Inside Look: Day 5 with Cynthia Almario, Ivy Almario and Benjee Mendoza

The Almario sisters and Benjee Mendoza on the Residential and Large Workplace categories of INSIDE 2021, capping off the 5th and last day of our week-long webinar with PIID

Words Miguel Llona
Images PIID and WAF/INSIDE is an official media partner of the World Architecture Festival 2022

Since 2014, Filipino architecture firms have been making waves at the prestigious World Architecture Festival, taking home the top prize for some categories or getting high commendations from the jury. Each year has seen more firms shortlisted than the previous year, with 2021 proving to be the most successful yet with 9 projects from 6 firms shortlisted in over 11 categories. It’s a reflection of Filipino architecture gaining more recognition internationally and has encouraged more and more architects to join each year.  

But what about interior designers? In contrast to the Philippines’ strong presence at the WAF, the country has barely made a dent in INSIDE, the WAF’s counterpart for interior design. There have only been two Filipino projects shortlisted for INSIDE, and both were done by an architect (Jorge Yulo, for Mecha Uma and La Cabana de Resureccion). It is a global opportunity that has yet to be maximized by the local interior design industry, despite the abundance of talented designers in the country. To address this, Kanto partnered with the Philippine Institute of Interior Designers (PIID) to host online watch parties of the winning entries from last year’s INSIDE, in the hopes of preparing and inspiring interior designers to join the competition. With Kanto having exclusive access to the boards and crits from last year’s competition, professionals and students alike had the opportunity to see how designers defend their work in front of a three-man jury, or simply be exposed to innovative designs from around the world. Guiding the audience throughout the watch parties are pairs of architects and interior designers for each day, with the former being a past WAF finalist to provide a firsthand perspective of the competition.

Casa Palerm

Day 5: Residential (Single and More than One Dwelling) and Workplace (Large)

The fifth and final day of the Inside Look series brought together mentors with a wealth of knowledge to share from their experiences in the industry and from participating in the competition itself. A past winner in 2018, Ar. Benjee Mendoza of BAAD Studio has served as a juror for the past three WAFs, and being on both sides of the competition yielded valuable advice and insights throughout the session. IDrs. Cynthia and Ivy Almario needed no further introduction, having worked on multitudes of projects over the years as some of the country’s top interior designers, making them the ideal counterparts for the interior design perspective as they discussed the Residential and Workplace categories. With IDr. Joan Reyes, co-founder of Iloilo-based LAHUBRE Designs, and Kanto editor Judith Torres hosting, the watch party delved into the different ways that living and work spaces are being designed on the international stage.

Residential (Single Dwelling)

Casa Palerm by OHLAB
Winner – Residential (Single Dwelling) category

Touted as a “reinvention of the villa,” a small holiday home in Mallorca won the Residential – Single Dwelling category, due to the simplicity of its architectural solution and its strong sense of place. The latter is already evident in the project boards alone, as observed by the Almario sisters. One could appreciate the Mediterranean aesthetic and the local materials from the images chosen, which paint an idyllic picture of a house that appears to have emerged organically from the Mallorcan landscape.

The blurring of architecture and interior, of indoor and outdoor, and of the house’s rigidity and tactility is what Mendoza appreciates in Casa Palerm. Its architects were able to convey this clearly through their boards and presentation, through a combination of diagrams and infographics that tell the story of the panoramic photos shown later on. Mendoza echoes what the other mentors have been saying throughout the week—guide the jury through the strength of your project’s narrative before showing them the finished building as if you were assembling it piece by piece for them to get the complete picture. How OHLAB ended its presentation with a short video was another strong point. The “cinematic” quality of the video, which showed panoramic and aerial shots of the project as it related to the landscape, served as the perfect culmination of everything OHLAB had presented. “They were clear, they were not too excited. They were very clear in showing the process of working with the site. Secondly, they showed the restrictions they had to work with. And lastly, they talked about buildability,” says Mendoza. 

The issue of having a language barrier between the presenter and the jurors was brought up. With the OHLAB architects being Spanish, they struggled to comprehend some of the questions being asked, leading to some awkward back-and-forth during the Q&A. The language barrier did little to prevent the jury from naming Casa Palerm the category winner though, and Mendoza attributes this to the “realness” that could be felt from the architects during the presentation. “There’s this richness, and it comes from the heart when they talk,” he says. As long as the project resonates with authenticity, sensitivity, and passion, it will stand a chance to win. As Ivy Almario puts it, personal projects still have a “transformative edge.”

House 1/2 by dot & Associates
Highly Commended – Residential (Single Dwelling) category

House 1/2 is a wooden house in Taiwan, made completely through tongue and groove to lessen construction impact on the forest it was built in. The 60-square meter house’s flexibility and compactness are its strong points—furniture could be used for both the indoors and outdoors, the kitchen could be converted into a barbecue grill, and a flexible layout for the family to fill in with their desired lifestyle. The concept is equally intriguing and problematic, as discussed by the three mentors.

Ivy Almario found no problem with the presentation, which she found thorough due to the detailed explanation of the construction process and presentation of the layouts and diagrams. Cynthia, on the other hand, voiced out her issues with the design itself, which she found impractical despite the “sculptural, whimsical, and fun” forms inside the house, notably the steel staircase with no railings and barriers. “You can just imagine that it’s an accident waiting to happen, especially since it’s for a family of five,” she says.

Having a child of his own, Mendoza concurs with Cynthia’s criticism of the house failing to be a conducive environment to children. The interiors having numerous sharp edges due to the sculptural forms of the furniture and other interior elements could introduce problems for any family living within the house. But for as much as Mendoza and the Almario sisters focused on these safety issues, they curiously weren’t brought up during the jurors’ Q&A itself. Future participants at INSIDE, however, were still reminded to be prepared to answer questions relating to technical and practical aspects of their projects, not just on the aesthetic and conceptual.

Residential (More Than One Dwelling)

The Home for a Brand New Start by PONE Architecture
Winner – Residential (More than One Dwelling) category

PONE Architecture’s renovation project of a condo unit was designed for a single mother and her daughter, with the goal of improving their “life efficiency” by optimizing the unit’s space and the occupants’ time spent inside. While the jury saw fit to declare it the winner, The Home for a Brand New Start actually didn’t belong in the category, with INSIDE admitting the mistake after its win. It was still deemed worthy of discussion for Inside Look, and the mentors grappled with the question of why the project won.

The designer being able to fulfill all the wishes of the mother was a major reason why PONE’s project won, according to Cynthia. “The mom really made sure she had a wishlist that combined functions and hobbies for the daughter and herself. I found that really interesting, and at the end of the day, her wishlist was granted and put into the design,” she says. She compares the unit to a modern treehouse due to the sculptural staircase, for which Mendoza also expresses admiration for. The “organic shapes” shown in the project’s boards show what you’re in for, and “in such a small space, so many stories are apparent right away in these boards, then complemented by the plans,” he says. Ivy describes the project boards as “very dramatic, the color palette very tailored and handsome…the juxtaposition of the pictures did not only underline tonality, but also showed the flexibility of the space in one go.”

Cynthia further attributes the project’s win to the meticulous planning that went into the layout, particularly the private rooms in which the mother and daughter will be spending the most time in. Filipinos often pay more attention to the design of their house’s public spaces rather than the private ones in order to impress visitors, so Cynthia found it refreshing to see a house with a design truly meant for its owners. Going in-depth into studying the owners’ lifestyles, routines, and habits before thinking about the materiality and tactility of the space, as PONE did for this project, is a process that Filipino designers would be wise to follow for their own residential projects.  

Workplace (Large)

YTL Headquarters by Ministry of Design
Winner – Workplace (Large) category

Ministry of Design’s headquarters for YTL, a Malaysian conglomerate, won the Workplace (Large) category. The building houses 1,000 personnel, and the brief was for the interiors to reflect YTL’s “legacy of corporate professionalism, infused with a future-forward attitude that embraces change.”

The Almario sisters weren’t impressed by the boards, calling the opening layout “static” and “bland” due to the repetitiveness of the photos’ angles. “It could be the lobby of anything,” says Ivy, referencing the hero shots of the YTL Headquarters’ lobby. For Cynthia, these hero shots only show the volume of the lobby and little else, making her wonder how it got shortlisted in the first place. Mendoza’s opinion differs greatly, however—he asserts that the project is indeed shortlistable mainly due to the beauty of the photos. “The interesting factor here is there’s a strong aspect of branding that we can see. You can see it in the continuity of the tones and the elements,” he says.

The mentors were all in agreement regarding the project’s beauty, though the Almario sisters lamented the missed opportunity to incorporate a sense of history in the interiors especially since the designer kept bringing up the heritage of the company’s ownership. As a result, the headquarters only looks like a “generic, beautiful workplace” and nothing more. “It’s very well-designed, but it’s not memorable. I did not feel anything new,” says Ivy of the project’s design.

Mendoza pointed out a part during the juror’s Q&A where the designer was asked whether the photos being shown were actual photos or perspectives, which could be seen as both compliment and a criticism. “It’s both because your concept has been built so perfectly that you were actually successful in building your vision, but in the same way also, it’s a negative because it looks too clinical,” he says. While a project’s contextual sensitivity and social relevance have proven to be winning formulas at INSIDE, it’s still important for a project to have that “wow” factor—which makes the YTL Headquarters’ category win all the more confusing for our mentors.

Final Takeaways

Being the final day of Inside Look, the mentors took the opportunity to bring all of the insights and lessons from the past week full circle.

Cynthia Almario summed up her learnings over what to expect from a competition like INSIDE, echoing several insights made by previous mentors. Personal projects lead to authentic designs; a project having a strong sense of place resonates with jurors; collaboration is essential to design today, and lastly, human-centric design should be every designer’s focus, which entails improving the quality of life together with the quality of the environment. “In design thinking, we always say, ‘Don’t start with people; start with empathy,’” she says. “[Design] has gone beyond eye candy. Lifestyles are now being studied, addressed, and honored.”

Based on his experiences as a juror, Mendoza adds to Cynthia’s point regarding the way designers think these days. Having gotten the opportunity to meet designers of all nationalities his past three years as a WAF juror, he is struck by how similar most designers think alike in terms of what they’re looking for—they look for the project’s relevance, and how it affects the society it’s been built in. He also assuaged concerns that INSIDE favors interior architects (sometimes, even architects) more than interior designers, saying that architects have their own limits that prevent them from dominating interior design competitions. “Interior designers [have an advantage] over architects because [they] can see how tactile things can be…and understand the human value of touch points, tactility,” he says. Several of Mendoza’s architects have indeed joined INSIDE in the past, but they have yet to win precisely because of his point that they lack the softness necessary to understand interior spaces.

For Ivy Almario, there could not have been a better event than Inside Look to cap her first Interior Design Month as PIID Director. She voiced what every other mentor has said about the week-long event—it was a space that encouraged much-needed discourse about the state of Philippine interior design, brought to life by the alchemy of the different personalities from different regions brought as either mentors or hosts of the event. The whole experience should be a gratifying one for interior designers and architects alike, because as Ivy says, “Design is a living, breathing love affair that [we interior designers] are constantly having. That’s why we’re here.” • 

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