Alero Design Studio’s Memory Hall Imprints at the WAF

Studio makes a repeat WAF appearance for their emotionally-charged entry in a new category, Religion, facing off with formidable ASEAN rivals

Images Greg Mayo for Alero Design Studio

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Architect Jaemi and interior designer Jesy Cruz had their first taste of the WAF experience when they made it to live crits in Amsterdam back in December 2019. The studio was shortlisted under the Future Projects Civic and Community category for their buntal hat-inspired Baliwag Community Center. While nerves crept up and the plum prize proved elusive, the studio was thankful and invigorated enough by the experience to take another stab at the competition, this time under a different division and category: Completed Buildings, Religion.

Their entry for this year’s edition of the WAF is a mausoleum for a beloved public servant, which they dubbed Memory Hall. The team tells Kanto how much of an emotional experience working on the project was for them, and that beyond another design exercise, they were reminded of how important it is to put one’s self in the client’s shoes in order to discern how best to respond to the brief. With their shortlist appearance, Alero will get the chance to recount their process and project experience in front of a multinational jury come December in Lisbon, Portugal.

Being shortlisted however is only half the fight: Alero Design Studio has to fend off a formidable set of rivals from all over the world, going against ASEAN studios MIA Design Studio, RAD+ar, and RT+Q Architects among others for the Religion building category prize. What do the folks of Alero have up their sleeve for their second WAF appearance? We talk with co-founder Jesy Cruz about their entry and crit preparations, followed by their project writeup on shortlisted entry, Memory Hall.

Team Alero

Hello Jesy and Team Alero! Congrats on your second WAF shortlist appearance! What inspired you to join again this year despite the pandemic?

Thank you! To be honest, when we submitted our WAF entry, it was during the onset of the pandemic (which we thought would not last as long as it had) so our expectations were modest.

Being a 2019 WAF finalist was a humbling and invigorating experience for the team. Seeing and hearing the thought processes of our international contemporaries whilst having the same platform to share our ideas, made us more sensitive with how our design converses with the contextual realities surrounding our projects.

What were some vital learnings from your last appearance at the WAF live crits in Amsterdam? How did the experience shape or affect your view of your profession and how it is practiced in the Philippines?

Being there made us realize that the panel, audience, and our co-delegates, no matter how big or small our practices, are at the end of the day, still just people. Great people. They crack jokes and they also try to find the right words when explaining; it’s amazing how, despite differences in language or cultural barriers, we are still able to find common ground through our practice and our desire to ably serve our roles as creators of shelter.

The success of our entry into the competition made us more experimental and daring but also more forgiving of our work at the same time. The experience also made us realize that Filipino design is, without question, at par with other international designers and architects; WAF reminded us that no matter where we came from, our designs, thought processes, and solutions all go through the same stringent scrutiny and that at the end of the day, we are all just designers and creators seeking to solve the world’s problems one space at a time.

What changes will you be making to your presentation strategy this year?

We are going ‘freestyle’ this year (Laughs). We tend to overthink our work, especially when it comes to the way we present but this year we will let the design and its story speak for itself organically. Since this project began as a very personal story for our client, our storytelling would be equally personal as well; we will emphasize the emotive and functional aspect of our design in equal measure in our narrative, especially since it balances two very different human needs.

Joining competitions like the WAF help remind everyone of how collaboration, innovation, and discourse are vital to doing things better and getting back stronger especially when faced with adversities like the current pandemic. But pandemics don’t last forever; what makes you hopeful about the future of the profession and what were some of the ways you have enhanced Alero to prepare and help make this future happen?

If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it is to keep the discourse going no matter what as the key to survival is adaptability. Adaptability involves open communication and collaboration; it’s only by continuing to show up, think, create and build no matter the odds that we get to learn and harness better results and in turn, create better designs that improve lives.

Let’s talk a bit about your entry, Memory Hall. The way we commemorate the departed in the Philippines is a unique subculture in itself; how would you seek to communicate this practice and unique architectural typology to the diverse WAF jury?

We do indeed have rich cultural practices and religious beliefs attached to the afterlife like in many other cultures. We think that the mausoleum typology is often overlooked and given little importance when in fact, designing a final resting place is a complex and important commission. It is a space that answers to a very personal and spiritual need for those left behind, the earthly venue where connections endure between the living and the dead.

More than its scale and grandeur, the efforts of our client to create such a structure moved us when we think about the lengths the family went through to cope with the loss. We were honored to be part of their endeavor to create a physical representation of their love for the departed and to keep the connections with them alive.

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the design and construction of this project?

Aside from the usual challenges of sourcing the materials of this scale during a pandemic, the greatest challenge was to create something awe-inspiring within an eight-meter-wide plot of land.

Another hurdle was to challenge the mindset of our client and convince them to let us design a structure that was less conventional and a lot more sensitive to the tropical context as there will be some communal spaces integrated. We wanted to veer away from the darkness and monolithic norms of a classical mausoleum and create a space filled with light, with an airy, uplifting quality.

The structure you have created sought to answer both practical concerns for its users but also more abstract, unquantifiable needs that facilitate emotional release and spiritual devotion. How did the team go about balancing these two sides of the commission in a way that gave equal importance to both? What learning from this project did you find yourself carrying over to other Alero work? 

It was the eight-meter-wide site that mainly dictated our space programming. In our initial plans, we were already set on designing the structure to hold a journey of sorts, where we assigned familial activities together in the front-facing volume of the building, the other volume serving as the mausoleum proper, with a chapel and space made for contemplation and prayer. We then linked these two volumes with a ‘bridge.’ We think that both the separation and linking of the two volumes allow our clients their moment of peace but also of support when they need it. It is also our spatial take on the journey we all undergo in life.

Our sensitivities and sensibilities are progressively enhanced with each project we do as we get to know our clients. Memory Hall is one of those projects that definitely came with a new set of learnings on how to impact people’s lives, enhancing our ability to tell stories without words.

Memory Hall

On a 270-square meter cemetery lot in the province of Bulacan, Philippines stands a structure that not only seeks to keep a loyal public servant’s memory alive but also to highlight the life of a family’s champion.

Even if the basic function of the building is to be a final resting place, it is also the aim of the designers to create an architectural and design typology that is coded with meaning―symbolic of the identity of the one entombed. The mausoleum is wrapped around by 76 travertine pilasters which reflects the age of the deceased mayor, his ‘servant’s crown’ made concrete. More than just a façade element, this is also a modernized take on the neoclassical style beloved of mausoleums.

The repetitive pilasters also double as sun breakers for the mausoleum’s copious windows which permit natural light in. Taking into consideration the location of the structure and the sun path, the design team strategically planned the openings of the mausoleum to face the east and the solid wall to shield the interiors from the harsh afternoon sun which lessens the heat gain of the building.

The structure is broken into two volumes with varying heights (making the best of its challenging lot which is 8 meters deep and 33.75 meters long) and curved corners to soften its presence. Travertine pilasters encircle the two volumes, their slender forms seemingly reaching to the skies. Our design seeks to balance monumentality and solemnity with that of approachability and warmth.

Ossuaries clad in marble and brass line the wall from the main entry. Flanking it are two-volume sections that unravel a narrative for visitors. A visitor first enters the low-ceilinged reception volume (which also includes two floors of communal areas, a kitchen, and toilets) and after crossing the central vestibule, finally, reach the double-height chapel and tomb. This sequence can allude to a person’s journey through life before crossing over to the boundless unknown of the afterlife.

The client wanted the burial chamber to be a chapel first and a tomb second; thus, upon entering the altar, one’s eyes are first drawn up to the beautifully carved Risen Christ sculpture set amidst the rhythmic undulation of warm wood paneling. The repetition of elements add solemnity to the space: from the geometric patterns of the marble floor, the array of double-height windows that ring the volume, the wooden pews fronting the textured slab that contains the remains of the beloved mayor, and finally, as one looks toward the heavens, a suspended arched ceiling.

This Memory Hall is the architectural expression of a family’s strong ties and a visual metaphor for the journey all created beings make as they cross through life and eventually leave earthly existence to be reunited with one’s Creator. •

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