Set in Stone

David Kaufman doubles down on the importance of preservation and reuse as integral to building and rebuilding a solid Filipino identity.

Interview Ernest Jose
Images David Kaufman and the Philippine Modernism Appreciation Society

One of Kaufman’s space-age discoveries Header: David Kaufman

Hello, David! How has the pandemic been treating you?

Like everyone else, I’ve been home, trying to keep myself healthy.

What inspired you to start documenting modernist architecture in the Philippines? Was there a defining moment or epiphany that compelled you to?

What prompted me to go out and discover modernist architecture is simply because they are beautiful. It is not my advocacy to spread any particular message to anyone because I am already fulfilled by the discovery from which I derive inspiration. Seeing a piece of history locked in stone, glass, and steel is exhilarating.

In my travels and adventures looking for modernist brutalist structures, I do not limit myself by looking in obvious places. For example, I don’t focus on the Makati area, where there are many noteworthy examples but divide my attention equally to every corner of Metro Manila. I first section the city into quadrants on a map which I then explore on foot or by car.

I know how much I can walk in a day. I take a car, a Grab or a taxi. I mark my aspiration for the day on my phone, and then I start. While I do try to focus on our mission d’etre of Modernism, I don’t limit myself to that alone because, after all, I am an observer of all things beautiful.

As a stone supplier to projects all over the country, I usually have no trouble gaining access to areas off-limits to non-residents. Naturally, I respect and protect the privacy of property owners. When something catches my eye, and I happen to take a photograph or video of it, there will never be anything in my image to identify the property. If the subject is in a publicly accessible location, I may be less economical in showing details.

Examining every single nook and cranny—be it in Tondo, Valenzuela, Caloocan, Malabon, Paranaque, Navotas, etcetera—has impressed me more and more with Filipino creativity. Even down to the human scale, there are examples of genius. About 90 percent of what I have examined are in developing areas. While clearly, there were not much funds to build, the level of creativity, skill, and industry is admirable, and some of the results are beautiful.

How did you, a non-architect, familiarize yourself with modernist architecture? Does your affinity with it come from your belief that modernist design is good design?

I don’t remember ever going out of my way as I believe it is in my blood. I’ve been a design aficionado my entire life. However, my exposure began 30 years ago through my work, providing 3D architectural animation and walk-throughs. This led to providing stone services, which enabled me to interact with leading architects of the Philippines. I am humbled that I have had the privilege to work on projects most valuable to our nation. Definitely, it has never been just a financial transaction because long after the money is gone, the buildings will still be there.

Before my travels abroad, whether for stone inspection or a holiday with my family, I do my research and locate 20 to 30 buildings I wish to see in my continuing self-education. I believe that if your work is your passion, you are never off-duty. I never miss the opportunity to see what wonders have been erected that are a must for my clients and me to know about. I am convinced that by studying and documenting the past and latest majestic buildings designed by world-famous architects (e.g., Le Corbusier,  Mies van der Rohe, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many more), I can see and show, in situ, how the material has actually been used and its installation. Sharing what I have learned enriches everyone involved in my business, be it my team or my customers.

What’s the most exciting discovery you’ve made during your many modernist excursions?

I find my space-age discoveries the most exciting. I like space-age Modernism because they are the rarest. It is thrilling to see these almost-concealed 1960s and 1970s gems. When I spot round roofs or shell-like structures, for example, on Araneta Avenue, my heart skips a beat. When I see them, I am excited and inspired, propelled and compelled to share the discovery. I am not an architect. I did not train for this. I like things that are rare and authentic.

I went to Keble College at Oxford University, studying Sociology Development Economics and Social Psychology. During this period, I came to appreciate the minimally-restored properties in the conservation village where my mother’s cottage is located. Old Rose Cottage is from the early Victorian period, set in grounds with rockeries and gardens on several levels. Minimal alteration has been done to its original structure. It has wooden beams, bay windows, and creaking floorboards. The terracotta roof tiles and Yorkshire stone exterior has been left to show its historic patina. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but we love its authenticity and homely charm.

Of all the structures you have documented so far, what do you think encapsulates what you love about Philippine modernist architecture?

You know, I cannot identify any single structure. Of course, I love the Cultural Center of the Philippines. After all, I’m the official supplier for its travertine cladding done in 2005. I love many other works of Leandro Locsin, Francisco Mañosa, Jose Maria Zaragosa, Carlos Arguelles, Calma, etc. They are beautiful in their own way. Even the non-modernists, I love them.

Would you say that your natural stone supply business influenced the development of your modernist advocacy?

As one of the older members in the industry, being almost 25 years in the field, we’ve done work with Calma, Locsin, Mañosa, Formoso, J. Anton Mendoza, Jonathan Matti, and Conrad Onglao, who are geniuses. They are like the Manansalas, the Ben Cabs. I have had a front-row seat, enabling me to observe these masters at work. Some who have neither been lauded nor received accolades, in my view, are future Locsins. They are important.

I have followed the same routine in my Philippine walking adventure as in the cities I’ve visited abroad. From Karachi, Teheran, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the USA, Britain, etc., my modus operandi has not changed. The discovery of Modernism emerges from close examination of each road in the quadrant I set as my goal for the day. This is still my tried-and-tested method. I don’t keep records, so you had better enjoy it when I post it. My posts are windows to my world. If you see it, I was there.

I have concluded that an architect is like a doctor or a chef, conductor, or poet. As one in such elevated positions of responsibility, you have not only a right but a duty to tell your client what is right or wrong—the truth.

In construction, which is my raison d’etre, the material must be the center of attraction. The real magic is the verse, the color, the melody. The conductor must not become the star. When you make yourself less, you become more. If your essential material is good, you can practice “less is more.” You don’t have to overdesign. The foundation must be good raw material. Let the material speak for itself, whether terracotta, cement, granite, terrazzo, marble, wood—all these things are natural. They will last. I am not urging you to go and design spaceship-like, saucer-like structures. Those may have been a ‘60s phenomenon. But do go out, explore, and reinvent. Be bold.

Why shouldn’t we be attached to styles or movements regarding the preservation and reuse of heritage architecture?

While there will always be a resistance to what is novel or new, designers, creators, and innovators must stand firm and stick with it. After all, if one’s work is not receiving resistance, it may not be relevant. Expect to be criticized like the masters Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Even Zaha Hadid never got work until she was in her 40s, and artists like Monet, van Gogh were underrated in their lifetimes.

This country is a country of mass production, favoring very cheap material. Through my passion, hopefully, some people are now becoming interested in my point of view. Once drawn to observe and appreciate, perhaps, they will then become like those in our group, Philippines Modernism Appreciation Society, who will not be content merely to admire but to restore and preserve.

Perhaps the necessity to stay put in this pandemic has opened my eyes to peer at my surroundings more closely. By devoting time to seeking truth and beauty, specifically in buildings, I have discovered many things worthy of being conserved. Whether or not you like Modernism, it is your right to choose. I’m not just into Modernism. I am into authenticity. So whether a structure is classical, modern, post-modern, Greco-Roman, Arts and Crafts—if it is authentic, I like it!

You’ve set up the Philippine Modernist Appreciation Society on Facebook, and it’s now home to a sizable community. What is your goal for the page, and how do you curate what you post?

Our group, the Philippines Modernism Appreciation Society, has grown organically. There are now close to 3,000 members. The driving force has been the desire to fill me with the beauty of Philippine Architecture. Somehow, members were drawn to my passion, which is the only thing that drives me. There is no other agenda here. No income is derived from this project. I don’t curate it.

In sharing the result of my walkabouts, discovering structures worthy of preserving, I am convinced that somehow—as I have started to appreciate what has been staring at me in the face all my life—somehow, others will too. Let us value our heritage and be convinced that we are no less than other countries.

To see what can be achieved with little, imagine what can be achieved with more. That is, if we could focus on what is true, natural, intrinsic, and authentic. This is not my philosophy. This is my observation. The poorer the area, the more creative—confirming that indeed necessity is the mother of invention!

Many iconic modernist buildings were demolished in the past 10 years in the name of development. Which demolition broke your heart the most and why? How do you think such occurrences can be prevented in the future?

There are the obvious examples of structures we have lost: Benguet Center, in Ortigas, PNB, Intercon, Mandarin, Union Church by Zaragoza in Magallanes, and of course, the latest disaster has been the demolition of the Philamlife Theater. All of these are in the best, most coveted areas of Metro Manila and, alas, are now no more. My comments may be regarded as criticisms, which I regret because they are addressed to my clients, who also happen to be my friends. But sometimes, the truth hurts, and this matter is true, and it does hurt all of us. To friends, we must speak as a doctor or a lawyer ought to talk to the patient or client. The truth. “If you continue along this course, it will harm you, so stop!”

Definitely, these must be preserved! Reused! You never leave a building abandoned because, in so doing, they will be lost to the nation.

Stop demolishing the structures which are part of our heritage.

Stop using fake, low-grade, cheap materials for your projects because these will not last. Speak the truth to your clients and give them the benefit of your expertise.

My clients, the architects, designers, and I have been through a lot together, and I do not wish them to regret some action they could have avoided or prevented. People, our children, and grandchildren may soon forget a nice, new building, a shopping mall, or some replacement to a memorable building. They may, however, long remember or be reminded by those who do remember the loss of culture from a beautiful old one, now demolished, and be made sad. Why sad? Because locked within those beautiful steel, glass, and stone, there was poetry. There was music and culture that made us feel inspired, once upon a time.  •

Follow Kaufman in his urban explorations at Philippine Modernism Appreciation Society

John Ernest Jose is a partner at Architecture Without Ego and director of He is an architect, environmental planner, and sanitary professional. He studies hospital design at the University of the Philippines.

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