WHY don’t we have the grand and monumental structures such as the Borobudur temple (9th century) in Indonesia, the Angkor Wat (12th century) of Cambodia, and the ancient pagodas of Vietnam? What did we have to show for when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century? Is there Philippine Architecture or may be described better as Architecture in the Philippines? This is a strong sentiment among many Filipinos since we as a Filipino people are continuously looking for our identity as a nation.
There are two distinct traits in Filipino culture: the flamboyant colorful and lively fiesta attitude which is reflected in our numerous local town fiestas such as the “Pahiyas festival” in the Quezon province –people in the cities decorate their houses and their costumes with “kiping,” a leaf-shaped wafer made of rice paste—and the “Magara” collection displays in our old Filipino-Spanish houses (i.e ceramic china tea pots and utensil are displayed but not used); and the appreciation of Animism and spiritual symbolism that is innate in the Filipino culture.
In religion we often see the unique devotion to the Santo Nino and the Nazareno, which some may call as “folk Catholicism.” For Filipino folklore, we have the “agimats” and the “diwatas.”
Whenever we talk about Philippine Architecture, we immediately imagine the “bahaykubo” or the “bahay na bato” of the Batanes Islands. It is culturally and geographically distinctive. It is made with local materials that are designed to adapt in the geographic climate: the kubo’s stilt design is for the flooding and stone houses for wind speed. Some historians will also include in the fray of the discussion the old Ilustrado houses that we deem Spanish, such as the houses in Ilocos Sur, Bulacan, and Batangas. These houses are actually a modernized/Hispanized version of the “bahaykubo”! Both dwellings use the ground floor as the entrance and storage area (i.e ancient Filipinos place their chicken and pigs below) and the second floor is the main area of the home.
But a good question out of these modest bits of history: Is there such a thing as purely Filipino architecture? Or is it instead proper to say that Filipino architecture could be found in the mixing of the various influences such as the early Arab tradesmen, Malay, the Chinese, Spanish, Dutch, American, and Japanese, and including the influences the millions of Filipino expatriates bring home to our country?
A more essential question is: What is the Filipino Identity?
Toward national identity
When I was fortunately included to help bring Dubai from a 3rd world nation into the 21st century back in 1977, the sheik instructed the team to develop Dubai without losing its sense of identity and culture. In that challenge, I realized that maybe architecture itself is an assimilation of the best practices of the world. It is taking specific materials to compliment specific designs that are apt to the context of that generation’s needs and behavior.
The history of the Philippines will also tell us that we can say that as early as the 9th century, we have been one of the first global villages of the world. Rooting from Malays who migrated, we interacted with many cultures through trade. We are one young nation. Global influences have continuously assimilated with our local culture. Is the “bahaykubo” concept purely Filipino, as is the “bahay na bato”? Then I will go back again to the reflection regarding the localness and globalness of architecture. Architecture in modern lingo is something we call ‘glocal.’ It is ever evolving and would continue to do so, because it is made to adapt to contextual needs. But metaphorical symbolisms may be other issues that are debatable and up for discussion. Buildings, more than physical expressions of an identity, are also highly-functional and economical. Also, highly-functional does not mean cheap or aesthetically bland, but the beauty and contemplative nature of the building is part of its suggestive nature.
National identity I believe is taking form in the strength of the culture while being able to assimilate to the strengths of other cultures. There should be a balance. It is being able to design inclusive buildings that can inspire unity, even in diversity. National architecture for me is architecture that can bring a community together because of good planning, in such a way that it encourages social interaction and care for one another–even if the people are strangers to each other.
What kind of architecture can we truly and proudly call our own? This article is not meant to dictate or impose a specific design, rather it invites the citizens to reflect on the questions that were raised. We should continuously ask ourselves, what does being Filipino mean? What is to be Filipino? Then slowly, we can start expressing those sentiments in the concrete physical form of our buildings.