WHEN faced with difficult challenges in my profession as an architect and urban planner, I often go back to a reflection one of my professors in Harvard shared during our class: “You may be the best architect in the world… But if you work in a society that doesn’t address corruption, criminality, the environment, poverty and pollution, [you have the duty]to be an architectural activist.” Through my professional practice, I am constantly given an opportunity to guide business leaders and decision-makers in learning from past mistakes. I am constantly given an opportunity to convince them to adopt principles that champion humanity, a higher quality of life, and ecological balance.
Being an architectural activist is not for the faint of heart. It involves battling the giants out there. Like for example, the international media came to meet me when I gave up $1 million in architect’s fees for a six-star hotel that wanted us to destroy 366 700-year-old trees in Subic. I returned the contract, and then when I was threatened with libel cases and death threats, I exposed it and then I got the protection of the international community.
Corruption, as I learned from the seminary, comes from two Latin words “cor” or the heart and “rupture” or breaking down together. With the prevalence of corruption, we seem to live in a country or society with a broken heart. In order to maximize the potential of our country and put the Philippines in the top 20 economies of the world by 2021, we must effectively address corruption, climate change and criminality.
Putting principles to practice
In our company we have core values: honesty, integrity, professionalism, caring for the environment, and business orientation. In everything we do, we have more than a triple bottom line: people first, planet earth, and then we can talk about profit. We’ve also added history, heritage and culture, and spirituality. We try to translate these to our architecture, our urban planning and our master planning. I tell my young architects, planners and young designers that every time we draw a line, think of the beneficiary if you do a good design. If you do a lousy design, think of the sufferers. For instance, if you forget to install access for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in your building, one of the sufferers could be your grandmother or grandfather. Mistakes are better made on paper than in concrete.
Gaining its roots from architectural activism, citizen architecture involves the thoughtful plan and design of structures not as solitary entities, but as citizens of the community. Citizen buildings are empathetic structures meant to elevate the community while breathing to their own unique rhythm. Structures are planned and designed to leave a lasting impression while uplifting and inspiring the community. Citizen architecture is not just about boldly fighting against the corrupt, but more importantly, it is about making good planning and good design accessible for all while contributing positively to the community.
One manifestation of good citizen architecture is the plan and design of Rockwell Center in Makati. It is the first master-planned integrated development in the country. We took inspiration from Copley Place in Boston, Embarcadero San Francisco, Canary Wharf London, Pacific Place Hong Kong and of course the origins of Rockefeller Center New York. We visited these places and took lessons from them.
The challenge, in this instance, was to transform a power plant into a functional site. The other challenge was to change its land use from an industrial power plant into a first-class, mixed-use development, which was not yet within our zoning standards at the time. These were new challenges and the positive element was our client, the late Eugenio Lopez Jr. “Geny” Lopez gave us a free hand in applying the best practices in architecture and planning in the Rockwell project. I remember the options we had: To do nothing and just sell the property was the basic option; the second was to design two-story residences similar to the ones found in the adjacent villages; and the third was to make high-rise, mixed-use development, live-work-play-shop-dine and worship in a walkable community, proposing about 15 variations of urban design and architectural concepts.
Moreover, the client allowed us to have more generous open space, so the Rockwell plan had 49 percent open space with only 51 percent saleable area. Indeed, it was a groundbreaking to plan for mixed-use development, integrating a place to live, a place to work, shop, and dine, a place to learn, a place of worship – all within a walkable community. So if you live at Rockwell, all urban amenities for modern living are within reach. In this community, you park and walk. The present urbanscape and the cityscape of Makati and Metro Manila emerged out of this project which is a very positive contribution to the urban design of Makati.
Through the use of different shapes and different forms, we were able to create a dialogue among buildings within Rockwell, from the high to the low rise, projecting the attractiveness of the site through generous spaces in between buildings. A panoramic view framing the Makati and the Ortigas areas, Pasig River, Laguna Lake and the Manila Bay sunset from all points of Rockwell dramatizes the centrality of its location. These resonate lessons learned from the history of architecture which teaches the creation of dialogue in the design of structures. Moreover, the architectural vocabulary of projects, an achievement in Rockwell, should reflect the best practices in the world in a Philippine urban setting.
Citizen buildings are never imposing but always impressive. They should be like the neighbors we always wish we had.