What is Filipino architecture supposed to look like?

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The National Museum of Fine Arts, aka the National Art Gallery, is housed in the Legislative Building, which was designed by Juan Arellano. Photo by ELMER B. DOMINGO/CC BY-SA 3.0

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Where are you from?”

For the last seven years I’ve spent living overseas, I’ve grown used to this question. I am one of those people whose eyes are of a nondescript shape and color and whose nose hints of diluted Western descent, but whose unbleached hair classifies me under the general umbrella of “Asian.”

“You don’t look Filipino.”

“What is Filipino supposed to look like?”

Little do these strangers know that their genuine intrigue in my less than ripe tan has fueled a full-blown identity crisis. I am often confronted with the contrast between where I am and where I come from. I find myself wanting to reconcile the compulsion to assimilate with a neo-nationalistic desire to be a modern-day ilustrado.

Built in neoclassical architecture in 1926, the Manila Central Post Office was designed by Juan Arellano and Tomás Mapúa. Photo by SEAMANWELL/CC BY-SA 3.0

Having studied architecture in Australia, I’ve struggled to distinguish what a distinct Filipino style is, and — perhaps less existentially — what it is supposed to look like. On every visit back to the city that raised me, I search the skyline for clues. Crowded as the metro already is, I’m never not surprised by how abundantly and quickly buildings sprout in Manila. Once more vacant corners of the city have become breeding grounds for real estate developments. The city has happily embraced the glass-encased tower, the most familiar architectural typology of any metropolis. Our shopping-mall-to-person ratio is arguably among the lowest in the world. In the newer parts of the city, there are also attempts to import current worldwide architectural trends. Among them are funky facade treatments and Zaha Hadid-esque iterations my trained professional vocabulary can only call stripey curving windows. Even the MMDA is having its own go at the “green wall.” All indicate a city striving to speak the language of a global metropolis, an infrastructure some welcome as development.

While there’s a small guilty pleasure in seeing a photo of the Manila skyline looking akin to one of our more prosperous Asian neighbors, it doesn’t quite lend itself to a discerning classification of “Filipino architecture.” The sheer number and growing mass of glass and concrete prove jarring to any version of a style I can recognize as the vernacular. It feels lost somewhere between the strain to fit as many units as possible on a floor, as many floors as possible in a building, and as many buildings as possible on a plot. It seems hidden somewhere behind a zig-zaggy clipped-on facade or the latest Marie France endorsement.

A Philippine art deco building inaugurated in 1931, the Manila Metropolitan Theater was designed by Juan Arellano. Photo by PATRICK ROQUE/CC BY-SA 3.0

Not finding viable contenders in the business districts, I’m drawn to joining the nostalgia bandwagon of Old Manila. Here, both prominent and hidden prewar buildings appropriate the neoclassical and art deco styles of the time. Juan Arellano and Tomás Mapúa designed such crowd favorites as the Central Post Office Building, the Metropolitan Theater, and the Legislative Building, which now houses the National Museum. Later down the century came UP Diliman, where I first had my formal introduction to Filipino architecture.

Don’t let the tired-looking buildings fool you — this campus is littered with mid-century gems by the influential architect Cesar Concio and the National Artist Juan Nakpil. Quezon Hall, Palma Hall, Melchor Hall, and the Church of the Risen Lord are International Movement icons in concrete. They present cues of historically prevalent styles translated into our tropical and cultural context. It’s in Arellano’s native interpretation of art nouveau, the capiz details in Mapua’s work, Concio’s adaptation of shapes to suit our climate, and Nakpil’s tweaking of stateside sensibilities to the local context, thereby giving rise to a site that to this day serves as an interesting living museum of architecture of the time.

The Administration Building of UP Diliman, aka Quezon Hall, was designed by Juan Nakpil, who was hailed as a National Artist for Architecture in 1973. Photo by RAMON FVELASQUEZ/CC BY-SA 3.0

The UP Diliman College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, aka Palma Hall, was designed by Cesar Concio, the same architect behind Melchor Hall and the Church of the Risen Lord inside the UP campus. Photo by RAMON FVELASQUEZ/CC BY-SA 3.0

What becomes clear is that Filipinos are not foreign to painting with an international palette. After all, our first batch of architects were Filipinos who, by will or some force, were flung to a foreign land, acquainted with a grammar of style not indigenous to their own, and able to bring it home as cultural pasalubong. What is less clear is why these 20th-century buildings feel closer to a Filipino identity than the similarly globalized buildings of today. In the case of the Nakpils and the Mapúas of the time, their exodus appeared to add texture to Filipino architecture. In today’s experience, a trip overseas (or a look around the Internet) may inform the next mall design, but it will be at the expense of diluting a distinct local architectural identity.

Maybe it’s not in the buildings, but in the question that the clues reveal themselves. Asking what “Filipino” is supposed to look like invites someone else to make your case. And our culture being as soluble to external influences as it is, it just makes us more inclined to assimilate rather than cultivate. While there’s nothing wrong with elevating Filipino architecture to the global arena, it is up to us to break away from our postcolonial habit of looking to the outside world to pattern what our identity is meant to look like. I suppose the dream is to define a certain architectural vernacular that reconciles our cultural ambiguity in parameters that would be recognizable as “Filipino” from both local and international points of view. Perhaps, when it is my turn for my own homecoming, I’ll be closer to concluding my identity crisis. But until then I remain, like our nondescript building facades, neither here nor there.