A silvering of the green — Palafox Associates’ brand of architecture that “designs with nature” has chalked up 25 very successful years. And it all started with a son who was guided towards public service by his doctor father, and towards architecture design by his art teacher mother.
Felino Palafox Jr.’s parents instilled a deep love of God in him and for a time he wanted to be a priest. But he was just like other boys in his seaside village in Baccara, Ilocos Norte except for the fact that when they built sandcastles, Palafox “built townships.”
Now, Palafox Associates is the only Filipino company listed in the Top 500 Architectural Firms by the London-based World Architecture Magazine, which ranked the firm 94th in 2006 and 89th in 2012. Since its founding in July 1989, the firm’s major projects include the architectural design of more than 12 million square meters of floor area and the master planning of more than 16 billion square meters of land in 38 countries.
“We have achieved most of our goals and sometimes exceeded them,” Palafox said. In an interview with The Manila Times, the world-renowned and sometimes controversial Filipino designer recounted his 42 years as an architect and his 40 years as urban planner.
“Jun” Palafox earned his BS in Architecture degree (1972) from the University of the Santo Tomas and his Master in Environmental Planning (1974) at the University of the Philippines as a scholar of the United Nations Development Program. He advocates continuing education and in 2003 finished the Advanced Management Development Program for Real Estate at the Harvard University.
Palafox’s working style is guided by four-point philosophy: people first, then planet earth, then profits, and spirituality. Each project is pro deo, patria et terra—for God, country and the environment. He says his favorite project “is the next one, because we have the luxury of hindsight and our design can evolve.”
From being an apprentice draftsman in 1970 and a private architect in 1972, Palafox went on to be the technical consultant to the commissioner of the Export Processing Zone Authority and a planning assistant of the physical development plan of the UP and later as project officer and senior planner of the Department of Public Works, Transportation and Communications, then headed by David Consunji.
Then the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai came to the Philippines in 1977 and invited him to work as senior planner of the emirate. Palafox did studies and proposals for public transport, central business district planning, industrial areas planning, city structure planning, environmental improvement and other public works. They designed it proactively, foreseeing that the share of oil in the economics of Dubai would decline from 98 percent in the 1970s to about five-percent in this decade. The young architect admired the sheikh’s political will, visionary leadership and good planning.
Over the years, Palafox Associates has completed more than 1,000 projects abroad, including the Tzu Chi School (Iran), the Philippine Embassy and Chancery (Brunei Darussalam), the Tala Marina Club City (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and the Phu Quoc Island Masterplan (Vietnam).
In his 64 years, Palafox has visited 63 countries and 2,000 cities and he said the best-planned among the latter were Paris, Rome, Singapore, Dubai, Boston, Cambridge, New York, Seattle and Chicago.
While he was in Dubai, Henry Sy and the Ayalas persuaded him to come back to the Philippines where they said there will be work waiting for him. He flew back to the country in 1981 and was employed for a year as a consultant for urban renewal projects of the Ministry of Human Settlements-Home Financing Corporation. Then Sy took him in as a planning consultant for his Inter-Continental Development Corporation, the forerunner of the SM Group of Companies.
An architect for Filipinos
Throughout the years, Palafox has designed SM malls in Las Pinas, Fairview, Pampanga, Iloilo and China. He also took on mall projects for the Gokongweis, with Robinson’s San Fernando, Cainta, Pasig and Mandaluyong. He also obliged Waltermart and built its branch in Makati and two others in Laguna.
Working for Ayala Corporation, Palafox assisted in creating Ayala-Alabang Village, Ayala Heights, the Cebu Business Park, the Alabang Town Center, the Makati Commercial Center-Greenbelt and the Laguna Technopark. He was also engaged by the Lopezes as the principal architect of the 15-hectare Rockwell Center in Makati. Working with all these local tycoons and taipans, Palafox said he was impressed and inspired by their “visionary leadership and effective management.”
In his dealings with the Philippine government, Palafox learned that political will, visionary leadership, good planning and good governance are the best defenses against crimininality, corruption and climate change.
Palafox recalled that Philippine cities were well-planned by the Spaniards and the Americans but overpopulation and public mismanagement have turned them into what they are now. Palafox rates local politicians thus: “10 percent are good and 90 percent can be better.” He was happy to have worked in projects with the Philippine Navy in Palawan and with the Bases Conversion Development Authority because there was “no corruption.”
Palafox traced the evolution of cities from being “port cities to railway-driven to freeway/highway-driven to airport-driven.” He said 62 percent of Philippine gross domestic product comes from cities with airports. Sadly the country’s 200 airports during the US Occupation has dwindled to 80 and most are in need of upgrading.
In one of his columns for the Times, Palafox wrote: “The vision plan 2021 puts forward a strategy to create urban development corridors by clustering major cities as urban growth centers to act as counter magnets to Metro Manila, spurring new investments nationwide and redevelopment opportunities in the other cities, creating jobs and economic opportunities for the urban poor in the provinces. A Manila Megalopolis 2020 vision that I put forward in my Harvard term paper back in 2003 showed how the Philippines can create pockets of efficiencies and strong regional economic activity by connecting major transportation nodes to decrease rural immigration to the already congested Metro Manila.”
Living such a busy lifestyle, Palafox plays golf and sometimes goes to the gym to recharge. Perhaps that reflects his holistic approach to design that strikes “a balance between the requirements of the client, the characteristics of the site, the appropriate architectural context and the experience of the end-users.” To paraphrase a popular charismatic renewal song, in Christ Palafox builds communities geared towards sustainability and social connectivity.
In his column, he said: “There should be a strong relationship between buildings and the sidewalk environment by establishing specific street level development standards and incentives. Street walls, facade transparency, blank walls, screening of parking / buffers, street landscaping and furniture and overhead weather protection / canopies and arcades should be regulated. To de-clutter sidewalk vendors, street vendors should be provided with more formal retailing equipment and booths in order to help sell their products, provided by the local governments to incite the character of their respective cities. Parking strategies should be included in transportation plans to complement the strategies for the attainment of air quality standards, congestion management strategies, and livability initiatives.”
Palafox said he designs “landmarks for placemaking which takes into account a wider context and contribute to the environment.” He envisions five facades: front, rear, left, right and top view that always evoke “a strong sense of arrival, a strong sense of place and then pride of place.”
Accordingly, “the 21st century skyscrapers are now integrally connected to their urban context by integrating mass transportation.” In relation to all of this, Palafox paid a tribute to the elderly by designing a senior community center where “the first thing that we considered as architects and designers is mobility. The senior citizens need to get around and perform their daily tasks, which could prove problematic instead of simple. In the architectural design, we replaced the stairs with elevators and ramps whenever possible. Upon entering the community center, a large winding ramp with non-slip surfaces and support railings goes all the way up to the second and third floor. The design also required more space for the seniors to get around, so wide hallways with appropriate lighting was considered. Moreover, we planned the building system to accommodate better air circulation and more light for the seniors to see at the same level they did when they were younger.”
Riding the winds of change
The column also discussed climate-change adaptation and mitigation. He proposed “the regular deepening of silted lakes, rivers, creeks, and other waterways, coupled with pollution abatement measures and proper solid waste management. This way, our water bodies can hold more floodwater and reduce flood levels. In line with this, the hills and mountains near the catch basin should be reforested to help absorb more floodwater. But more importantly, however, is the need to update Daniel Burnham’s 1905 plan for Metro Manila, the 2004 MMEIRS Report, the 1976-1977 Metroplan, and the 2003 Manila Megalopolis Concept Plan 2020 to serve as guidelines for the LGUs, national government, and the citizens to follow.”
Regarding the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda, he added that “to strengthen Tacloban’s defenses against disasters, the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance (Clupzo), transportation, and mobility plans should be updated. The plan should designate at least one square meter per person of evacuation space in international standards. Tacloban should also have large parks with wide roads and no intersections, underground power lines, and invest in coastal engineering so that the city can predict future storm surges and alert its citizens ahead of time.” Palafox also designed a bamboo prototype school that can double as an evacuation center and costs up to 50 percent lower than concrete buildings and will withstand storms, earthquakes and floods.”
Such a success story must have a secret and Palafox advises novice architects to “keep learning, get out of the box, be a pioneer.” That is why Palafox Associates promotes “continuing education, exposure to big clients and familiarity with technology transfer especially green technology.” Nothing beats working hard, its founder said, and if better is doable, good is not good enough. Such a training makes his staff employable abroad after two years in the company, he said. Still, the company practices profit-sharing with its employees, which is why up to now it has yet to build its own building.
As part of his spiritual and humanitarian advocacy, he has given back to the his country’s less-privileged through corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. Palafox developed a Gawad Kalinga Conceptual Development Plan for Tarlac, Smokey Mountain Urban Renewal in Tondo, Estero de Manila: Socialized Housing, and the Asian Institute of Autism in Clark.
Still part of his company’s CSR activities, Palafox proposed a “Bamboo Design: A Public-Private Partnership Project on Climate Change, Disaster Preparedness and Sustainability for Davao,” and a “Manila Waterways: Urban Development and Streetscape Design for Paco, Manila”. He has done studies and masterplans for local governments across the country geared towards economic development and environmental preservation.
For his generosity, Forbes Asia named Palafox one of Asia’s Heroes of Philantropy, one of only four Filipinos so honored. The magazine said he donated the services of Palafox Associates for the design of low-income housing developments, including a 12-hectare project for the Smokey Mountain dumpsite community in Manila.
From silver to gold
For its next 25 years, Palafox Associates “envisions a social and environmental renaissance through its innovative, sustainable and exemplary practice of architecture, planning, engineering and design.” Its looks forward with hope to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Mutual Recognition Arrangement next year, and has taken steps towards the borderless practice through the creation of the Palafox Architecture Group, the company’s design arm.
Palafox adamantly maintains that he will never leave the country and vows to ensure that “every project must elevate the international stature of Filipino professionals, be economically and financially viable and enhance the environment for future generations.” He is banking on his daughter Karima Patricia “Karmi,” a senior partner and the head of the company’s planning team, to continue his work and be a good leader to his team of professionals.