Exploring architecture’s place in nation-building

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The "Conjecture" installation from "Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City," the Philippine Pavilllion exhibit for the upcoming 15th Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo by ELVERT C. BAÑARES

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Are we demolishing buildings before we have had the time to fall in love with them?” The architect Leandro Locsin Jr. poses this question, in relation to the upcoming 15th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Held every two years, alternating with the Venice Art Biennale, this event gathers both old and new names in architecture around the world. The Philippines is participating for the first time this year, made possible largely through the efforts of Sen. Loren Legarda, whose work, in part, ended the country’s 51-year hiatus from the Venice Art Biennale last year. Sen. Legarda’s involvement is not surprising, as she has advocated for heritage preservation, calling arts and culture the “hindquarters of our nation-building."

Titled “Reporting from the Front” and curated by the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, 2016’s exhibit will focus on architecture responding to the complexity and variety of its challenges — including but not limited to segregation, inequalities, natural disasters, and peripheries — and addressing a broader audience. It is about architecture, “not as a goal itself, but as a way to improve people’s quality of life.”

venice architecture biennale The "Muhon" exhibit features three sets of models that feature each designated subject's visible, actual progression from dark to light. Photo by ELVERT C. BAÑARES

For its first offering, the Philippine Pavilion is represented by the Leandro V. Locsin Partners (LVLP) and its curatorial team composed of Arch. Sudarshan Khadka Jr., Arch. Juan Paolo dela Cruz, and Locsin, whose proposal was chosen out of 13 total submissions. The final exhibit is called “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City.” Loosely translated, muhon means “place marker” or “monument.” It is a fixed point in space and time, as for staking a claim on a particular place in the universe. For “Muhon,” LVLP, with the help of an advisory council including Patrick Flores, Marian Pastor-Roces, Arch. Tobias Guggenheimer, the urban planner and landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren, and the conservationist architect and honorary ICOMOS member Augusto Villalon, selected nine participants — six architects and three artists — to distill the essence of nine postwar buildings.

Each participant was asked to trace each muhon’s significance and depth in time, and in turn interpret it according to history, modernity, and conjecture. Through a total of 27 works — three interpretations for each of the nine landmarks — and a visible, actual progression from dark to light, “Muhon” attempts to tell a story “of an adolescent city,” one that grapples with its own murky identity, from inspiration to the present shifting context, and finally to personal, open-ended speculation.

venice architecture biennale Tad Ermitaño with his 'muhon,' the Pandacan Bridge. Photo by ELVERT C. BAÑARES  

The nine participating artists and architects and their respective muhon are:

  1. Poklong Anading, artist: KM 0 in Luneta
  2. Eduardo Calma: Philippine International Convention Center
  3. Tad Ermitaño, artist: Pandacan Bridge
  4. LIMA Architecture’s Don Lino and Andro Magat: Makati Stock Exchange
  5. Mañosa & Company, Inc.’s Bambi Mañosa: Coconut Palace
  6. 8x8 Design Studio Co.’s Mary Pearl Robles and Adrian Lorenzo Alfonso: Magsaysay Center
  7. Mark Salvatus, artist: Chinatown
  8. C|S Architecture’s Anna Maria Sy-Lawrence, Charm Cua Cabredo, Regina Sofia Gonzalez, Luther Maynard Sim, Mervin Afan, Lea Celestial, Katrin Ann P. de Leon, Philip Mendoza, Raquel G. Orjalo, Karen Tillada: Pasig River
  9. Jorge Yulo: Mandarin Hotel

The Philippines’s participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale is particularly important, in light of a seemingly fragile heritage and its lack of specificity. As Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras put it, “Culture is a unifying force to strengthen national pride.” It establishes a stronger international presence, because we know who we are, and enables national development, because we know who we want to be. If our past is untraceable because of a careless destruction of heritage, how can we hope to move forward?

Beyond culture and national identity, Felipe M. de Leon Jr., chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and commissioner of the Philippine Pavilion, considers architecture a means to create sacred spaces. “Could sublime architecture potentially save lives?” he asks, pointing to a study in 2008 where a loud environment produced a 65 percent more negative effect on mentally ill people. According to de Leon, architects have a big role in shaping humanity, amid the tension between heritage conservation and the pressure to modernize. Massimo Roscigno, the Italian ambassador in Manila, connects architecture and society, with a general emphasis on ethics versus aesthetics, and the need for human interaction amid and with these urban spaces. Architecture’s highest calling these days, it seems, is to improve one’s quality of life.

PICC, Eduardo Calma.jpg Eduardo Calma's subject is the Philippine International Convention Center, tracing its significance according to history, modernity, and conjecture. Photo by ELVERT C. BAÑARES  

In light of the relative absence of value or even a specific answer to what Filipino architecture really is, “Muhon” aims to finally spark relevant national conversation, to address “the apathy of a seemingly disinterested public.” By reclaiming both history and memory, in the form of the monuments that we create and leave behind, there is the hope of an emerging heritage, one that is clearer and easier to claim.

Locsin shares a Latin expression, “Finis ab origine pendet.” “The end depends upon the beginning.” And as far as this nation is concerned, it is never too late to start.

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The Philippine Pavilion, with its first participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale, will hold its vernissage on May 27 and will open from May 28 to Nov. 27 at the Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy.