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Requiem for Philippine architecture


CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren | Updated November 3, 2007 - 12:00am

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(Editors note: The following is the authors satirical take on Philippine architectures present and future.)

Philippine architecture is dead. The last Filipino architectural firm of Triangulo, Tiskware and Lapiz finally sold out to VRS, a design-outsourcing firm that caters to
the booming construction markets of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Myanmar has become the new Dubai in the last two years since President Aung San Suu Kyis
takeover.

The China, Indochina, India and Middle East construction markets have in fact sopped up almost all of the 60,000 registered Filipino architects, along with 20,000
more registered landscape architects, interior designers and environmental planners. This is according to reports from their professional organizations, which
themselves are trimmed down (in terms of members based locally) to retired professionals. Most of these organizations are alive only in international chapters and
their national conventions are held in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco or Mumbai.

This creative brain drain started in the 1970s with initial waves of architects going to the Middle East. Successive waves left in the 80s and 90s for destinations like
Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. The consequent Asian recovery and the Middle Eastern boom, coupled with the inability of the Philippines to match economic
growth with its neighbors these last 10 years, has led to a fourth cycle of migration that has proved to be fatal for architectural practice here.

Philippine design firms saw a noticeable jump in demand for services from 2003 onwards. By that time local big names in Philippine real estate were dusting off
projects shelved in the late 90s or looking at new ones in housing, leisure and retail. The call-center phenomenon also fueled construction activity in central
business districts.

Many of the really large projects, however, were credited to foreign architects, planners, landscape architects or interior designers. This despite laws passed for
almost all the design professions regulating their practice. Some organizations raised a muffled howl but the lawyers of these companies fended off these
complaints. Their defense: These designs by foreign consultants are the product of offshore services; hence, not subject to local law.

Local professional organizations cited the obvious inanity of this argument. The law, they countered, was passed to ensure liability with the main goal of public
safety the reason, too, why all design professionals needed to pass a licensure examination and be monitored by the Professional Regulation Commission just
like doctors and lawyers. They also brought up the fact that not one of these foreign firms had obtained a permit from the PRC or the Department of Labor and
Employment or had obtained certification from local professional bodies stating that they possessed the expertise that no local architect or firm possessed.

An additional problem, by 2005, was the increase in the number of high-profile Fil-Am or American-trained Filipino designers practicing without a license. Legal
steps were taken against about a dozen of these designers, but they settled out of court or lowered their profiles in any case already having established their chi-
chi clientele through high-society networks. Local licensed architects and other designers were chided for what seemed to some a case of professional jealousy.
The legit architects tragically got their point across after the collapse of a trendy building in 2008 (designed by one of these non-licensed but high-pedigree
designers) resulting in serious injury to a few hundred people.

In any case, the landscape changed drastically from 2006 onwards. The recovery of the construction sector turned into a rampaging boom as all the Filipino-
Chinese tycoons threw their hats into real-estate ring. The rich and middle class were investing in new properties or discovering leisure alternatives centered on
beautiful beaches or mountain locations. OFW remittances were also targeted as the Filipino Diaspora reached truly global proportions large enough to affect
exchange rates and political strategies. There suddenly were many projects available to satisfy the needs of Filipino firms looking to find good work with good fees.
But this was not to be because of the very boom itself.

With the number of players in the real estate market and the absence of any rational government control of land development, competition became cutthroat.
Marketing and advertising teams of these development companies turned to what they felt was a sure-fire strategy for sell housing and real estate brand them as
foreign or foreign-designed.

Developers actually hired more and more foreign firms to do design projects that would look like Paris, New York, Switzerland, San Francisco, Florence, Tokyo,
Singapore or Bali. Small Filipino firms still got work to act as local architects of record, a humiliation many were prepared to live with.

Many development companies opted to hire Filipino architects as in-house staff instead of hiring local design firms to act as dummies for foreign ones (to save
money to pay foreign consultants), thus making a mockery of professional practice but ensuring these employees a good living that independent Filipino firms
couldnt provide anymore. But even these in-house and architect-of-record strategies were short-lived.

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Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Filipino architects and designers lured abroad or locally for jobs in outsourcing companies grew exponentially. Overseas
placements started recruits with salaries between two and three thousand dollars a month for architects with a few years experience. Local outsourcing companies
paid a thousand dollars a month with the advantage that young architects still lived at home or with a cost of living much lower than overseas.

These salaries were between four and five times what they earned with local firms. So many left that local firms had to resort to paying competitive salaries to fresh
graduates who stayed only an average of a year. No mid-management architects were to be found except those saddled with family obligations to stay in the
country. Then the overseas and outsource market became even more voracious of creative Filipino talent they started approaching schools of design to poach all
the best graduates even before they finished school.

By 2009 the output of local architecture and design firms was oriented almost wholly towards the export or outsource market. This mimicked how nursing schools
boomed at the start of the decade and before the law for a prerequisite five-year local stint for nurses and caregivers (before they could leave the country) was
passed in 2008. The impending collapse of the countrys health system after an outbreak of a new resistant strain of pork virus (discovered in a designer shopping
bag in the vicinity of the Batasang Pambansa) early that year forced the measure to be passed.

By 2010 the few local design firms were so desperate they started recruiting retired professionals. Few of these more mature architects and designers could use
computers with much facility, which caused a small resurgence in the sales of drafting tables and technical pencils. High school students trained in CADD work
served as their assistants.

The process was tedious and the old architects were too feisty to agree to design knock-offs of buildings by foreign architects, who by that time had set up large
satellite offices in Manila, Cebu, Davao and even Vigan (where Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas opened offices in the conservation district.)

In the last three years, no Filipino (or completely Filipino) design firm has designed a major building or complex. Like advertising firms, almost all architecture firms
now have to carry the name of a foreign entity before the hyphenated billing of a local architects name.

Filipinos today live in high-rise housing that looks like Shanghais five years ago the lag time for copycat designs to reach Manila. Its malls, including the Mega-
Global mall refashioned out of the NAIA III complex that never opened, replicate Californian shopping centers, albeit much larger, of course.

Individual house designs in housing subdivisions are now provided almost instantly with new software sold by American companies (but reportedly created by Pinoy
architects working in New Delhi). In the boondocks civil engineers now sign architectural drawings. Apparently engineers still outnumber architects and an adequate
number still practice in the provinces.

Filipino landscape architects design all the new mega-resorts on Vietnams lush beaches and coastal South Africa, while Metro Manila is a hodgepodge of urban
designs rehashed from coffee-table books brought back by project managers of real estate firms. Filipino planners in Singaporean firms are designing post-Castro
Cuban housing estates and new cruise-center destinations.

Interior design in the Philippines is the best of New York and Paris mixed with the worst of Shanghai. Philippine building materials have disappeared as no one
wants to manufacture locally. Cebuano furniture makers are now in Chinese factories using Philippine wood, bamboo and rattan harvested from the one million
hectares of Philippine land given to the Chinese in 2007.

Philippine architecture has disappeared. No new book on Filipino architecture has come out since 2008 and that was a retrospective of Leandro Locsins work
funded by a German university. The curriculum in schools of architecture has minimized Philippine architectural history to just part of the course in Asian
architecture. It will be an elective next year.

Licenses are now given for proficiency in drafting and design for foreign building types in foreign climates. Regular architectural licenses are still available but there
are fewer takers in the context of the revised professional practice law that recognizes licenses from GATT-compliant countries.

To quote architect Antonio Triangulo as he signed his last sheet of drawings, Today Filipino creativity (employed by multinational consulting firms) builds the fantasy
settings for the worlds most progressive cities. Here at home, progress is measured by which American starchitect allows his or her name to be used in marketing
brochures. Philippine design used to be at the forefront of creative industries. Now Filipinos man the backrooms of countless international design firms. Filipino
architects have no role in todays Philippines and architecture has devolved into a commodity processed for a market dumbed down by marketing strategies, selling
the simulacra of the good life and perpetuating alienation from our own culture.

Maybe thats what Filipinos want. Then no one will mourn the passing of Philippine architecture. It had a good run. On this day of honoring the dead it would be
appropriate to remember when we deigned to design buildings for ourselves, celebrate our brand of urbanity, create our own interior spaces and walk in gardens
nurtured from our own visions of what could be.

***

Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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