebu, and Davao where enclaves have emerged, mixed-use buildings in properties where the commercial and the corporate merge.

Cabalfin adds: “Neoliberal urbanism entails the expansion of the city where we see residential subdivisions that grow as the city grows but it’s also very particular because a lot of these subdivisions are fueled by remittances from OFWs, which has a direct relationship with that of the way money is coming in and the way we are exporting labor outside the Philippines.”

Daily existence seems to be subject to the claws of neoliberalism: the malls, condominiums, the creative class, dorms, heritage buildings, the entire housing market. Even the way we think about our work and the decisions we make in our lives. All under the notions of free market that responds to supply and demand.

“With 24/7 cities, we have BPO workers at night and then the day workers,” says Cabalfin. “They say New York is the city that never sleeps but Philippine cities also never sleeps, [they are a] relentless cycle of labor, [but] we’re not just having fun at night, which is what New York does, but we work for 24 hours, which shapes the way our cities are also experienced.”

The structure of the two navels

The Philippine Pavilion is designed almost like a Venn diagram, two arcs that represent the navels and intersect where colonialism and neocolonialism meet. The outer strips of the arcs are LCD T.V. screens, scale models, photographs, and video installations contributed by the “think tank consortium” Cabalfin formed when his proposal was picked by the PAVB. Architecture colleges from Manila (University of the Philippines – Diliman and De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde), Cebu (University of San Carlos), and Davao (University of the Philippines – Mindanao) worked on “speculations” based on the themes.

The University of San Carlos presented “Sulog: Currents of Unity,” which showed how the street of Colon in Cebu can be revitalized and use for and by the people.

“Badjao Eco Villages” by University of the Philippines – Mindanao discussed waterfront settlements of the Obu Manovu, Manuvu-Tagabawa, Maranao, Tausug, Maguindanao, Bajau, and Matigsalug, who were all living in Dabaw even before the arrival of Spanish and American colonizers.

The De La Salle – College of St. Benilde gave speculations of what kind of a city Manila can be in 2050 in four ways: a virtual/neoliberal city, a Japanese-invaded city, a Spanish-invaded city, and as non-colonized Austronesian city.

Recognizing that their campus is built by an American colony, UP Diliman presented “HyGrids,” a combination of hyperrealist projections and conceptual grids, and explored how colonialism and neoliberalism exist in a place of other opposing forces such as vegetation and structural density.

Cabalfin also asked women-led architectural NGO TAO-Pilipinas to reflect on their work on participative design, building structures for communities in collaboration with the people they work for.

To understand the life in Philippine cities, Cabalfin asked photographers Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo to capture life in different cities around the country and, in effect, show the homogenizing force of neoliberalism.

Three video works also document the everyday life of a Filipino. Rafaela Manasan, Rabsin de la Cruz, and Mark Anthony Simbilo take “selfie videos” from the time they wake up, go to work, and wind down for the day.

At the center is Yason Banal’s multi-channel video installation “Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound,” a chilling reminder of how colonialism and liberalism have become insidious forces in our past and present, and eventually in the future. There are phantoms and narratives that tell their stories bound by structures and inhabited spaces such as the Manila Film Center, Manila Hotel, the former naval base in Subic, and even nondescript condominiums and call centers in central business districts. The film is shot with various cameras and is projected on the curved and sloping walls of the two navels, the technicality of which was a challenge to Banal.

“I didn’t want the form to shy away from the space, it’s a huge space,” Cabalfin says on the design of the pavilion. “We’re lucky but it’s also a challenge. A space as huge as that, your display can either disappear or it can stand out and I chose for it to stand out, that’s what I wanted, kanya-kanyang approach. Some might choose it differently.”

There was talk of the biennale being a kind of Miss Universe: national representations vying for the top prize (it went to Switzerland for their house-hunting evocation). When asked about this, Cabalfin noted that it is like a pageant.

He says, “There has to be a spectacle … how would you stand out? How would people pay attention to your installation? I wanted the exhibition to be interesting, it needs to be engaging because you have this wave of hundreds of display and how do you catch the attention of the visitor?”

The architecture of pookginhawa

Ultimately, the pavilion answers the notion of “freespace,” which is then translated to “pookginhawa” by National Commision for Culture and the Arts chairman Virgilio Almario.

“It can mean relief or lightness. In [Ilocano], one of our major languages, ginhawa is birth itself,” Almario says. “And when a space is filled with life, when it is used to give breath, that is a space that embraces concepts of kindness, generosity, democracy, and hope which is the space that Filipinos crave and dream of.”

For Cabalfin, the work of the architectural students present an optimism when thinking about the future of Philippine cities. And given the strong presence of colonialism and neoliberalism, TAO-Pilipinas’ practice is one that is an alternative that can exist outside of the two, a “mode of empowerment” that builds from the grassroots and involves the voices of people who might not be able to consult architects, or even pay one to construct homes, centers, and other buildings.

“Filipinos should not be construed as passive receivers of external determinants,” he says. “Filipinos are also not mere victims to colonialism and neoliberalism.”


The Philippine Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale is on view until Nov. 25, 2018 at the Artiglierie, Arsenale in Venice, Italy.

Source: CNN Philippines