Tracing the genesis of the professional Filipino architects

January 5, 2021 | By: Arch. Gerard Lico, UAP, PhD (as published in The Manila Times last January 5, 2021)

The Philippine Architects Society

ALTHOUGH architecture has been a part of the human instinct for survival and quest for beauty since time in memorial, the practice of architecture in the Philippines was only institutionalized as profession a century ago. The year 2021 is designated as the Centennial Year of the Architectural Profession in the Philippines. The founding of the architectural profession in the Philippines was formalized by virtue of Philippine Assembly Act 2985 (An Act to Regulate the Practice of the Professions of Engineers and Architect) signed into law on Feb. 23, 1921. The celebration will be spearheaded by the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) with affiliate organizations through a year-long lineup of activities that commemorates pioneers, milestones and shapers of our profession in the last 100 years. But the emergence of Filipino architects can be traced beyond a century as our profession was molded in the institutions of colonialism and colonial tutelage.

At the onset of Spanish colonization, the construction of obras publicas or public works was assigned to a corps of military engineers who were tasked to build defense structures and government edifices. Spanish military engineers and, in later years, civil engineers and architects, practiced their profession in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. In 1705, the Corps of Engineers was established in Manila to take charge of all construction of churches, government buildings, and other structures. On record, the first military engineer was Juan de Ciscara y Ramirez, a native of Cuba, who arrived in October 1705.

The early churches were built under the direction of maestros de obras (master builders), many of whom were priests. These friar-architects wishing to build or repair a church were required to present to the bishop a presupuesto, a proposal detailing the drawings, plan, and cost estimates. Aside from church-building, the friar-architects were sometimes engaged in the construction of hospitals and schools and were consulted occasionally on government construction projects. From the late sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, there were about 19 architects on record.

In the Spanish colonial era, the architectural profession was essentially embodied by the maestro de obras. There was no actual title of “architect.” Although architectural production was influenced by amateur artisans and builders, the actual business of building was executed by the maestros de obras. They were natives who apprenticed under friars, engineers, and other experts. It was only during the mid-nineteenth century when numerous professional architects and engineers arrived from Spain. It was during this economic boom that the first Filipino professional architect, Felix Rojas y Arroyo returned to the Philippines in 1854 from his academic training from the Real Academia de Notables Artes de San Fernando, Madrid. In 1866, he was appointed interim head of the Public Works Office.

There was no school of architecture in the Philippines at this time. Instead, the Escuela Practica y Profesional de Artes y Oficios de Manila, founded by the Spanish government in 1890, granted the title maestro de obras. Among the first graduates of this school were Arcadio Arellano, Juan Carreon, Julio Hernandez, and Isidro Medina. Later, some private schools, such as the Liceo de Manila, granted the academic title of maestro de obras.

Francisco Agraran, Carlos Diaz, Antonio Goguico, Angel Tampinco, and Zoilo Villanueva were among the first graduates of the Liceo. The Liceo, together with the Academia de Arquitectura y Agrimensura de Filipinas, the first professional organization of architects, engineers, and surveyors founded in 1902, offered a four-year course in civil engineering and architecture in 1904, thus becoming the first school of architecture in the Philippines. In 1903, it was renamed Academia de Ingenieria, Arquitectura y Agrimensura de Filipinas. In 1911, the engineers withdrew to form their own organization.

During the American colonial period, colonial tutelage was accomplished through the pensionado scholarship program. The homecoming of pensionado architects spurred the establishment of architectural schools where they were recruited as faculty members, advisers, and consultants. Apart from the pensionados, these educational institutions employed the expertise of some foreigners like the American architect Cheri Mandelbaum of the Bureau of Public Works who worked as chief draftsman during William Parsons’s tenure. Overall, their architectural training from the United States and Europe served as the backbone for the pedagogical framework disseminated in these schools, which was basically oriented towards the Beaux-Arts method. This institutionalized what American architects Parsons, Doane, Fenhagen, Mandelbaum, and even Daniel Burnham himself had professed in their works in the Philippines as they were all nurtured in American east coast Beaux-Arts tradition. Moreover, the pensionado architects were trained at Cornell, Drexel, and Harvard — institutions firmly grounded in the Beaux-Arts pedagogy.

The curriculum for the Bachelor of Science in Architecture at the Mapua Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) reflected this French school lineage through the emphasis on rendered drawings and perspectives, highly symmetrical planning and massing; and Classical Revival preferences in details and motifs. Even up to now, vestiges of this Beaux-Arts system are still widely practiced in architecture schools in the Philippines. The design problems done with rapidity are still called esquisses, while complex problems are called charettes. For the licensure examinations for architects, prospective architects still study the classic orders of architecture and how to graphically represent them. It was through the teaching of Western doctrines, technologies, and aesthetics within an academic institutional setting that the neoclassical style was firmly entrenched and transmitted to future Filipino architects.

MIT was a pioneer architectural school established in 1925 by Tomas Mapua after his return from the United States. MIT, originally a night school for working students, offered courses leading to degrees in architecture and engineering. In 1930, UST established its School of Architecture and Fine Arts. Soon after, Adamson University opened its architecture program in 1941. That same year, the Philippine College of Design was founded and recruited the luminaries of the design profession in the Philippines as its faculty. However, the Pacific War halted its operation and never reopened after the war. Other schools of architecture outside Manila would also institute architecture courses after World War II such as the Cebu Institute of Technology (1946) and Mindanao Colleges (1953).

Apart from the training received from an academic setting, another form of tutelage was the master-apprentice system that existed within the office of the Bureau of Public Works (BPW). As the BPW was basically tasked to supervise the design and construction of public structures and landscapes in the islands, it operated like an architectural firm. The office was headed by an American consulting architect and a host of draftsmen. The office was a man’s world as the employees were all male. Like in any architectural office, the main designer might be the principal architect. The draftsmen, under the direct supervision of the consulting architect, churned out construction plans, details, specifications, and blueprints for the office. The architects-to-be were trained as interns, learning the rigors of the architectural practice in an actual office setup. In fact, by the time of the Commonwealth period, almost all of the 96 registered architects in the Philippines were either trained at an American university or the BPW. That is how pervasive the influence and bearing of the BPW was on the creation of public architecture in the Philippines during that time.

In Feb. 23 1921, Philippine Assembly Act 2895 was signed into law known as “Engineering and Architecture Law.” The law officially recognized architecture as a state-regulated profession. Under this act, two separate boards of examiners (one for engineering and another for architecture) would be created to oversee the administering of licensure exams.

Licensed maestro de obras were also automatically granted the title “architect” under a grandfather clause in the act. Through this legislation, the practice of architecture was officially recognized as a profession subject to state regulation. The formation of the professional organization also served as a unifying force among architects of the early 20th century. For the record, Tomas Mapua became the first registered architect in the Philippines.

The male-dominated architectural profession welcomed the first female architect in 1934, when Mercedes Raffiñan, a graduate of MIT, passed the board examination. She earned the distinction as the first woman architect in the history of Philippine architecture and the rest of Southeast Asia. She was also the first woman to graduate with a degree in architecture in the country.

The Philippine Architects Society was established in 1933 as a response to the growing number of architecture professionals in the Philippines. The first president was Juan Nakpil, with Tomas Mapua as vice-president, Harold Keys as secretary, and Sidney Rowland and Fernando Ocampo Sr. as directors. Some of the organization’s undertakings were the drafting of its constitutions and by-laws, the “Rules of Charges and Professional Fees,” and the Canon of Ethics of the Society. One of the aims of the society was to lobby for the passage of a law that would protect the architectural profession and the interest of Filipino architects. This society of architects would later evolve into the UAP in 1974 to promote the highest standards of ethical conduct and excellence in the practice and service of the architectural profession as well as lifting of the standards of architectural education.

About the Author: Gerard Lico is a professor at the College of Architecture, University of the Philippines Diliman and practices architecture as a conservation professional and designer of institutional buildings. He is a prolific author of publications on Filipino architecture and cultural studies, curator of architectural exhibitions, and directed documentaries on Philippine architecture. He was involved in the conservation of two iconic art deco buildings — the Metropolitan Theater and the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. Presently, he is managing his own firm.