The buildings that represent the Filipino

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The Metropolitan Museum of Manila’s “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City” explores the past, the present, and the future of nine place-markers and monuments of our urban landscape. In photo (from left): Ed Calma's PICC, Mark Salvatus' Chinatown, Mañosa & Co.’s Coconut Palace, Jorge Yulo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Poklong Anading's Kilometer Zero (hanging), 8x8 Design Studio’s Ramon Magsaysay Center, Tad Ermitaño’s Pandacan Bridge, Lima Architecture’s Makati Stock Exchange, and C|S Design Consultancy’s Pasig River. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The exhibition “Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila was originally staged at the 15th Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2016. It was the first time the Philippines participated. Other first-timers included Nigeria, Yemen, and the Seychelles.

This understanding of the self seems to be one of the exhibition’s top priorities. The Philippine pavilion is divided into three rooms: History, Modernity, and Conjecture. Each room contains nine “muhon,” monuments or place-makers. According to the curators, the construction of a muhon is an “act of affirming one’s existence; it conveys the concept of staking claim to a place in the universe.” Primarily, the exhibition posits that “the interpretation of the built environment is a critical method of understanding oneself.”

At the exhibition opening last Oct. 26, the most iterant buzzwords, from speakers from government and the curators themselves, included identity, culture, heritage, and progress. Consider this description of the exhibition’s aims in the curator’s notes: to “elicit conjectures that wrestle with the diametrically opposed vectors of progress and of permanence in relation to corresponding notions of modernity and an emerging individuality” and to “make sense of the implications of the careless destruction of cultural heritage and the relative lack of social consciousness about the issue.”

It’s the a priori problematique in the Philippine pavilion. The Self here refers to an imagined unique Filipino identity. You might be surprised that this jerk-reflex dedication to explicitly represent a national self isn’t necessarily a common thread across the biennale's national pavilions.

Calling Manila an 'adolescent city' serves to reinforce this view. The curators — fellows from the architecture firm Leandro C. Locsin Partners: Sudarshan Kadka, Jr., Juan Paolo de la Cruz, and Leandro Locsin, Jr. — refer to Manila as a city “in flux,” one that is “confronting an identity crisis,” and “growing at a frenetic pace” since World War II. 

Photo-9 (7).jpg The Conjecture room of the exhibition is white and bright. The muhon stand on a floor of white pebbles. The ambience is decidedly zen. On one wall, videos are projected in the format of the nine-square grid. Photo by JL JAVIER

In the biennale in Venice, the Chilean curator Alejandro Aravena’s proposal was to “widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond,” and to include, apart from matters of aesthetics and design, those that are political, social, economic, and environmental. (Case in point: The best participation was awarded to the Spanish pavilion, which featured a series of photographs of unfinished construction projects that were left in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.) That year’s staging was reported to have been “one of the most socially charged architecture biennales.”

In light of this, the Filipino curators’ attention was directed to the practical limits of the National Cultural Heritage Act (RA 10066), which stipulates that 50-year-old buildings, those designed by a National Artist, and significant waterfronts, parks, and public plazas qualify as cultural heritage and thus presumed to have protected status. They cite widespread violations of height limitations, sight line restrictions, and land use regulations. They also point out that public attitudes toward heritage are still immature.

The curators set off to conduct a survey of the Manila cityscape and shortlisted what they called “endangered urban features” and some 40 to 50-year-old structures. Among these were landmarks such as the Pasig River, the Makati Stock Exchange building, Chinatown, and others. Six architects and three visual artists were chosen to participate “based on their track record of thinking deeply about identity and the urban condition and evidence in their work of an intuitive ability to address these issues in their own practices.” Each picked a building or location to reinterpret as a muhon.

The participants and their muhon are Poklong Anading’s Kilometer Zero in Luneta, Tad Ermitaño’s Pandacan Bridge, Mark Salvatus’ Chinatown, Ed Calma’s PICC, Jorge Yulo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 8x8 Design Studio’s Ramon Magsaysay Center, C|S Design Consultancy’s Pasig River, Lima Architecture’s Makati Stock Exchange, and Mañosa & Co.’s Coconut Palace.

EC1.jpg The curators of the exhibition conducted a survey of the Manila cityscape and shortlisted what they called “endangered urban features” and some 40 to 50-year-old structures. In photo: Lima Architecture’s Makati Stock Exchange (left) and Tad Ermitaño’s Pandacan Bridge (right). Photo by JL JAVIER

The resulting exhibition shows the muhon — which, in this context, are sculpture, video installations, or assemblages of ready-mades — placed in a fairly straightforward grid of nine squares per room. One moves through the rooms to discover the muhon in a place in time — the past, the present, and the future.

The History room is dark and almost reverent, as if built as an idealized showcase of anthropological feats. The Modernity room is a hall of mirrors. You see your reflection from across the room as you inspect each muhon. It’s a jazzy room, perhaps illustrating both the requisite glossiness commanded by contemporary taste and its carnivalesque tendencies. The Conjecture room is white and bright. The muhon stand on a floor of white pebbles. The ambience is decidedly zen. On one wall, videos are projected in the format of the nine-square grid. Clips show research and documentation on the building of each muhon.

In effect, the rooms instruct the architects and artists to make three variations on a theme. And while each of their chosen landmarks is distinct, similar movements are to be expected in each room. The History room, for example, allows the architects to geek out on a work of architecture as artifact, and commune as if telepathically with those that preceded them. The Makati Stock Exchange building (1971), the PICC (1976), and the Mandarin Oriental (1976) were all designed by Leandro V. Locsin, and the Ramon Magsaysay Center (1967) was by Arturo Luz, both recognized as National Artists. The History room would flaunt the architectural merits of these buildings, and how these were trailblazing structures of the time.

With the Mandarin Oriental muhon, for example, Jorge Yulo was consumed by what he calculated to be the imperfect angles of the structure. “I can only guess at the reason why Locsin would allow a visually unnoticeable imperfection … Perhaps the subtle and hidden changes in the angles of the column bays from the different elevations is what subliminally gives the building a feeling of movement, a momentary connection to the ground pivotal as it stands in its landmark intersection,” he says.

Photo-11 (12).jpg The exhibition shows the muhon — which, in this context, are sculpture, video installations, or assemblages of ready-mades — placed in a fairly straightforward grid of nine squares per room. Photo by JL JAVIER

The others would find themselves drawing inspiration not only from the structure, but also the building materials, signaling a shift from architecture to craft. Apart from the many hexagonal clusters in the blueprint of the Coconut Palace, the architects of Mañosa & Co. appropriated coconut-derivate and other indigenous materials. Their muhon in the Modernity room makes use of mahogany fruit, banana stalks, capiz shells, mother of pearl, and wood chips interlaid as hexagonal disks.

The Modernity room is also where architects are somehow moved to make a critique on architecture conventions and trends. Ed Calma’s plain concrete muhon is a commentary on homogenized design that eschews human needs. Similarly, 8x8 Design Studio presents the Ramon Magsaysay Center as a negative space, a displaced structure that has been reduced to a façade and diminished by more imposing objects around it, simultaneously alluding to the juncture in the life of pioneering buildings, where the commercial value of the land a structure sits on may outweigh the commercial value of the structure itself.  

In the Conjecture room, similar takes on a future of the built environment also abound, such as identical notions about the “opening up” of structures. The Ramon Magsaysay Center is presented as the exposed skeleton of a building, and imagined as an amorphous space that can shift from an emergency evacuation center to a pop-up market. The Mandarin Oriental muhon, too, envisions one facet of the structure as a void intended to be a public space.

In the exhibition catalog, curator and professor Patrick Flores wrote the essay “'Shrine and Shanty' and Some Fixes,” which discusses the participation of visual artists Anading, Ermitaño, and Salvatus in the architecture exhibition. About Salvatus’ Chinatown muhon, which feature an amalgam of hardware materials, Flores writes: “Salvatus pursues the impulse and logic of diskarte (strategy or even skippership) in the mold of a bricoleur who salvages and renovates (in contrast to the desire to innovate and the propensity to exhaust) the ‘actually existing’ so that it could recover from it the past of its currency, its progressive tense, as well as the modifier of this state, the adverb that takes it to a possible future.” In Flores, an unexplored talking point about Salvatus’ muhon is precisely what he tangentially postulates as possible future.

EC2.jpg The rooms — History, Modernity, and Conjuncture — instruct the architects and artists to make three variations on a theme. And while each of their chosen landmarks is distinct, similar movements are to be expected in each room. In photo: CS Design Consultancy’s Pasig River (left) and Ed Calma's PICC. Photo by JL JAVIER

Salvatus’ conjecture is transparent, rife with ubiquitous imagery, and in fact far from hidden from the everyday life of those that dwell in cities. Is Salvatus a prophet with a warning or a cynical fatalist? One can only effectively view him as the former not when what is acknowledged is the unflagging resilience of the trickster, but more importantly the capitalist-driven agenda that is cast over what brutally systematic forces would reduce as a handful of small lives.

With regard to Ermitaño’s mixed media sculptures that appropriate Pandacan Bridge trolleys, Flores seems to at once caution and praise. “He aestheticizes the object as well as the milieu through both sculpture and high-definition video, an act that teeters on that delicate line between exoticism and pornography, the incomprehensibility and the excess of the actual. It can be argued that it is only in this manner and mode that the rules of the game could be rewritten … While the reference is sordid, the artifice is sleek and intricate and fastidious, a tribute to his capacity to remaster a code and revive a wretched apparatus.”

What is unclear here is why Flores underlines revival, when Ermitaño’s found trolleys were functioning before they were chopped up and transposed in the gallery setting. However, one of the most compelling potentials of this chopping up is how it is mimetic of Ermitaño’s documentation of families dismantling their makeshift homes. His conjecture hints at both and open end and a cruel cycle. What is revived here is not so much the apparatus, but the persistent reality that this age of novelty would dismiss as old news.

Finally about Anading’s Kilometer Zero muhon, installations that feature photographs and videos, Flores writes, “He is, therefore, an animator, one who enlivens and restores vitality, with both melancholy and urgency, to that which has been instrumentalized by meer use and sheer consumption. For him, the citizens of a burdened habitat like the city need to weave narrations of their experiences, their affects, how they live it out every day and therefore in history. The artist thus infuses belief into built environments that may have rigidified as official monuments.”

What Flores points out here is indeed easily discernible in Anading. In an exhibition where genius loci is a sacred argument for conservation, Anading’s appeal to emotion doesn’t get stuck in the realm of nostalgia.

***

“Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City” is co-presented by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda. The exhibit is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila until Dec. 29, 2017.