From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. Francisco Mañosa was first broadcast on 25th March 2023. You can listen to the audio here.
Is there such a thing as Filipino architecture? Colonisation is a shattering thing and one of the most visible effects is on the built environment. The Philippines, for instance, was settled by the Spanish in the 1500s and then by the Americans at the end of the nineteenth century, with a short, sharp occupation by Japan in the 1940s. And this nation of islands has always been influenced by the various cultures of its neighbours. As a result, the major buildings of the Philippines resemble those of its coloniser’s home country or, more recently, the generic international style of the twentieth century.
Which is why the work of the architect Francisco Mañosa is important. Born in 1931, he studied architecture in Manila before spending a year in Japan. It was there that he was struck how buildings, of all types, both new and old, had a particularly Japanese quality. How could this be achieved in the Philippines?
Mañosa’s buildings are often based on the bahay kubo, the simple structure set on stilts and with a steeply-pitched roof found in lowland areas of the country, but he also worked on an office building for the San Miguel company which was inspired by rice paddies, with greenery spilling from its protruding terraces. Probably his most famous building , though, is the Coconut Palace, completed in 1981. With a series of interlinked pavilions, its outstanding element is that it’s mainly constructed from the coconut palm, with roof shingles and columns made from its trunks, carpets from its fibre, and even coconut shells transformed into lighting, including spectacular chandeliers. The coconut palm was not only a readily available and ecologically sound resource but the perfect symbol of national resilience, bending with the wind. The interiors were richly finished with local marble and hardwood for floors and walls, and other materials, such as the capiz shell giving the windows a gleaming iridescence. With its voluptuous roofline and traditional carving, its mix of shape and material makes the building one hundred per cent Filipino. This, it proclaims, is possible.
It was intended as a guesthouse for the president’s visitors, the first of whom was to be Pope John Paul ll, but he refused to stay in such opulence when there was obvious poverty in the rest of the country. The Coconut Palace was, after all, commissioned by Imelda Marcos, the wife of the president and famous for her love of excess. Like her infamous shoe collection, the building was seen as just another symbol of the Marcos’s extravagance and corruption.
Unlike their rule, though, Mañosa’s architecture flourished. He designed the EDSA monument that commemorates the peoples’ movement that removed the Marcoses from power, the couple fleeing in 1986, having embezzled an estimated fortune of over 13 million dollars. This monument again used as its base the bahay kubo, highlighting the power of the ordinary Filipino. This avaricious period in the history of the country shouldn’t diminish the importance of Mañosa’s work. The Coconut Palace isn’t simply a building of vulgar excess like, for instance, Ceausescu’s Palace in Bucharest of the same period. Instead, Mañosa’s buildings display a passion to create a new architectural language that is unswervingly Filipino. It’s a tricky task, treading the fine line between modern engineering and established tradition without becoming pastiche. Architecture always plays a role in nation building, just as Sydney’s Opera House did, outliving the passing parade of politics. And Mañosa’s buildings played an important role in establishing a proud and more equable national identity.
So sad to think a Marcos is back in power. I wonder how long the EDSA monument will last.
Wouldn’t be a good look to get rid of it…