Words and Interview Judith A. Torres
Images Patrick Kasingsing
“Locsin was always a man of few words. But they were a few and well-chosen words. They were strong and pithy.” This is how Dominic Galicia describes National Artist Leandro Locsin’s work. Galicia, best known as the architect of the Department of Agriculture building’s retrofit and adaptive reuse into the Museum of Natural History, is an avowed modernist by philosophy but is also a passionate advocate of “the conservation of significant architectural sites.”
In our interview with Galicia last week, Kanto fully expected a robust defense of retaining Locsin’s Ramon Cojuangco Building on the government’s list of Important Cultural Properties. But we didn’t get that. The owner of the Ramon Cojuangco Building, telecommunications titan, PLDT, had filed a petition with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the agency responsible for conserving and promoting the country’s historical and cultural heritage to delist it. The NCCA responded with a public announcement on May 17 quoting PLDT, which said that its own headquarters, designed by Locsin in 1974, “does not demonstrate exceptional cultural, artistic, and historical significance.” In the same announcement, the NCCA asked that “any person adversely affected” by PLDT’s petition “may file their written support or opposition with this office or through email@example.com not later than June 7.”
I was not an unbiased journalist when I asked Galicia for the interview. The past ten years have seen the NCCA fail time after time to protect heritage and important cultural properties. I was spoiling for a fight and looking for ammo.
Galicia wasted no time setting me straight. “Judith, I must cut to the chase,” he said. “There are four Locsin buildings from this time [in Makati CBD]—the Locsin Building, the PLDT Building, the Citibank Building, and the PCI Bank Building, which is now the BDO Building.”
And then, pow. “I find three of these four buildings to be significant, but not the PLDT. The way that I react when I see a building is, ‘Does it move me?’ And to be perfectly honest, the PLDT Building does not. In terms of the horizontal banding that you see in that building, we saw that better at Locsin’s Hyatt, which, unfortunately, was mangled beyond recognition when it was made into the Midas Hotel. In terms of sculptural stolidity, you see that with the Citibank, the BDO, and the L.V. Locsin buildings (below: from top to bottom) I find the PLDT Building to be somewhat homely.”
“I find three of these four buildings to be significant, but not the PLDT. The way that I react when I see a building is, ‘Does it move me?’ And to be perfectly honest, the PLDT building does not.”
Galicia then qualified his opinion: “Now that, that is my initial impression of the building. However, there are other significances to it that need to be discussed and other values that will argue for its importance. We need further investigation into it. For example, Paulo Alcazaren says that there’s a landscape done in the building by I.P. Santos.”
My heart fell further, hearing Galicia say that a landscape done by another National Artist might be the PLDT building’s saving grace. Galicia’s opinion, however, is just that—one man’s opinion (albeit one I deeply respect) and one open to discussion. As he told me several times in the interview, deciding on a building’s significance and, thus, its worthiness of protection from the wrecking ball is “complicated.”
Judith Torres: So, Dom, you do not agree to a blanket ban on the demolition of National Artists’ works?
Dominic Galicia: I don’t. Because National Artists’ works, like any artist’s works, vary in quality.
But with artists, we treasure their doodles, we treasure their sketches, studies, and models, right, and early works?
Yes, but not everything is displayed.
Still, we don’t throw them out. Don’t we, in fact, study the studies? A line drawing by Picasso is worth a fortune. Can’t we treat the works of National Artists the same way? Is there no value to preserving them?
See, it has to do with quality. You preserve the best of the early work; you preserve the best of the middle work; you preserve the best of the later work.
The tricky thing about architecture is it occupies real estate. This situation has so many ironies in it. You know, we’ve had buildings that were so easily demolished, like the Benguet building and the Mandarin, that almost went without a fight. That was a cultural crime. I’ve felt sad for them going. My concern is that we, we—ah! [He struggles to speak, a long pause.] We must choose our battles. My concern now is, why are we talking about the PLDT building, and not Locsin’s PCI-now-BDO twin buildings, which are also under threat? (Ed’s note: the two BDO buildings are currently being demolished; photos below) They, for me, are stronger architecture. They soar straight to the sky. The L.V. Locsin building, now that’s really a strong building. The PLDT, on the other hand, is neither here nor there. Those other three cannot go, frankly.
Why not keep the four because they’re a collection and express the National Artist at different times of history and his personal development as an architect?
That’s possible. That’s possible. But then when you consider that this building is arguably not the National Artist at his best, balanced by the need of a private entity to do something else on that site? That must be weighed.
Oh, my. I did not expect your answers.
It’s complicated, Judith. But my opinion is anchored in my gut reaction to buildings. I, I need to be touched by them.
Have you not ever been untouched but then, later, touched?
That’s possible. Not that I recall. But at the moment, with this discussion, this is my opinion without yet going deeper into the values of the building.
Alright. That is your personal stance. Which would not be your stance if you were the NCCA.
I would study it; I’d need to study it more. I’m not against the forward march of time, of civilization. But it must be judicious. Now, what’s been happening, of course, has been injudicious, right. The point is that each building needs to go through a process of validation. There should be an in-house scientific, technical, and cultural assessment. I’m not sure where the NCCA is at this moment, as far as the available expertise is concerned, but they would be able to gather the expertise as needed.
And the NCCA basing its decision on society’s silence or opposition to the delistment? Asking the public to respond within twenty-one days how they are “adversely affected” by removing this building from the list of Important Cultural Properties?
That’s such a strange question because that question is irrelevant.
Why is it irrelevant?
Community opinion is, of course, important because a building is part of the community. But, as I said earlier, the NCCA as a cultural agency, as arbiters and experts, should know the value of it. The value and the significance of the building do not fully reside in how people are affected by the possible removal of a building. The public doesn’t always have the expertise to assess.
Of course, the public has the capacity to love or not love something. But that love can ebb and flow over time. Important buildings all over the world, by Paul Rudolph, for example, have been demolished because they were no longer loved.
I was just thinking, you know, everyone loves the Spoliarium by Juan Luna. But not everyone loves the work of Ang Kiukok, right? But then experts know the value of both Spoliarium and Ang Kiukok. That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s the importance of expertise. That’s why NCCA must harness the expertise. It cannot, it cannot depend on public opinion.
They don’t know how to defend their decision, so, they say, ‘Let society decide.’
Like Pontius Pilate.
Isn’t it also unfair to ask society to decide on a building it hasn’t seen? Private office buildings in Makati are not visible as the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philippine International Convention Center, and the Folk Arts Theater, which were built for the public’s enjoyment. How can a country fall in love with office buildings they have no business visiting?
I must confess, until Brutalist Pilipinas’ post on PLDT’s petition to delist its building, I’d not seen it before. I don’t know it. But the loss of the Benguet Building hurt. Because I saw the building frequently, from afar and up-close, when Ortigas Center wasn’t yet crowded with high-rises. Why are you passionate about the Mandarin? Did you used to go there?
I studied at International School and on my way home I would sometimes pass by the Mandarin. At the time, there weren’t really that many buildings in Makati. The Mandarin was one of them. And we would have events at the Mandarin, so I was in the building. The Mandarin is one of the reasons I became an architect, I was so impressed by it. I even wrote an essay about it for a writing assignment in Spanish class.
There you go. How about Benguet?
I didn’t really know the building. I admired it from what I’ve seen in photographs, but it wasn’t part of my growing up. Speaking of buildings we know up-close, I thought that Locsin’s Magnolia Building on Aurora Boulevard was beautiful.
The ice cream place? Yes! I used to save up on my allowance to go there!
Every time my sister or I would get high grades in school, you know, that was our treat from our parents. That was a wonderful, wonderful building.
Would you have fought for it today?
Yes, yes. That was strong.
How does one even prove to the NCCA that we are “adversely affected” by the loss of a building? I just know the whole nation is adversely affected when the NCCA fails to save our heritage.
How do you explain it?
Because these works are an expression and a reminder of the best of us. These are among the best moments in our history as a people. These are markers of our achievement, of our accomplishment. And as you demolish, as we eradicate each of these markers, which, in essence, are milestones, we are going to get increasingly lost. That is the value of these buildings. A lot of it has to do with us finding ourselves.
We lose them, we lose ourselves.
We lose our way.
We lose the conception that, hey, we are capable of greatness!
Who would you recommend being among NCCA’s panel of experts? Paulo Alcazaren?
Yes, and also Edson Cabalfin.
Who else? …Where do you think Toti Villalon would he have stood on this?
He would have been level-headed about it. He was a kind of a mentor for me in this way of looking at heritage. You can’t be draconian about preservation because each case is a particular case. It’s a case-to-case basis.
What about the man himself, Lindy? Would he have been okay letting this building go? If it were one of your buildings about to be delisted, would you let it go?
No, I can’t say; I can’t speak for him. I didn’t know him. You know who worked for him? Manny Miñana. You could ask him.
Well, for that matter, there’s his son, Andy. Who else would know better about the merits of Leandro Locsin’s work than Andy, right? But he won’t argue for preserving them because he believes it is boastful and unethical to do so. He said so when I messaged him about PLDT and when we interviewed him on Mandarin’s impending demolition.
I remember that for the Mandarin, I spoke up. I remember being invited to a dinner by the people of Ayala to discuss the Mandarin.
Why did they not listen?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I remember Sudar [Sudar Khadka, an associate architect at the time of Mandarin’s demolition, now partner at the Locsin office] telling me that they did a lot of studies of different ways of trying to save even the skin of the Mandarin.
Don’t you think the Locsins’ reticence to fight for Leandro’s legacy emboldens developers to tear them down? They know they’re not going to hear a peep out of the Locsin firm or family. Unlike the Mañosas, who fought tooth and nail for their father to be recognized and would fight tooth and nail if anyone were to demolish Bobby Mañosa’s buildings.
Well, I guess you could say these are two extremes. I don’t think it serves heritage well if one is going to be draconian about it. As for Andy and the legacy of his father, I must say that outside of speaking in defense of the firm’s—of his father’s work—Andy has been a steadfast conserver of the legacy, in terms of preserving the drawings and architectural documents in the firm’s archives.
But who gets to see the archives, Dom? Only scholars like Jean-Claude Girard. And he did include the PLDT building in his book on Locsin and discussed its merits.
Yes. If I were Andy, though, I would not be as reticent as he is.
There you go.
I remember reading when Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House was threatened with demolition, he spoke out in its defense, and it was saved. So, it’s perfectly acceptable.
[Restored to its 1910 condition, the Robie House is a National Historic Landmark in the US, designated in 1991 as one of the 10 most significant structures of the 20th century by the American Institute of Architects. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2019.]
And people would listen! Because if the designer himself or the architect’s son doesn’t object, why would anyone else, no? And yet, Andy Locsin himself says we must let society decide what it wants to keep.
Yes, but I think when he says that, he is assuming the best of society. And he’s assuming the best of society will include a vigorous cultural agency that would study the issue carefully. •
Dominic Galicia’s heritage conservation credentials include representing the Philippines in the International Scientific Committee on Twentieth-Century Heritage of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS); serving as president of ICOMOS Philippines from 2014 to 2017; advising the Escolta Commercial Association Inc. in reviving Manila’s historic downtown, from 2011 to 2013; working as Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) vice president for six years and representing the HCS on the Executive Council of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).