One man's quest to define ‘Filipino architecture’

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The Mañosa residence in Alabang. From the EDSA Shrine to the Coconut Palace, architect Francisco "Bobby" Mañosa’s body of work bears an unmistakable local imprint, borne out of his relentless drive to define what makes our architecture Filipino. Photo courtesy of MAÑOSA & COMPANY

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — You might have not known it, but if you traverse the city on a daily basis, you’ve been in one of architect Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa’s creations.

It might be the EDSA Shrine near Ortigas, or the LRT 1 station, with its provincial house-like roofing, along Taft. Mañosa’s influence is deeply felt in architecture today, being an early proponent for instilling Filipino culture in buildings and other structures.

The recently concluded exhibit “Mañosa: Beyond Architecture” at the National Museum was a comprehensive walkthrough of architect Bobby Mañosa’s stellar career. On view were his drawings and original concepts for other landmark projects, from the Banaue Rice Terraces-inspired San Miguel Building along Ortigas Center, the casitas of Amanpulo overlooking the Sulu Sea, to the salakot-shaped dome roof of the iconic Coconut Palace.

San Miguel Building.jpg The San Miguel Building along Ortigas Center, inspired by the Banaue Rice Terraces. Photo courtesy of MAÑOSA & COMPANY

Throughout his career, Mañosa sought to define Filipino architecture. His works have been a showcase of local culture, as seen in the indigenous fabrics used in the interiors of the Coconut Palace and the translation of the bahay kubo structure in his own home in Alabang. This innate curiosity shaped his body of work and at 85, Mañosa’s achievements almost equate that of a National Artist’s, his imprint easily recognizable and his influence translated to architects working today, such as with Jason Buensalido and Manny Miñana.

But Mañosa wasn’t just an architect. He is also a toymaker and an avid jazz fan — he was even in a jazz band once. These were passions that shaped his personality; his creative instincts always striving, ultimately, to celebrate the life of the people who will be inhabiting his designs.

Coconut Palace Tahanang Filipino, also known as the Coconut Palace used indigenous materials such as engineered coconut lumber, coconut bark wallpaper, and coconut shell inlays — materials that were produced specifically for the project. Photo courtesy of MAÑOSA & COMPANY

Today, Mañosa and Company continues his work. Despite being slowed down by health issues, he is still active in the company, now run by his children Dino, Angelo, and Bambi.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with his wife Denise, who is the executive director of the social responsibility arm of Mañosa and Company, and his daughter Bambi, who is responsible for the firm’s interior design and the educational foundation, in their spacious home — breezy despite the summer heat, perfectly demonstrating why the pattern of the bahay kubo is perfect for our tropical climate — and discussed the crazy tours Architect Bobby gave of their home, the Filipino-inspired toys he made for his children, and his legacy. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Architect Bobby is known for his quote, “Architecture must be true to itself, to its land and its people.” How did this translate into his work?

Denise Mañosa: He wouldn’t do a project, even though how much we needed it, if it was not Filipino. He would turn it down. When people would come to him, “I want this Tuscany looking [house],” He’d say, I have classmates who’d make the job. And he would really refer. It was really something that even we would tell him, sige na Bobby, you know we’re already dying here [Laughs]. No, he would just be very strict about it. He says he’s Filipino, he just practices Filipino.

When I married him, he was with his three brothers in the Mañosa Brothers [firm], and he would sometimes come home and be so frustrated, “I was trying to convince this client to do Filipino … and they don’t want [it] … and instead of my brothers supporting me, they’d say, Bobby leave it na. Give in na to what they want. That was his frustration. It was when they finally decided to go their own ways that he started to pick up on all the Filipino [designs] that he could do.

Denise Mañosa "He wouldn’t do a project, even though how much we needed it, if it was not Filipino," says Denise Mañosa of her husband's pursuit of Filipino architecture. "He would turn it down." Photo by JL JAVIER

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: I think it all boils down to love of country. He had this philosophy that he lived by. When you go to Japan, you know it’s Japanese architecture right? He’s saying in the Philippines, we have Filipino cuisine, Filipino music, Filipino art, you can tell that it is, but what happened to the architecture? His philosophy pretty much stems from the bahay kubo, which is a structure that has been around for many years, and it works for our country because of the climate and the culture, so this is how he evolved. He said he was always in search of the Filipino identity and what makes architecture Filipino.

And it’s not just doing it crudely, the bahay kubo way. You have to elevate it. Elevate the people, elevate the culture, the elements, then mix it with technology, the materials. He loved looking for new materials. Say like, if it's capiz and it's like the regular capiz that we all know, he would always question, what’s next for capiz? What can we do? He liked to push the material to the next level. And he loved working with craftsmen because he would excite them into creating something new. It was his job to push it to the client. Part of his, I guess, success in his practice, was having clients who trusted him, those who believed in pushing Filipino culture.

Was there ever a point or event in his life that made him focus on Filipino architecture?

Denise Mañosa: I remember when we were newly married, he had gone right after college, because his father believed that they should go one year somewhere in the world, and he chose Japan. I think he was in Japan in 1954 or 1955, and that’s funny because we had just come out of the war, we had suffered a lot, but he chose Japan and he would always tell me, the Japanese, [when] you look at them, they have the same house, the executive and the street sweeper go home to the same type of house, they have the same tatami, same soji, except one is bigger, more elaborate, but it’s the same.

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: It’s the DNA.

Denise Mañosa: And he was always fascinated by their design, how far reaching they were and he said [however] you look at them, even how modern it is, you know it’s Japanese. So he was saying why can’t the Filipino be that way. So if you look at what is a universal house for the Philippines, it’s the bahay kubo. If you ask somebody who’s not an artist to draw a house, usually it’s a bahay kubo that you end up drawing.

His idol architect was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was very influenced by the Japanese, he was also into the indoor outdoor … and looking into the bahay kubo, it’s really indoor-outdoor, eh. It’s [the] openness, big windows, sometimes it has the balkonahe. He says I think that’s really Asian because Asians like to be with nature, especially the Japanese.

Manosa Toys A selection of Mañosa's toy designs, which were inspired by Filipino culture. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

How did this passion transfer to his family, especially to his children?

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: I think it was subliminal, it wasn’t a deliberate transfer. But when we were abroad, I would point at something and say, ‘Oh wow its so nice,’ and he’ll ask, what about it that you like? Then I would explain. And he would say, if you were to put that in the Philippines, how would you make it Filipino? So I guess it’s the consciousness that if you’re going to do something here, bring out the Filipino-ness and don’t take something foreign and just copy it. He always said copying is a pep pill that makes architects brave in design because they’re just copying, they’re not creating. For him, it should innovate, and create, and level it up.

But he was never one who said, “This and nothing else!” They would go to Germany for Toy Fair in February and he would come back with new stuff for us. It was knowing how to appreciate but when it’s something you have to create for your own, do something that will uplift your country. So it was more like inspiration.

Bambi Mañosa "For him it was more like a passion than work," says Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco of her father's practice. "He said he never felt like he worked a day in his life because it always excited him." Photo by JL JAVIER

What was it like growing up in this house?

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: The first year we moved in this house, the first two years were really intense. When he would tour people, it was busloads of students, architects … every single weekend … I was a teenager … there comes a point when you go out at night and you just want to sleep in the next day, but no, we had to be up. That was a subliminal part of our training, we had to be up by 6:30 or 7 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays because there would be tour groups. Our rooms had to be spic and span.

We grew up never being able to put stickers in our cabinets [laughs]. All my Duran-Duran posters were inside my closet [laughs]. Our house was always ready for anybody. We even had a bunch of artistas out there! “Bam, andiyan si Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion sa labas! They want to come in!” Everyone was ready all the time. The DOT [Department of Tourism] also used the house as a venue for foreign guests because they said it would be nice to host them in a Filipino home rather than in a hotel.

So he really made it the model home for his practice...

Denise Mañosa: It was his marketing tool! [Laughs] It really was. When people would ask him [about Filipino architecture, he would say], “You come to our house!” It’s always been an open house to everybody. For guests, for parties. In the first year, we were entertaining at least three to four times a week. And it was not easy at that time because [there wasn't] a grocery nearby in Alabang! We had to go all the way to Makati! This was all bukid! [Laughs] He really built the house for entertainment.

Is this still ongoing?

Denise Mañosa: No more. The house is so tired [Laughs]!

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: It’s been featured over and over! We’re still being asked. But we stopped it when my dad fell ill. He’s recovering. And when he knows people are here he’s gonna want to come. We just want him to relax [laughs].

Bobby Mañosa The living room of the Mañosa residence in Alabang. The house is mainly made of wood and is an interconnected structure from the welcome landing, to the patio, and to the bedrooms. Photo by JL JAVIER

Denise Mañosa: He’d get intense [when there would be tours]. Make sure that this is this! You’re always on your toes to make sure that everything is perfect. He always wanted to give the experience.

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: He likes touring his clients in their new house and explain to them what was done there. He enjoyed that. He was like an events organizer. He wanted a total experience from the time you come into his office, he would excite you about what he could do for you.

What are the projects that architect Bobby was really fond of?

Denise Mañosa: One is definitely the Coconut Palace. It was not very often that you have a client who says “Basta gawin mo lang, bahala ka.” At that time there were no books on Filipino fabrics or indigenous design. I was doing the research [Laughs]. What is Filipino? What are you going to highlight? It was not easy but it was exciting. And a lot of products came out because of that.

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: When people would ask about my dad’s best project, he would always say, “The next one.” Every project for him was the best and the most exciting. He was always looking forward to what was the next and to create something new. He had this attitude that whatever the project that comes in is the most important project.

For him it was more like a passion than work. He said he never felt like he worked a day in his life because it always excited him. I think that’s one of the things that translated to us kids, that we don’t feel like we’re working. The three of us are together in one office, my mom’s there for the Foundation when she comes. Our work is part of our life, it’s part of who we are and I guess it’s the same way that it’ll translate to the grandkids, to their generation.

Bobby Mañosa Architect Bobby Mañosa with his wife denise and daughter Bambi at their home in Alabang. Photo by JL JAVIER

What do you think is his biggest influence in the architectural community?

Denise Mañosa: I think the recognition for Philippine architecture.

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: He really pushed for designing Filipino and the search for Filipino identity. And I think at that time, he was the only one really going out of his way to lecture and speak to students that it came to a point that someone mentioned to us, in their architecture test, “The father of Filipino architecture,” which was like a multiple choice question, the correct answer is my dad. Without even us knowing parang, “Oh really? He’s there?” [Laughs].

He would go to the extent of, “You know who I want to talk to? The mayors! I want to talk to them why they have to make sure that their place looks Pinoy. I want to talk to the congressmen who make these laws. Why can’t all government buildings have a mandate that it has to be Filipino architecture?” He always had this dream, I guess, to elevate the Philippines and [take out the]colonial mentality that anything that’s out there [outside the country] is better.

Were there practices that were adopted by other architects?

Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco: Yes. A lot of those who worked with him. Because he used to be the only one who would do houses with the salakot on top and everybody identified that with my dad. And slowly would see it more. People would ask that, “Hey did you do that house?” Actually, no. I told my dad that there’s someone copying, and he would say “That’s good! That’s the idea. Let them get inspired.” It’s our job to think whats next.