Brutalist Architecture in the Philippines
A deep dive into Brutalist Architecture in the Philippines through an interview with Brutalist Pilipinas' Patrick Kasingsing and Karl Castro
The once old-fashioned style of buildings in my young 20-something eyes are now what I consider, diamonds among Metro Manila’s modern glass towers. As someone who’s born and raised in the city, and has been living in it for more than 30 years now, it’s easy to reduce the old and worn-out buildings to things of the past. Even easier, if you’ve never seen them bright, bustling and functioning unlike their modern counterparts. In walking (or driving) pass them every day, they became mundane structures that I almost never noticed. I could convince myself that the rush of city life is the culprit of this mindless relationship I have for our city’s built environment, but I’ve since realized that it is my sense of curiosity and relationship to our history that should be questioned.
My perception of Architecture started to develop a little when I was exposed to different types of buildings, structures, and homes on the Internet. From considering modern Architecture (what I saw from the new buildings around the city) as the basis of “good” Architecture, I slowly understood that there’s beauty, art and history to these overly-shaped, stark and brute buildings. This started my fascination with Brutalist Architecture.
But as years has passed, even with a reconsidered definition of Architecture, I’d only call myself an admirer from afar. I always appreciate seeing beautiful Brutalist buildings but that was it, a shallow appreciation of its aesthetics. But fast forward to 2020, I stumbled upon the Brutalist Pilipinas Instagram page which ignited my respect for the concept even more. I don’t see a lot of Philippine-based Brutalist buildings online, so I never had an inkling that we had so much to offer. The same buildings that I reduced to mundane old city structures were actually Brutalist treasures — I just needed to see them in complete different lenses.
I’m quite ashamed to share this, but for the longest time, my subconscious understanding of Filipino Architecture always ended with the Bahay Kubo. But by exposing myself to the wonder of Brutalism in the Philippines through Brutalist Pilipinas, it opened my eyes to the diversity and complexities of Filipino Architecture and Metro Manila’s built environment. So it’s an honor to be able to work with them for the second Co-Creation project of Café City Club. You can visit cafecityclub.com to view our limited Co-Creation pieces, and scroll down to read the very insightful interview with Brutalist Pilipinas founder, Patrick Kasingsing with their Research Head, Karl Castro.
Can you share to us who are behind Brutalist PH?
Patrick: The project started out as a one-man passion project; however, as the following grew, and the desire to expand the project to go beyond awareness into action (which means more intensive research work, new avenues to educate followers about the movement, etc.) took over, I enlisted the help of two good friends, architectural designer Eldry Infante and artist-designer Karl Castro to co-moderate and steer the advocacy. I would be remiss to not include all the generous individuals who’ve in one way or another contributed to the advocacy and the database, be it through their photography, their tips and leads, or even the discourse they start in the comments section. This is the beauty of the crowdsourcing-model of the initiative as it’s not just us three feeding people information but a whole ecosystem of individuals where information is shared, parsed and validated.
A lot of research and digging into all manners of information sources (be it Swiss photography archives or local real estate websites) are done behind the scenes; the team usually discusses what to post and when, as well as embark on discussions on the classification of submitted buildings (whether it belongs to @modernistpilipinas, our sister account, or whether it’s a true #brut), tapping our network comprising of architects and the academe whenever we need more information. Pre-pandemic, there were scheduled photowalks to document brutalism within the Metro to build up our database, which is the heart of the advocacy and something that didn’t exist before the initiative.
Fun fact! Only one member of the team studied architecture!
Outside Brutalist Pilipinas, Eldry works as an architectural designer for a boutique firm in Pampanga, Karl teaches film at a prestigious university and embarks on art and design projects, while I manage the day-to-day operations of three ongoing passion projects: @brutalistpilipinas, @modernistpilipinas and @kanto.com.ph.
What led to the creation of Brutalist PH?
Patrick: I started BrutPH last 2018, but the seeds of interest in Brutalism were planted way back during college when I encountered the Tumblr blog Fuck Yeah Brutalism. It was the first time I encountered the architectural style and I was instantly attracted to its photogenic, commanding quality. I learned more about the style on the job when I joined BluPrint magazine, where I also got to visit the movement’s most iconic examples and learn about its proponents (and the historical context that surrounded it).
It was August 27, 2018, when I was still in BluPrint when I decided to spearhead the initiative, where I had a simple goal: to drive public awareness of the brutalist architecture movement via a social media database. I sought to bridge a divide then, hoping that in some little way the project can feed the public’s lack of understanding and appreciation of an already polarizing style and help them see its redeeming qualities and importance in our country’s ongoing architectural narrative.
Ultimately what I really wanted to achieve with the advocacy is to influence a view of built heritage as active participants and not artifacts, to help encourage the public to let these post-war structures contribute to the urban dialogue. Our built heritage is being destroyed here and there for so called development because the public lacks the proper knowledge and awareness in understanding just how important these expressions of heritage are to our continuing story as a nation.
More than Brutalism’s strong aesthetics, can you enlighten us about Brutalist Architecture in the Philippines?
Karl Castro, Research Head: Brutalism can be traced back to the dominant popularity of the International Style, an architectural style which draws heavily from ideas of abstraction previously cultivated by European art movements like Bauhaus and De Stijl, as well as Russian Constructivism. After two world wars, monarchies and aristocracies fell, and the massive, heavily ornamented architecture associated with them were rejected in favor of buildings that were more utilitarian and modern in aesthetic, and economical in their use of space and material.
In the Philippines, modern architecture is largely informed by American influence. Under the pre-war American colonial regime, Filipino scholars obtained architecture degrees from universities in the United States, and returned to help professionalize architecture and establish schools here.
As a strategic Allied outpost in the Pacific, our cities were among the most devastated during World War II. Much of our pre-war architecture was lost, and urban plans ruptured. American cultural diplomacy played a big role in our postwar reconstruction. America’s strategic conflation of its culture with ideas of liberation and modernity, as well as their political and economic power through funding and education, helped contribute to the local embracing of these new approaches to architecture and urban planning. A new generation of architects was trained in the United States, including Carlos Arguelles, Cesar Concio, Leandro Locsin, Alfredo Luz, and Angel Nakpil.
The Filipino elite, both in public and private buildings, articulated their social and economic mobility by building in the new, American-inflected style. Its aesthetic of unadorned surfaces, facades of regular rhythms, and rectilinear masses interspersed with planes represented the possibilities of a new social order. The space race of the Cold War, combined with new technological developments, also influenced the reimagination of possible architectural forms.
The three major materials used in architecture since World War II are steel, glass, and concrete. Of these, only concrete could be produced locally; even until now, our steel and glass demands are still largely import-dependent. Concrete thus had the richest potential for use in the Philippine context. From an economic and aesthetic point of view, it was a feasible material to explore. It can be both structural and sculptural; it can give form to modernist aspirations, and communicate a kind of purity and honesty when left as a raw, unadorned finish. Hence, Brutalism is an approach to building that is enmeshed in Modernism.
After our Republic’s post-war independence, the search for national identity rose to the fore. In grappling with the proliferation of the modernist box, architects drew from traditional forms like the bahay kubo and bahay na bato in order to create architectural expressions that better suited our tropical climate. This includes elements like deep cantilevers, the brise-soleil, and tropical landscaping which produces shaded and well-ventilated spaces. The gradual easing of height limits and the establishment of new business districts also set the stage for increasingly massive constructions.
The Marcos dictatorship’s desire to conjure an image of both progressive modernity and pre-colonial royal lineage encouraged neo-vernacular architecture that fused modern materials with co-opted indigenous silhouettes. Concrete was maximized for the possibilities of monumental scale and finish, and the speed of construction. Edifices were constructed at great expense and breakneck speed, designed to be backdrops for global spectacles that would cement the association of the Marcoses with cultural sophistication, progressive politics, and economic prosperity. The Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex was an important site in this mythmaking, with buildings like the Folk Arts Theater (Miss Universe 1974), the Philippine International Convention Center and the Philippine Plaza Hotel (IMF-World Bank Meeting, 1976), and the Manila Film Center (Manila International Film Festival, 1982).
Perhaps due in part to its association with authoritarian regimes, and a larger dissatisfaction with modernist architecture’s boxy aesthetic, builders sought to break free from Brutalism and Modernism. Postmodernism’s anything-goes approach veered away from hulking plain forms, allowing for the reintroduction of ornament and figuration; meanwhile, the thirst for development favors the maximization of land assets over the protection of heritage structures. The lack of heritage awareness, alongside the inability of heritage laws to protect architectural treasures from the wrecking ball, brings us to our current dilemma where the brutalist and modernist structures (among other important examples of our built heritage) are demolished in favor of nondescript high-rise developments.
This is where we hope our modest endeavors in both @brutalistpilipinas and @modernistpilipinas may help make an impact in raising awareness, and hopefully, revaluation and protection.
Compared to other Brutalist Architecture around the world, what makes Brutalism in the Philippines special?
Patrick: Foreign styles always find localization wherever it lands and this can give way to interesting interpretations and variants; Brutalism in the Philippines are reminiscent of its spatial peers in other tropical countries where this style landed, like Brazil; our variant, while still largely utilizing concrete, relished in the play of heavy and light volumes, sculptural forms, and modular elements while integrating tropical flavor with sun screens and spaces that encourage cross-ventilation.
I remember reading in a New York Times article how Brutalism seemed more at home in the tropics, its coarse, earthy textures enmeshing well with the tropical foliage and sunny skies, and I definitely agree. More than any other style in my opinion, Brutalism emanates a sort of rootedness in its context, looking anchored, as if it grew out of the ground.
Where do you think Brutalist Architecture’s re-emergence originated from?
It is actually our graphic designers, photographers, and artists around the world that we have to thank for this renewed interest in Brutalism. While Brutalism looks polarizing, one thing it undeniably had was stage presence: It is a wonderful subject to photograph in various parts of the day and carries patina and character that most of its clean-cut modernist contemporaries lack. It is also an honest and unpretentious architectural style more absorbed with performing its brief of sheltering its users in an efficient, economical manner than dazzling spectators. It is a post-war style after all.
The very graphic, expressive appeal of the style and its emphasis on material honesty and function appealed to today's generation of creatives who value unbridled creative expression and honesty to one's self sacred.
With general interest for Brutalism rising, is there a space for new Brutalist structures in the Philippines?
Patrick: We recently released a Brutalism primer (https://kanto.com.ph/spaces/brutalism-primer/) where our partner writer Caryn-Paredes Santillan writes:
“Brutalism is not dead (Henley 2017:14). It is a continually evolving dialogue that architects, designers, and enthusiasts continue to reinterpret all over the world. Since its conception, the style has either been adopted, acculturated, or disseminated. It is a regionalized architecture, and as such, it warrants decentralized definitions that cover the specificities of the country in which it developed.”
This is where Brutalism is today; it has found new energy in today’s architects willing to experiment and tweak the old formula for a new age with new needs. These spaces are inspired with the old tenets of honesty, economy, and memorability but now much more responsible, open, and contextually-driven, of which not all Brutalist buildings were before. Banham has called Brutalism more an ethical approach than a stylistic movement; I think this is the secret as to how it has continued to permeate the architectural narrative up to today.
In the team’s opinion, what are the most significant structures that we have in the country that define Brutalism as a concept and Brutalism in the Philippines?
Patrick: We recently did a video collab with the awesome folk of Create Philippines answering this very question! Co-moderator Eldry and I did the herculean task of selecting structures that we feel illustrate the spread and variety of expressions Brutalism has taken in the Philippines. You can watch the video here: https://www.facebook.com/createphilippines/videos/617666709202233
For someone who’s just getting into Brutalism, what are books, websites, and literature you recommend to deepen one’s knowledge of the architectural concept and Brutalism in the Philippines?
Patrick: There are lots of books and resources about Brutalism as a global architecture movement: there’s Banham’s The New Brutalism, Redefining Brutalism by Simon Henley, and Phaidon’s monumental Atlas of Brutalist Architecture. Online, you have SOSBrutalism.org, a global database of Brutalist buildings that have so far documented 2,000 structures around the globe (though only four represents the Philippines as of my last visit).
You’ll notice that I’ve mostly mentioned foreign material and that is because there does not appear to be a lot of resources locally that tackle the specific topic of Brutalism in the Philippines. The sources I did consult usually gave Brutalism a mere paragraph or a sidebar mention. We hope that more scholarship on the subject of Brutalism and modern Philippine architecture is done to increase the resources available to the public. Initiatives like the mASEANa workshops this year give me hope that this is finally in the works. The book that I usually consult, Arkitekturang Filipino by Gerard Lico (which ate up a week’s worth of allowance when I bought it back in college; absolutely no regrets!) will have an expanded and updated edition released soon.
One more thing that gives me hope is the rising number of local built-heritage-specific social media groups that encourage dialogue and appreciation of these structures, and the ever younger people running them! The upcoming generations are the ultimate beneficiaries of our built heirlooms and its really heartening to see these young folks take action and initiative to fight to keep these structures standing when previous generations have all but given up or are eager to erase history to start a new chapter
I’m curious, are there any Filipino Architects that are heavily involved in the history of Brutalism in the Philippines?
Patrick: Top of mind of course is Leandro Locsin, but this is also not entirely accurate as the architect was said to have eschewed having labels attached to his work despite his body of work seemingly adopting the tenets that inform the movement. It is important to note that styles and movements are often named or decided after the fact and that these architects do not wake up and decide to do a Brutalist building all of a sudden.
Architects Crescenciano de Castro and Gabriel Formoso also come to mind, with the former’s monumental ADB HQ (now DFA). The latter designed the iconic Manila Pen, which has since suffered from, in my opinion, ill-advised renovations.
Can you share your thoughts on the design you co-created with us?
Patrick: We wanted to marry the streetwear cred of CCC with that of the gritty, urban texture that Brutalism is often associated with. I was also very much inspired by the Brutalism graphic design movement, a product of the 90s and the early age of digital where visuals are intentionally plain, barebones and haphazardly put together. Aside from making a graphic statement, we wanted a shirt that was hard-working just like the architectural style it represents.
One of the most asked questions in our accounts, predictably, was what Brutalism was and what characterizes it. Our team thought it would be great to use the tenets of Banham’s New Brutalism as part of the shirt’s graphics, albeit with a Filipino twist. Now you can literally wear the answer to that question! (Laughs)
Lastly, what’s next for the Brutalist Pilipinas team? Any future projects, activities, and plans you want to share?
Patrick: The biggest project we have so far is getting our website, Brutalist.PH out in the wild, where we intend to house the 170 or so brutalist buildings we have documented so far in a more permanent location. There’s volume 2 of our primer where we aim to cover the topic of the proliferation of Brutalism in the Philippines, which will entail a lot of archive-digging and interviews. We are also planning to put out cycling guides for those who want to do a round of the Metro’s bruts on two wheels. Fun times for the team!
If you liked what you read and would like to support the Brutalist Pilipinas team, you can shop the limited Café City Club ~ Brutalist Pilipinas Co-Creation pieces at cafecityclub.com. The proceeds will help them produce and develop Brutalist.PH and all their other upcoming projects.