The Art of Building

#MakatiCondo February 10, 2011

Published by: Contemporary Art Philippines

Can art solve the problems of city planning and social order? We find clues in the work of Jorge Ramos, venerable builder of Metro Manila state architecture. There is art that exists purely for beauty, and art that fuses beauty with utility. If art never met architecture, we would still be living in caves. For this reason, Ayn Rand called architecture the “highest of all the arts”, and dedicated her novel The Fountainhead to the noble builder’s profession.

Howard Roark’s obsession to build a skyscraper that would symbolize the greatness of man is reminiscent of the last state-sponsored building boom witnessed by Metro Manila in the Seventies and Early Eighties, when Imelda Marcos dreamed of the “City of Man” and tried to dredge it out of the waters of Manila Bay. If, as Frank Lloyd Wright said, architecture gives form to the social order we wish to live in, then the government’s building projects from that period were the Bagong Lipunan (New Society) made flesh.

Quite a number of those monuments to progress sprung from the mind of architect Jorge Ramos, whose buildings have become so much a part of the landscape that people seldom question how they got there. It’s hard to fathom Metro Manila without the Heart, Lung, and Kidney Centers on East Avenue, the GSIS Complex at the Pasay City reclamation area, the Quiapo Mosque, and the expanded Malacañang Palace and Philippine General Hospital as we know them today. Each landmark tells a story of how the art of building was used to shape the course of history and society.

The Heart Center was the first of several world-class medical centers built to provide socialized healthcare for Filipinos, earning goodwill for the government here and abroad. The reconstruction of Malacañang Palace conjured a stronger image of power and sovereignty. The Globo de Oro mosque was built in Quiapo to be close to the Quiapo Church, and send a message of equality between Christians and Muslims, culminating in the signing of the 1976 Tripoli peace agreement that created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The energy-saving design of the GSIS Complex was triggered by the oil crisis of the Seventies, and won the Passive Solar Design Award at the 1982 World’s Fair held in Knoxville, Tennessee. Architecture, for Ramos, approaches the level of art when a building is able to elicit a transcendent experience. “It is great architecture when everything you do in a building is somehow enriched because of the design of the space. The building sublimates your activities, no mater how mundane those activities are.” As with all art, “transcendence comes because you are removed from the mundane and the mediocre.”

Design in architecture, however, does not start with aesthetics. “In architecture, function is what dictates design, and function is about satisfying human needs. What makes the outside of a building beautiful is a result of what goes on inside.” Ramos is now in his seventies, and works quietly on very select projects with his son Nick, a London-trained architect. Had it not been for a chance sighting of his unbuilt design done in 1983 for a national sports center on Roxas Boulevard that was meant for the training of Filipino athletes for the Olympics, which we nearly mistook for a Zaha Hadid building, this feature may not have happened. (Ramos wasn’t aware of any of this, so when Hadid happened to call in the middle of our interview, we nearly choked on our coffee. As it turns out, the two are good friends.) That design showed a stadium shaped like a Philippine seashell, with an arch that aligned with the Manila Bay sunset at a specific time of day, forming an eye that framed the golden view of Manila that is recognized all over the world. It’s a glimpse of a city that never came to be, because severe political turmoil and a multitude of other issues put an end to the government’s wave of building by the early Eighties.

The sun had set on an era, and Ramos spent subsequent years working abroad. At the turn of the new millennium, he was asked to collaborate with the firm of famed Japanese architect Kenzo Tange on a seminal project for Makati. A new residential tower was to be built in place of the Gilarmi Apartments on Ayala Avenue. “It’s a very significant piece of land. The whole idea of city living in Makati was born there.” (Gilarmi was the first serviced apartment building to go up in the Makati CBD in the Fifties. The new tower that will replace it has been named Primea and is expected to be complete by 2013.) The tandem of Tange and Ramos seemed preordained. Unbeknownst to the property’s owner, the two had met in Tokyo nearly fifty years before, when Ramos was a newly graduated architect who won a scholarship to Japan for his thesis project on the Japanese embassy in the Philippines.

This was a decade after World War II ended, and the Japanese had just returned to the Philippines reestablish their diplomatic presence in the country. Planning the design of a building is like preparing to create a sculpture or painting, with an entire city as the backdrop. At sixty-eight storeys, the new tower in Makati will be very visible from many parts of Metro Manila when fully built. Studying composition meant driving around the building site in larger and larger circles, all the way down South Superhighway almost up to the airport to see how the tower would look in the skyline from a distance. At this scale, the city itself appears as one giant mural, an interaction work of millions of people—motorists, pedestrians, real estate developers, billboard owners—whose every action adds or subtracts something from the overall picture. From this vantage point, it is clear that the fate of a city is as much an art problem as a socioeconomic one. The design of buildings can foster health, broker peace, restore nature’s balance, inspire Olympic achievement, create the skyline of the future, or destroy it. The principles of art—proportion, color, balance, rhythm, emphasis, harmony—just might be able to save it.