Practice, Practice

Jason Buensalido, whose Interweave project received a Highly Commended nod from the World Architecture Festival in the Completed Building School category, shares how he prepared for the global competition.

Interview Judith A. Torres
Images Buensalido Architects

 
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Jason Buensalido never takes anything for granted. So when Buensalido Architects learned that the World Architecture Festival shortlisted the two projects they submitted, they went straight to work on the presentations.

A good thing they did. Because instead of presenting in Lisbon on December 1, WAF finalists were informed on September 30 that because of pandemic restrictions and safety issues, the festival would no longer be held in person but online and that the crits would be scheduled as early as October 18. This would be the first time since WAF began in 2008 that finalists would not present face-to-face with a live jury and audience. Instead, the private crits, which ran for five weeks, have been recorded and will be available for viewing for six months, starting from November 29.

The Interweave Building, Highly Commended by WAF jurors in the Completed Building – School category, has another shot at winning in the Color category, for which Buensalido’s crit was scheduled yesterday, November 24. (The same day that Budji Layug and Royal Pineda had their crit for the Athletic Stadium in the Engineering category).

CIIT lobby, Header: CIIT Philippines – College of Arts and Technology is a digital arts school in Kamuning, Quezon City
The central staircase doubles as a social space

While Kanto and GROHE Philippines (GROHE is the founder sponsor of WAF) were organizing private practice crit sessions for our Filipino finalists, Buensalido also organized his own practice sessions, calling on trusted colleagues to critique his presentations.

Buensalido+Architects was shortlisted in three categories: From Fragmented to Free in the Future Project – Competition category and Interweave in the Completed Building – School and Color categories, and he wasn’t going to leave any of the three to chance. Here’s the rest of his story.

Congratulations, Jason and the whole B+A team! How are you doing?

Jason Buensalido: Wow, overwhelmed. But to be honest, it hasn’t sunk in yet. I just found out from my wife, Nikki. She was up at three or four in the morning, feeding the baby. She didn’t wake me up, but it was the first thing I saw when I got up—any time there’s a WAF email, you check it, right. So Nikki was waiting for me, and then we jumped together for a while.

Tell us how you prepped for the WAF crits.

It was actually quite taxing, on top of work. We’re pretty busy. But as soon as we found out, we jumped right at it. The whole team worked on the presentations. And when you called to schedule the GROHE crit sessions, it accelerated the process, which helped us very much. We knew right away at that point where the presentations were strong and where it was weak.

I thought your presentations at the GROHE practice crit sessions were strong.

Thanks for that, but to be honest, for Interweave, the CIIT building, we were unsure about how to piece everything together because, firstly, it’s a 10-minute presentation on the dot. And secondly, we wanted to say much more because that project represents so many things, including our design philosophy. So, when we presented at the GROHE practice crit, it was almost there, but we didn’t have a resolution at the end yet. We just revised and revised and revised. Until the day before, we were still adjusting and tweaking the script.

What, for example, were you revising?

One of the most powerful meanings of the project, for me personally, is the idea of optimistic architecture. If you remember, I opened the presentation with the reality most Filipinos face, which is poverty that, in our minds, we kind of have to live with because of a defeatist sort of mentality—you know, “My voice is small, I can’t do anything about it anyway, so I have no choice but to live with this.” And therefore, we’ve developed a robust and resilient spirit. And this resilient spirit led to positivity, celebration, and hope, which we always endeavor to reflect in our architecture. So that was the angle.

So, you cut back on that and focused instead on?

More on resilience, rather than painting a picture of how difficult life is for Filipinos. Yes, it’s difficult, but rather than dwell on poverty and social difficulties, we discussed the problematic urban context—insufficient infrastructure, flooding, traffic, the backlog of urban housing for six million. So, the jump to architecture and resilience was more organic to the discussion.

The abstracted Filipino weave patterns used on the exterior brise soleil were reinterpreted inside via colorful wooden strips attached to the ceiling

Before the Kanto GROHE practice crits, you already did private crits of your own—for each of the three categories, right? So who were some of the people you called on?

Joseph Javier was one, Buck Sia, Jim Caumeron, and previous WAF winners Benjamin Mendoza and Sudar Khadka, of course. I consulted with Anya Lim, too, of AntHill Fabric, an expert working with indigenous communities and the weaves they produce. As we referenced indigenous weavings, I wanted to make sure our usage was acceptable, knowing that such weave patterns have very special and specific meanings to the communities that make them.

And Anthony Nazareno met with you, too, right after his camping trip in Sonoma, California!

Yes, I met with Anthony. It was nice of him to reach out and ask for a one-on-one since he wasn’t able to make it to the GROHE crit.

Jason, you and Buck Sia, who also organized a private crit when he and Kenneth Cobonpue were shortlisted in 2019, are unique. I don’t know many people who would voluntarily subject their work to critique. We all agree it’s a good thing, but Pinoys have an aversion to it. So how do we encourage healthy skepticism and critical thinking in the Philippine design community?

It really starts in school, where asking questions should be encouraged. But authoritarians and conservatives don’t like people asking questions. So, it’s in our culture. Ganun din tayo sa trabaho diba? When it’s time for mid-year evaluation, some people take it personally. But it’s not about your personality; project evaluation doesn’t devalue you as a person. It’s meant to make your performance and, consequently, your work better.

So, what can we do? For my part, just doing it and exemplifying it. That’s one of the reasons I agreed to the crit with GROHE, so people can see there’s nothing wrong with this whole crit culture. In the office, it’s natural to us. What it takes is the understanding that it’s for the betterment of the project. How will it get better if you don’t pool ideas and depend only on one person’s views?

It also takes humility. One person can’t know everything and be the best at everything. So we need the help of people to kind of burst our bubble if they need to and encourage you when you need encouragement. And that’s what happened in the crits.

The student lounge and library on the second floor
In a post-occupancy survey, teachers and students expressed appreciation for the vibrant of colors and lighting in classrooms and common spaces.
Teachers say the colorful environs don’t make coming to work at CIIT feel like work.

How do internal crits help B+A? Perhaps you can encourage others to do the same.

It’s indispensable to problem-solving and critical thinking, which are hallmarks of progressive thinking, which we pursue in our architecture. Each project informs the next. And the next project is an effort to learn from, prevent the mistakes that happened, and improve on the previous. So, every project gets better every time. You can’t do that without feedback.

The second part is, it’s great to make mistakes; it should be celebrated, in fact. I guess people don’t want to hear criticism because, to them, if they’re criticized, they made a mistake. And if you make a mistake, you’re a failure. In school, mistakes are not celebrated. Experimentation is not celebrated. It’s about following the rules and making the grade. We should allow kids to make mistakes so that their mistakes inform future learnings.

They say the sooner you make your mistake, the better. Better than procrastinating and not testing your idea at all.

Definitely.

What makes a good crit, Jason?

I don’t know the science and technique, but I do it intuitively from experience and desire to be better. So, number one, it starts with a good presentation. The presenter must frame the problem that needs solving. What are the parameters, the limitations, the strengths of the situation, and the context? And then the process they went through, how each problem was attacked, and, in the end, how everything came together. Whatever you framed at the start hopefully is resolved at the end.

Secondly, the people commenting on the presentation need to understand the objectives of the crit. We’re doing this crit because of this. Hindi lang yun comment ng comment on anything. For example, any of the jurors at the GROHE practice crit could have talked forever and criticized the building, but they knew the objectives of the crit. And that’s why they knew how to focus their comments.

Thirdly, everybody participating must come in with respect. And when they critique, it has to be constructive and not in a derogatory or offensive manner. So then for the presenter, siempre, he shouldn’t take it personally.

The colorful wooden strips help serve as a navigation system.

Some people can’t fathom how a global competition pits projects of different sizes and budgets from entirely different contexts with varying problems against one another and choose the World Building of the Year. Our editor talked to an architect who said competitions should only be among architects solving the same problem. How would you respond to that, Jason? Would you change anything about WAF? How would you improve on it?

Whoa. I don’t agree with that, not at all. I mean, that’s why it’s called the World Architecture Festival, right? Because, yes, we do live in different contexts, but we live in one world. So, when you present at WAF, it’s your job as the architect to present the context and make the jury understand.

For me, the limitation is you only get ten minutes to present. How can you express a loaded and super meaningful project in that time? Another issue might be judges who do not understand the context you were dealing with, say poverty. The judges could be from first-world countries who don’t know the meaning of poverty. If so, how will they see the project as something significant to people from a third-world country? So, there are issues, absolutely.

But there’s no endeavor in the world without challenges, right? All of us must work with these challenges. WAF drives people to be excellent, so that is a value by itself.

It’s not about winning; it’s about how you can improve your practice yourself. And in the process of learning and growing, you apply what you learn to help people through your projects.

Jason, of course, we want you to win. It’s a big deal to be a finalist out of thousands of entries, and we’re ecstatic the Philippines has nine projects shortlisted in eleven categories. We’re so happy that Buensalido Architects’ and BUDJI+ROYAL’s projects are both highly commended in their categories, but while there’s a chance you may win something more, we’re gonna keep cheering you on.

Yes, there’s a possibility of winning. But not for bragging rights or to make ourselves feel good, but more so our practice will be heard, and people, knowing what you’ve achieved, will listen to you. So, consequently, you can help more people because of that status.

This is our third time to join. And it’s our first time to be shortlisted. And it’s always about: First time, hindi maganda yung entry natin, how can we improve? Second time, hindi maganda yung entry natin, how can we improve? Third time? Try natin uli! And now, we’re shortlisted in three categories.

Most of the concrete walls are left blank, to allow students to paint and decorate them as they wish.

Way to go, Jason.

There’s value in joining WAF. Sabi mo nga, if you’re not comfortable, it drives you to be better. I wasn’t comfortable with the setup; this wasn’t what we expected. Number one, it’s virtual. Number two, you don’t know who your judges will be. (Judges’ names in each category used to be announced days before the festival.) You don’t know how they think, and you have to respond to how they think and how they talk.

I can’t wait to watch your WAF crit, Jason. You were a credit to the Philippines, I’m sure of it. What about the practice crits? What else can we do to help you guys?

It went well, Judith. Yeah, it went well. And to me, it helped that it wasn’t live-streamed or recorded. Keeping it private helped us be honest about the questions. I enjoyed the exchanges.

Well, the people conversing with you guys are top-notch. And I still can’t get over how all these busy professionals dropped everything at short notice to join us at the crits. So, last words, Jason. Will the WAF recognition change anything in your practice?

No, we’ll continue doing what we’ve been doing. The WAF commendation is a nudge in the right direction. That means more experimentation, people unafraid to make mistakes, more learning, more progressive design solutions, and more efforts to help people. So we’ll keep moving forward and pushing and coaxing and inspiring people towards positive change. •

Thanks to GROHE Philippines for sponsoring the practice crits that Kanto organized for Filipino WAF finalists. Your support is building a community of architects and designers who believe in life-long learning and critical thinking. Excerpts of the practice crits will soon be available for viewing in GROHE Pacific’s Facebook page.

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