What it takes to create good architecture in the Philippines

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At the recent Artkitektura Exhibit Encounters workshop, a clay-making session and a display of “living architecture” present a path to the spiritual. Photo from ARTKITEKTURA/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “It’s a good thing the sun adapted to our workshop,” Reimon Gutierrez announces, commenting on the weather. “Otherwise, our outer forms would have been sweating, and as for our inner forms, well…” He trails off, regarding his class of 20 students at the outdoor pavilion of Vargas Museum in the University of the Philippines Diliman. He’s just concluded his workshop on the philosophy of architect Rudolf Steiner, what he calls a “non-verbal lecture” that involves instructions on the molding of clay. He decides not to comment on the inner form.

At the recent Artkitektura Exhibit Encounters workshop, students were instructed to take their mound of wet clay, provided by the workshop, and mold it by hand into a ball.

“Doesn’t have to be perfect,” Gutierrez tells the class, “just as spherical as you can manage.” They start to work at their stations, wooden tables covered in plastic vinyl, with three or four students to a table. A basin of water sits in the center. After, the students put down their clay spheres and view them from a distance, first their own, and then those of others. Someone whispers, “Hers is good. Has she done this before?”

Gutierrez himself never asks this question, or suggests interest in the artistic or academic background of his students. Whether they are good with clay, or have ostensibly “done this before,” is beside the point.

Gutierrez belongs to a school of thought attributed to Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and architect. This school of thought is called anthroposophy, developed by Steiner at the beginning of the 20 century.

artkitektura4.jpg "When you design, the one thing that you always end up doing is compromise. I know that a lot of architects have the right ideas and all this, but it also takes a whole society to create good architecture," says Reimon Gutierrez, the architect and anthroposophist who led the clay workshop. Photo from ARTKITEKTURA/FACEBOOK

Steiner described anthroposophy in 1924 as a “path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe.” Capitalization is Steiner’s. Time along this path is occupied by activities like the clay workshop, which functions as art therapy for ill and isolated individuals, writes Phoebe Alexander at Anthromed.

The workshop takes place after a guided tour of the museum’s first floor, which has on display significant work by architects from around the world. They are achievements in living architecture, dynamic spaces designed to consider their guests and adapt to their needs.

Randel Urbano of the Vargas Museum highlights Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut in France, the concrete and limestone Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, recreational spaces cast in bamboo by Jean-Marie Tjibaou in Noumea, and the U.K.’s Gherkin. Scale models accompany the displays. There is a display on Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum in Switzerland that calls it a “description of the spiritual world.”

le corbusier.jpg The pilgrimage chapel Notre Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier in Ronchamp, France. It is an example of a living architecture, as its dynamic spaces were designed to consider their guests and adapt to their needs. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

“Spaces should be malleable in their purpose at a particular time,” Urbano tells guests during the tour, echoing the ideals of living architecture. The exhibit argues that the places where we sleep, eat, and work must reflect their purpose, interact with the environment, pulse with life itself. Steiner himself was a proponent of this belief. According to Gutierrez, his clay workshop is this philosophy’s scale model.

CNN Philippines Life spoke to architect, educator, and anthroposophist Reimon Gutierrez to discuss the Steiner philosophy, and how this relates to Philippine architecture. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.  

You’re an architect and you studied architecture in the Philippines. When were you first exposed to the Steiner philosophy? How old were you then?

I was 33, I think. 34. I had a sudden attack of wanting for meaning. And so, I was searching for … What’s the next step for architecture, after doing retail establishments and all of this. I said, there must be something else.

Then one of the questions that really kept bugging me was how space would heal. I saw so many things happening in those days, the ‘90s. [There were] social ills and physical ills. But I also grew up in the era of martial law, and then you see examples of architecture of that time and how they were trying to create something that wasn’t there. Very similar to what’s presented in our exercise — an inner and outer force. So this [exercise] simplifies that whole gesture.

Wild Rendeir Pavilion.jpg The Wild Reindeer Pavilion by Snøhetta in Norway is another example of living architecture. The structure mirrors the curves of the surrounding Dovre Mountains. Photo courtesy of ARTKITEKTURA FESTIVAL

It’s scaled down.

It scales it down to something you can touch and you can say, okay, now I know what they were talking about.

What do local architects have to learn from the philosophy of Steiner? What’s something they can take away and use as practical advice to improve the state of architecture here in the Philippines?

That’s a very loaded question, because when you design, the one thing that you always end up doing is compromise. I know that a lot of architects have the right ideas and all this, but it also takes a whole society to create good architecture.

Please don’t blame the architects for being so bad. Some of them really try, but some of them don’t. It’s a real inner-outer, and you always try to find the balance. So I guess for architecture to thrive, it really needs to find its own space in society, to thrive in this type of dynamic and be relevant.

You seem like a very staunch critic of what goes on in society, and in politics too.

Maybe not a staunch critic, but observer would be good. When you observe, you also become objective. I don’t speak of it in terms of this is bad or good, but this is what’s happening.

It’s journalistic, almost.

Okay, yeah. That’s what’s needed from us. We need to start seeing it as it is, rather than listening to what everyone says. Like in journalism. With ‘fake news’ and all this, there’s also fake architecture.

Tell me about fake architecture.

I guess when it loses its relevance. Like I said, you need to see what society really needs, and say, “I want to contribute to that.”

artkitektura2.jpg "There must be examples of architecture that’s true to all, like the sphere. You knew what the sphere was even before we started. I didn’t need to explain what it was," says Gutierrez. "And if you looked at the class, everyone started doing it. The other [exercises], they really had to go deep within. They needed to, like, define it." Photo from ARTKITEKTURA/FACEBOOK

Brutalist structures, like the Cultural Center of the Philippines or the Vargas Museum, are so clearly influenced by Western ideas that some would argue don’t address the needs of locals. Is that something you refer to when you talk about fake architecture?

Things like those are historical bookmarks. If you were reading the biography of humanity, these things would be important, in the same vein that the pyramids are important. Otherwise, you’d keep doing the same thing. I would say that whatever happened to us on a national scale is also just as important for us as human beings.

There must be examples of architecture that’s true to all, like the sphere. You knew what the sphere was even before we started. I didn’t need to explain what it was. And if you looked at the class, everyone started doing it. The other [exercises], they really had to go deep within. They needed to, like, define it.

On an individual scale, how do you feel Filipinos can be appreciative of architecture, or become in tune with the spaces that we surround ourselves with? And is that even important?

I think so. I think we really need to start learning how to share space ... Having said that, sharing is also in the protecting, not in the destruction of a place. Like trying to own something that should really be shared, for example. Like informal settlers. But also in the same vein, government and businesses do the same thing.

We need more spaces where people could really collaborate and be in harmony, whether it’s for an hour or a day. Those meeting places are disappearing, especially where people are, like in cities.