A modern office hidden inside one of Old Manila’s historic buildings

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The windows of the office of the architecture firm 1/0 design collective open up to a striking view of downtown Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — These days, the prospect of opening an office in Escolta would probably be met with worried looks and furrowed brows. Once the premier financial and commercial district of Manila, Escolta is now but a hollow shell of its past, lined with neglected buildings — some of them abandoned because it is more cost-effective to leave them in that state — dilapidated signs, quaint commercial establishments, and busy pedestrians hurrying to and from their destinations, unmindful of the decaying state of history all around them. The past few years have seen a strong movement dedicated to revitalizing the area, with tours and weekend markets along the street, particularly to bring in people who wouldn’t usually think of visiting this side of Manila.

It was during one of these creative bazaars that Jan Carlo San Luis and Angelo Ray Serrano found themselves enamored by Escolta’s old-world allure. Eventually, they opened a small office for their architecture firm, 1/0 design collective, on the fifth floor of the First United Building, which is also home to many creative ventures such as the art collective 98B and Julia Nebrija’s Viva Manila tours.

Angelo Ray Serrano (pictured) and Jan Carlo San Luis didn't have to change much of the original design of their office space. "Before yung glass niya yung parang frosted," Serrano says. "Hindi siya clear, so parang nakakahinayang na frosted yung glass, kasi with that kind of view, hindi mo makikita." Photo by JL JAVIER

The 45-square-meter space has high windows and ceilings. It’s big enough to fit a loft, but San Luis and Serrano didn’t want to interrupt the flow of light coming from the big glass window that acts as a centerpiece of the office. “What we wanted with this [place] is [something] transparent,” Serrano says. “Para you can see the church there. Ayaw namin masyadong mag-build up ng anything distracting; sayang yung view and light.”

San Luis and Serrano are mostly the only ones who use the office, but the strangeness of their address invites clients to seek their headquarters. “Most of them are curious, kasi, ‘Why do you have an office in Escolta,’ ‘di ba?” Serrano says. “Usually pinupuntahan namin yung clients namin kasi ganun naman ngayon eh, you just need a space where you can work, and then you just meet up with clients kung saan man convenient. But yung karamihan sa kanila, surprisingly gusto pumunta dito.”

The inner area of the office has a tall, domed ceiling. Originally, there was a plan to build a loft to maximize space but Serrano and San Luis thought it would make the space feel dark and cramped. Photo by JL JAVIER

Their office is wide enough for its intended use, with big glass tables in the middle and shelves made of steel rods and wooden planks acting as dividers between the working room and the reception area. A smaller room overlooking the street acts as their informal “conference room,” with low wooden chairs and cube shelves lined with magazines and books to spark inspiration when needed.

“Walang masyadong binago,” Serrano shares. “We just added furniture, like yung mga shelves, and painted [them] white. Saka before, yung glass niya yung parang frosted. Hindi siya clear, so parang nakakahinayang na frosted yung glass, kasi with that kind of view, hindi mo makikita. Yung isang glass door, it’s fully painted white; hindi mo kita yung other side.”

Plants and small tabletop home accessories liven the mostly white color scheme of 1/0 design collective's office. Photo by JL JAVIER

Though they’ve been practicing for only two years, their firm has amassed some important projects, such as the winning mixed-income housing design entry in the Clark Podscapes Building Accessible and Liveable Ecologies competition, and the newly transformed Hub: Make Lab on the first floor of the building, the former site of Saturday X Future Market @ Escolta.

As for their choice of office location, Serrano says it reflects so much of what they do: “The people here, 98B, the owners, they’re really passionate about the street, sa Escolta. So we want to be surrounded ng passion nila. Like 98B, they have an artistic approach on a lot of things. So kami, as an architecture office, interesting na nandyan sila kasi they influence us to be not boring. For us, feeling ko after a while you design and then it gets repetitive, [but] having them there, nakakatuwa. It’s more of [a] community.”

The tall shelves in the office are made of steel rods with wooden planks so as to preserve the entry of light and give the room breathing space. Photo by JL JAVIER

The street has its reputation, especially after dark, but Serrano hopes this will change with the efforts of bringing Escolta back to its old charm. “[It can be] scary, actually, kapag gabi,” he admits. “Kahit late afternoon. But I guess kapag nag-pick up na yung Hub, we imagine siya yung mag-i-start ng something with the other buildings kasi the owners aren’t open to changes, bringing new people in.”

One example of that change is Fred’s, a popular drinking place from Cubao X, opening in Hub — a first for the street since building owners prefer not to have something of its kind in the area.

“Once nakita nila na OK yung ginagawa nina Robert [Sylianteng, First United Building’s owner], I’m sure na mahahawa yung mga other buildings around it,” Serrano says. “And when that happens, it will also affect security, yung general atmosphere ng place.”

Serrano hopes that people will look at their office as a symbol of the area’s potential to be a home for creatives who are eager to preserve the city’s rich heritage. “I guess yung whole idea of putting up shop here, kasi hindi talaga common,” he says. “I doubt na unang office space na iisipin mo ay Escolta, pero risking na dito kami nag-put up ng spot, I think it shows a lot about how we deal with our projects, because we’re very passionate about what we do. Kahit wala kaming masyadong kitain diyan, OK lang, basta alam namin na great work yung ginagawa namin.”

Architect Angelo Ray "Arts" Serrano of 1/0 design collective. Behind him is a standee of the King of Comedy, Dolphy, who allegedly used to hold office here. The standee is said to be a remnant of the former tenant. Photo by JL JAVIER


1/0 design collective is located at Unit 514, First United Building, 413 Escolta St., Manila.