Manila Modern

[Voon Wong]
The Main Building (Tanghalang Pambansa) of the Cultural Center of the Philippines

Viewport’s recent trip to Manila was for something a bit more obvious – we are developing a furniture collection for a client and we were taking a look at some rattan manufacturers, a key industry in the Philippines. But any visit is always an excuse to take in some of the work by Leandro Locsin, (1928 – 1994) the most important and prolific of Filipino architects in the 20th century. A talented pianist, he decided a year before finishing his degree at a music conservatory to make a shift to architecture. On a trip to the US in the 1950s he met up with his architectural heroes (and certainly two of our favourites): Paul Rudolph and Eero Saarinen. Their use of concrete and arching structural curves went on to define Locsin’s work back in the Philippines.

In 1969, Imelda Marcos’ drive to beautify Manila (and her shoe closets) was in full swing. Part of this involved commissioning Locsin to design the Cultural Center of the Philippines on a reclaimed spit of land along Manila Bay. Comprising the arresting Theater of Performing Arts, which forms the gateway to the complex, as well as the Folk Arts Theater and the Philippine Convention Center, the CCP is a collection of beautifully composed concrete volumes that draw on the compositional lessons of Minimal Art from the 1960s and 1970s. The blank marble clad box of the Theater of Performing Arts is held aloft by sweeping concrete vaults which in turn rest on an arching ramp that is Manila’s answer to Niemeyer’s Brasilia. Further along this narrow strip, is the severe horizontal concrete bands of the Convention Center, interrupted by glazed strips that separate the concrete bands from each other. Across, the Folk Arts Theater languishes in disrepair. It was built in only seventy-seven days in 1974, just in time for the Miss Universe pageant.

In another suburb of Manila, in the Saint Andrew the Apostle Church, completed a year earlier in 1968, Locsin explored the structural possibilities of concrete: sweeping parabolic curves form the shelter of the church, with the skirts of the curves allowing access to within from all sides. Inside, the ribs of the curved concrete shells draw one’s eyes skyward, interrupted only by a narrow vertical band of stained glass.
Elsewhere in Manila, (particularly in Makati, where Locsin’s friends and patrons the powerful Ayala family held large stakeholdings) are other examples of Locsin’s work. The Stock Exchange Building, the Leandro Locsin Building (yes he had his own office building) and the now demolished Ayala Museum strengthened Locsin’s dominance on Manila’s architectural scene. Here, the repetition and seriality of concrete forms (in the shape of sun-shading fins and in balconies) are again influenced by Minimal Art. A quick drive through the neighbourhoods of Manila City and Makati reveal many works commissioned by the Ayala family as well as by the Filipino government.

Throughout his life he was avidly involved in the art scene of the Philippines and even designed stage sets for dance pioneer Martha Graham in the mid seventies in New York. He was proclaimed a national artist of the Philippines in 1990 and that is where he had based almost his entire career, apart from the largest ever private residence built (hotly debated but it has 1788 rooms) in the 1980s at a cost of $1.4 billion for the Sultan of Brunei. I wonder what the design fee was?

The Niemeyer style driveway up to the entrance
The sweeping concrete curves
A concrete bench within the complex
A view from ground level
The Philippines Convention Centre
A nice bit of black glass
Another view of the Convention Centre
The entrance to the church
Some palm trees always help
The side of the Saint Andrew The Apostle Church
Other typical Locsin buildings in the city