Marking our territory

The Venice Architecture Biennale. Leandro V. Locsin Partners on the ‘raging hormones’ of Manila. 

WORDS  Robert JA Basilio, Jr. | PHOTOGRAPHY  Jonathan Baldonado


Architects at a firm founded by the late National Artist Leandro V. Locsin like to pick their clients’ brains when discussing design ideas. That’s according to Leandro Y. Locsin Jr., administrator and design consultant of Leandro V. Locsin Partners. “We like to joke with our clients that they have to think of us as some sort of shrinks,” he said. “Our job is to take their ambitions and their thoughts and use them.”

Using photographs and objects that resonate with their clientele, the firm’s architects then “add a layer and interpret them,” providing bespoke visual and aesthetic styles to their residences, buildings, or urban spaces. Most of the time the strategy works, Mr. Locsin said. But there have been a few occasions—“just a few,” Locsin emphasized—when the firm quits a project. “If we feel that clients misrepresented themselves—they just want us to copy an Italian villa, for instance—we walk away,” Locsin said. “Kung walang integridad, di kami makakatulog.” [“Without integrity, we won’t get to sleep at night.”] At LVLP, it’s always about design and the work, he said. “That’s the way we’re constructed. When we say we’re focused about the substance of our work, that says in many ways what we really are about,” he said.

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Leandro Y. Locsin Jr., administrator and design consultant of Leandro V. Locsin Partners

Perhaps owing to its work ethic, luck, or a little of both, the firm—which designed, among others, the Cultural Center of the Philippines—has once again helped make history. The curatorial proposal it submitted was chosen as the exhibition to be put up by the Philippines in the country’s first participation in the Venice Architecture Biennale, the most important architecture exposition in the whole world. LVLP’s Muhon: Traces of an Adolescent City emerged as the winner among the 13 submissions examined by foreign judges, all of whom were invited by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

“It was a gamble on the NCCA’s part on how this will turn out,” Sudarshan V. Khadka, Jr., a project architect at LVLP, referring to the firm’s submission. “One judge’s comment was that the exhibit can be really great or really bad.” “Or it can be an absolute disaster,” Mr. Locsin interjected.

Skepticism about LVLP’s curatorial proposal was expected. After all, Muhon was more complicated—because it was ambitious—than the others. Based on its proposal, the firm nominated nine collaborators—six architects (or a group from other design firms) and three artists. Of these participants, six are architects or come from architectural firms—Eduardo Calma, Jorge Yulo, 8×8 Design Studio Co., C|S Design Consultancy, Lima Architecture, and Mañosa & Co. Inc.—while three are internationally recognized Filipino contemporary artists: Poklong Anading, Tad Ermitaño, and Mark Salvatus. All nine collaborators were asked to choose their own Muhon (marker)—either a building, a landmark, urban space, or built environment—which will be up for display until November 27 at Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy.

All nine chose their respective subjects to work on: KM 0 in Luneta for Mr. Anading, the Pandacan Bridge for Mr. Ermitaño, Chinatown for Mr. Salvatus, the Philippine International Convention Center for Mr. Calma, the Mandarin Hotel for Mr. Yulo, the Magsaysay Center for the 8×8 Design Studio Co., Pasig River for C|S Design Consultancy, the Makati Stock Exchange for Lima Architecture, and the Coconut Palace for Mañosa & Co.

Collaborators were then tasked to interpret three versions of their markers—the first expressing its history, the second representing its currency, and the third raising a conjecture, answering the question: what could it possibly be? (Or in Mr. Khadka’s words: Have these markers been around long enough or has there been enough time for us to love them or not?)

Once installed in the pavilion, nine muhons—27 pieces all in all—“would pretty much resemble a city,” said Juan Paolo S. De La Cruz, also an LVLP architect, who, together with Locsin and Khadka put the whole curatorial proposal together. “Visitors should be able to trace a muhon as they walk from one room in the pavilion to the next,” Mr. Locsin said. “The series of spaces and elements should resonate with the experience of what life was like, what it is now, and what it could possibly be.”

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Juan Paolo S. De La Cruz, LVLP architect

That’s not bad for a history-making curatorial proposal that was completed—from concept to design, from collaboration to production, from delivery to execution (and in Venice, at that)—in just four months. The whole process usually takes two years, Mr. Locsin said.

EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Every so often, the architects at LVLP—including the boss—go out for pizza and beer to let their hair down and talk about, as expected, work. Held way before the Philippines even considered joining the exposition, these regular after-work get-togethers yielded “internal design discussions” that the industry and, broadly, the country should talk about.

Subjects include “heritage, memory, progress, and permanence,” Mr. Khadka said. During these gatherings, the architects “realized that they were working on projects on sites whose buildings were being torn down,” he added. “We felt that there’s a heritage there or a blossoming identity that we felt we needed to discuss some more.”

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Sudarshan V. Khadka, Jr., project architect at LVLP

And by the time the NCCA issued an open call for the Venice exhibition, LVLP came prepared with its own ideas. “The original concept was just for buildings and structures that were about to turn 50 years old,” Mr. Locsin said. However, the architects—always a driven, meticulous bunch—sought to further strengthen their submission. Even after their original proposal was chosen and announced by the NCCA in December 2015, they convened what they call their “informal advisory council”—composed of critics and other experts—and requested a critique of their submission.

Messrs. Locsin, Khadka, and De La Cruz got more than what they bargained for. The council scored the team for the concept’s “lack of substance” and challenged the latter’s idea of what the Philippine pavilion should be. However heated, the meetings helped improve and expand the team’s concept of what would later become Muhon.

The firm’s exhibit is titled Traces of an Adolescent City because “if you associate the term collectively as a city, we’re at that stage when we haven’t really figured out where we’re going. We’re filled raging hormones,” Mr. De La Cruz said. “We still remain confused about our identity and where we’re headed.” To emphasize his sentiments, he pointed to nearby Mandarin Oriental Manila Hotel along Makati Avenue, which, by the way, is also part of their exhibit. Constructed in 1976 by no less than the firm’s founder, it was closed in 2014 and is currently still in the process of being demolished. “We watch it everyday and cry,” Mr. Locsin said. “In this country, very often, things just disappear without any thought. A big question is whether there is a master plan, a comprehensive view of what constitutes heritage.”

Which was exactly was one of several issues that the exhibit wanted to bring up. In the words of Mr. De La Cruz, Muhon seeks to raise awareness and install consciousness “to see buildings not just as buildings but as containers of memory, of culture.”

UNDERSTANDING THE CITY

After its round with the critics, the curatorial team met with the nine collaborators and, in the process, “their ideas fed off each other.” This resulted in a revised proposal that became “richer and sharper,” Mr. De La Cruz said. Allowing the nine collaborators the freedom to choose their muhons, unleashed their potential since they cared about their subjects. “And because they cared about it, they were going to go deeply into it and produce something pretty intense,” Mr. Locsin added. “We hoped that they would create things that are physically and intellectually compelling.”

Of the set of nine muhons, the curatorial team was most excited about Tad Ermitaño’s interpretations. Titled Gilid Village (or Gillage): The Shadow Twin of Iconic Architecture, the muhon represents the Padre Zamora bridge in Manila’s Pandacan district, which has its fair share of informal settlers. Besides providing a contrast to other iconic muhons—such as the Philippine International Convention Center and the Makati Stock Exchange building—Mr. Ermitaño’s work brings out social issues that have been previously ignored by urban planners and, by and large, city dwellers themselves.

“For every large iconic mall or tower, there’s an entire section that developers don’t want to talk about or even consider that actually make the iconic towers possible,” Mr. Locsin said. “That is equally important, if not maybe more important than the iconic structure itself.” But more than bringing urban concerns and questions of heritage to the fore, Muhon: Traces of a Adolescent City seeks to restart a dialog that began in the 1950s and the 1960s regarding architecture, the urban fabric, and the built environment. “How do we understand the city?” Mr. Locsin asked. “How do we understand culture?”

“If you hear people talking about buildings in the way they talk about how masarap chicharon [delicious porkrind] is, then we’ve done something to contribute to the conversation,” he added. “The main objective really is to start these conversations.” Hope it doesn’t take another Biennale for all of us to start talking.