4 Women Trailblazers in the Field of Architecture
You might have already heard of Leandro Locsin, Francisco Manosa, Juan F. Nakpil, Pablo Antonio. These are the familiar names of some of our country’s best-known architects, along with their iconic concrete-and-steel creations—are all in our recent memories.
But have you heard of Architect Nina Bailon-Arce who designed the Bangko Sentral branches in
Roxas and Tacloban? Or trailblazers such as Cathy Carunungan who is constantly building future-ready health facilities during this time of pandemic? It isn’t surprising if you haven’t. The role that women have played in architecture and design often go under the radar.
In the Marvel’s comic book Fantastic 4, each of the powers (as well as their personalities) of the Fantastic Four correspond to the four basic elements: earth (Thing), wind (Invisible Woman), fire (Human Torch), and water (Mister Fantastic). This is our version of these acclaimed heroes - the Philippine Architecture Industry’s Femmetastic 4, all working to promise us a good built environment. These women trailblazers are heroes in their field, superwomen in real life.
1. EARTH (Ar. Maria Nina Bailon-Arce)
“The Thing” possesses superhuman strength, endurance, and durability. But it also represents being grounded and constant, like the Earth. And so is Architect Nina Bailon-Arce.
A female architect with a humble beginning and an artistic turn of mind, Bailon-Arce’s career journey has been nothing short of exciting. Raised by public school teachers, she knows the value of hard work and perseverance, and that didn’t go unnoticed by her peers and mentors. The late UST dean Augusto Concio invested in her talent during her early student years. Mr. and Mrs. Felipe F. Cruz of F.F.Cruz & Company, Inc. honed her creative chops. Architect Mariano Arce, Jr. snagged more than a beaute and got himself a life and business partner. The rest, as some would say, is herstory. Their firm’s projects, mostly government institutions, commercial, educational, transport and sports facilities, have been blurring comfortably boundaries between fine art and design since 1987. Known to work closely with government institutions, Arce- Bailon-Arce’s designs pepper the metro and beyond - but some noteworthy designs include several Bangko Sentral Branches in Roxas, Tacloban, and Palawan, South Luzon Toll Plazas and Supervision Buildings in the South, Office of the Ombudsman Building in Mindanao, Supreme Court Manila Hall of Justice, and cultural centers like BSP Museum and BSP Trade Exhibit Hall at the PICC Complex.
She has also been serving in the Girl Scout of the Philippines Real Properties & Buildings Committee for almost 20 years (with 3 years spent as its chairwoman), continually giving suggestions on the improvement and development of its training centers nationwide. I’ve got the chance to interview this true epitome of a Girl Scout, and I couldn’t be more proud of being a girl.
Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Museum, PICC Complex, Pasay City
How did you know that you wanted to be an Architect?
I initially wanted to take up Fine Arts in Advertising. My father convinced me to pursue this career as I was good in drawing and had won several drawing contests. My parents, who were public school teachers at that time, thought they would not be able to finance my college education. So they wrote to the deans of UST & UP where I passed the entrance exams in 1976 to ask for a scholarship. Dean Augusto Concio of UST took me in as a Grant-In-Aid Scholar and had me work one hour a day at the Office of the Dean at the College of Architecture & Fine Arts. Seeing my many qualifications, he told me to take up Architecture instead.
What were your starting years like as an architect?
I am sure it is an industry where the majority of your seniors are men. Some would find it hard to penetrate the still male-dominated profession at work. I believe otherwise, as I was given priority as a woman. However, I took no shortcuts in getting here. I worked my way up through real hard work and commitment to the craft, and I knew even before that I’m equally as worthy as the male architects working next to me.
During my early practice, I was allowed and ushered to the male dominated construction setting. F.F.Cruz & Company, Inc., where my classmates were employed, hired me in 1982 and that’s where I spent my two years of apprenticeship, pre-board. The President, Mr. Felipe F. Cruz, was impressed by my handwriting in the application form, and never let me go since then. Though this is a construction company focused mainly on roads and bridges, I was kept busy designing temporary facilities for their construction projects. Moreover, the whole Cruz family trusted me with other family projects. Their eldest daughter Josie Cruz Natori, renowned Filipino-American fashion designer who ventured into production of delicate lingerie, robe, and ready-to-wear sold in upscale department stores in New York
and in at least 15 countries worldwide, trusted me with the design of the factory in Antigua, Central America. I also got to design and supervise the buildings of the Natori Garments Factory in Pasig. Mr. Cruz’ wife, Mrs. Angelita Cruz tagged me along while doing her charity work in schools, offices for Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in Fort Santiago, Collegio De Sta Monica in Angat, and the
likes. The most significant of which is the renovation of the Apostolic Nunciature (the official residence of Vatican here in Manila) for the coming of Pope John Paul II in 1995 and Pope Francis in 2015. A year or so before Pope Francis’ arrival, we designed pro-bono the “Pope Francis Center for the Orphans and Elderly Victims of Typhoon Yolanda'' in Palo, Leyte, which he blessed during his visit to Tacloban.
How did family life change the way you practice architecture?
I must say it was quite a feat to focus on my budding profession and being a wife and mother to a then growing family, at the same time. While I was never the type to count the number of hours I had to work, I finished work ahead of time to go home to my 3 little kids. I almost wanted to give up work to focus on bringing up my kids, but I was offered a good deal by Mr. Cruz. As I have worked with the family for quite long already, I became the Chief Architect and was allowed to have flexible working hours. I enjoyed the same for seven (7) more years until the recession in 1997.
Aside from looking after the children, I have to assist my husband, Architect Mariano Arce, Jr., when we
were starting Arce-Bailon-Arce in 1987. I have to handle the paperwork and documentation and work until the wee hours in the morning to finish the renderings which were still manually done at that time. We have to put up drafting tables at our apartment unit to start-up our consultancy services. During weekends, we will do the site inspection of the projects we were doing, bringing our 3 boys with us. So
even though we were going to a birthday party, they would go around the house as if doing site inspections. One good thing that happened though is that two (2) of them also took up architecture and followed our footsteps. The 3rd studied Journalism and helps us now in the preparation of documents for biddings.
Being married to another Architect is not a bed of roses. It was a struggle most of the time, but this made us work harder, not just for our projects but more importantly for our relationship. Now, I can say, we have both found our own niche in designing and managing our company. We complement and complete each other. We have grown as a couple and a partner at work.
Christ The King Parish Church, Filinvest II, Quezon City
Office of the Ombudsman-Mindanao, Davao City
I’m sure you are versatile and you took on a lot of projects. But what is your expertise/specialization?
The company is in the general practice of Architecture, Building Design and Consultancy Services for private and government entities. We do mostly Government Institutions, Commercial, Educational, Religious, Transport, and Sports Facilities.
Sustainable Architecture, Green Building Design, on the other hand is a requirement nowadays which can be applied in all or any of our designs. Every architect should be knowledgeable in basic concepts of green building and sustainability like orientation, natural lighting and ventilation. Green Building Code is a referral code of the National Building Code especially if the building area exceeds 10,000 sq.m, so Green Building Design may be an expertise but may not be a specialization per se. However, the PRC is carefully studying this at the moment to really define specializations in the Field of Architecture.
Who are your role models?
First and foremost, I would like to pay tribute to the late Architect & Town Planner, Dean Augusto Concio for trusting and believing in me, an underprivileged student. I thank him for his encouragement and support, for pushing me to perform in school competitions, for making me aspire to go beyond
what I can do. I thank him for helping me make many of my dreams come true and be faithful to the profession he has chosen for me.
I am also grateful to my former employers, Mr. & Mrs. FF Cruz, for instilling in me early on the value of rendering assistance to the church and society. Because of their modeling, it became very easy for me to pay the goodness forward by mentoring newly graduates during their apprenticeship. The Girl Scouts of the Philippines has also played a significant role into who I am today (I served with the GSP Real Properties & Buildings Committee with Architect Manuel Mañosa, Jr. as my co-member and adviser). I had been serving in the GSP RPBC for almost 20 years (with 3 years as Chairwoman) giving suggestions on the improvement and development of their training centers nationwide. I’ve spent almost 9 years in the Central Board and 3 years with their EXECOM.
How do you see post pandemic architecture?
As humanity will be hyper-focused on hygiene, architecture design will be greatly improved and will move into a different direction. Several non-negotiables in space planning will and should be considered such as: decongesting offices, putting tall partitions, lowering room density by designing enclosed spaces for specific use/s, adding shower facilities for workers who commute, installing directional cues to remind people to maintain social distancing, and the likes. Use of motion sensing technology to minimize physical contact with shared surfaces will be a necessity. Homes will be planned and improved to cater to study or work-from-home scenarios.
“IF I PUT MY FEET ON THE GROUND, ON EARTH, AND SEE ARCHITECTURE FROM THE STANDPOINT OF A WOMAN, A MOTHER, A NURTURING PERSON, THEN I CAN DESIGN A DESIRABLE SPACE WHERE PEOPLE CAN EXPERIENCE COMFORT AND DELIGHT IN MY CREATIONS.”
Philippine Tropical Forest Science Center (PhilTROP), University of the Philippines Los Baños
What can women architects like you contribute to post pandemic architecture?
As a woman architect in the post pandemic world, the practice of the profession should reflect the values seen in the home.
We as architects, born as women who are naturally nurturing and protective of the family residing in the house that we manage, should have stricter policies implemented in planning. The non-negotiables in the home should also be thought of when designing any project we are given.
Women become caring mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters. We know their very nature and how our homes become more comfortable and caring.
The Magna Carta of Women (Republic Act No. 9710) defines Gender and Development Program (GAD) as the development perspective and process that is participatory and empowering, equitable, sustainable, free from violence, respectful of human rights, supportive of self-determination and actualization of human potentials. It seeks to achieve gender equality as a fundamental value that should be reflected in development choices and contends that women are active agents of development, not just passive recipients of development.
GAD focuses on Gender Mainstreaming or a strategy for:
• Making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies, programs and projects in all social, political, civil, and economic spheres so that women and men benefit equally.
• Assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programs in all areas and at all levels
(1) Executive Order No. 273 – Approving and Adopting the Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development (PPGD) 1995-2025 Executive Order (EO) 273, issued on September 9, 1995 and signed by President Fidel V. Ramos, adopted the Philippine Plan for Gender Responsive Development IPPGD) 1995-2025. The PPGD 1995-2025 is a 30 year perspective plan that outlines the policies, strategies, programs and projects that the government must adopt to enable women to participate in and benefit from national development while EO 273 directs all government agencies, departments, bureaus, offices and instrumentalities, including government owned and controlled corporations, at the national level, subnational and local levels…
I would like to specially mention the above Magna Carta of Women. Women architects are enjoined to adopt this program into their designs. Women are the ones knowledgeable of these needs to make the experience of gender equality possible. Personally speaking, I have worked with institutions actively implementing GAD and have provided spaces for mother’s lactation room, baby feeding, nursery rooms in lobbies and public spaces of our projects. It is the woman’s unique personal experience at home, in the workplace, and in social places that will give light to certain requirements in design to make “equality of experience for everyone” achievable.
Moreover, mothers know more how to take care of kids and family in such a loving and caring way, and how to keep the home safe and maintain a healthy environment. Aside from implementing this in our designs, we women can be more active in disseminating this through:
• Writing articles in our organization’s magazine to keep everyone informed.
• Just as Green & Sustainable Architecture has been pushed into law, there should also be Health & Wellness which should be pushed into law.
• Being part of other active organizations such as Girl Scouts of the Philippines and helping educate girls to succeed in life. But most importantly, women architects must find ways to innovate and never stop learning. Just as a mother adjusts and hones her skill to match her growing child’s needs, we need to evolve to cater to the needs of the times.
As the world evolves and pandemics are here to stay, architecture is not just to provide space and shelter or to house people’s needs, but also to keep humanity safe and protected from unseen maladies.
GSIS Quezon City Branch, Elliptical Road
Manila Hall of Justice - Supreme Court, City of Manila
a) APEC Architect No. 41 conferred in June 22, 2015
b) ASEAN Architect, one of the First 40 Filipino Architects emplaced in the ASEAN Registry, Reg. No. AA/PH027, July 4, 2014
c) National Executive Vice President (FY 2016-2017) of the United Architects of the Philippines
d) Secretary General (FY 2015-2016) of the United Architects of the Philippines
e) Elevated to the College of Fellows for ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE During the 39th UAP National Convention, April 18, 2013 SMX Convention Center
f) Fifth Placer: Philippine Regulation Commission Architecture Board Exams PRC Reg.# 6970, March 2, 2013
g) Magna Cum Laude, First in 50 years for the College of Architecture & Fine Arts, UST, April 1981
h) 5th Place: Consejos Superior De Los Coleges De Arquitetos, España Perez Pinero Award, 1981 U.I.A. XIVth International Congress, Warsaw Poland Design Competition Theme: “Rehabilitation of a Small Unit in a Degraded Urban Environment”
i) Third Prize: National Competition for Students of Architecture “Eco- Independence” 1980
j) National Council Convention Awardee (one of the 3) Triennium 2012-2015 Girl Scouts of the Philippines, May 29, 2015
k) "Young Achiever’s Award” for distinction in the Field of Technology For excelling in her chosen field of Architecture During the Golden Jubilee Awards Ceremony, May 25, 1990, on the occasion of the 50 years of the Girl
Scouts of the Philippines (1940-1990)
l) Juliette Low Scholar, Representative to the International Girl Scout Conference “Earth ‘N Us II”, Philadelpia, USA, June -July 1975 Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, June 25 - July 4, 1975
m) Partner at Arce-Bailon Arce Architects the Designer of the following notable buildings in the country:
• Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Roxas Branch, Arnold Blvd. Roxas City, Island of Panay
• Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Tacloban Branch, Airport Road, Tacloban City, Island of Leyte
• Office of the Ombudsman – Mindanao (Three-Storey with covered Roof
• Deck Office Building), Davao City, Mindanao
• Manila Hall of Justice - Supreme Court of the Philippines (20-Storey Building), City of Manila
• New Malabon City Hall of Justice – Supreme Court of the Philippines (17-Storey Building), Tenejeros, Malabon City
• DAP Conference Center Facilities Expansion (14-Storey Building with Basement), Master Planning & Complete Architectural, Engineering, Landscape & Interior Design Consultancy Services, Tagaytay City
• University Library and Knowledge Center of the University of the Philippines (7-Storey with Roof Deck), Los Baños, Laguna
• Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Museum, Philippine International Convention Center Complex, Pasay City
• Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) Quezon City Branch (5-Storey Building) at Elliptical Road, Diliman, Quezon City
• GSIS Baguio, Legaspi and Tagum Office Branch Buildings
• Christ The King Parish Church, Filinvest II, Quezon City
• Christ The King Parish Hall & Formation Center, Filinvest II, Quezon City
• Girl Scouts of the Philippines Annex Building, Padre Faura, Manila
• 4-Story Headquarters of the Philippine Academy of Family Physicians, Taft Avenue, Malate, Manila
• Philippine Science High School Main Campus, Agham Road, Quezon City: a) Administration Building b) Academic Building for Senior High Program c) Rehabilitation & Expansion of Academic & Dormitory Building Phase II
• Philippine Science High School Central Luzon Campus a) Administration Building b) Multi-purpose Gymnasium, Philippine Science High School, Central Campus, Lily Clark Freeport Zone, Angeles, Pampanga
• South Luzon Tollway Rehabilitation and Widening Project, Complete Architectural & Engineering Design Consultancy including Full Time Supervision of all the Toll Plazas and Tall Supervision Buildings from Alabang to Calamba Mainline Barrier and Ayala Greenfields Mainline Barrier
• SLEX Operations Control Center and Operations Maintenance Yard (OCC & OMY) SLEX, Calamba Laguna
• UPOU International Convention Center, UP Open University, Los Baños
• Dormitory for Graduate Students (6-Storey Building), University of the Philippines, Los Baños, Laguna
• Philippines Tropical Forest Science Center (PhilTROP 3-Storey Building) UP Los Banos, Makiling Road UPLB Campus Laguna
• Agronomy Soils, and Horticulture Building, Crop Protecting Wing (3-Storey Building), University of the Philippines, Los Baños, Laguna
• Court of Tax Appeals Building II (5-Storey Building with Utility Deck) and Building III (5-Storey with Roof Deck), CTA Compound, Agham Road, National Government Center, Diliman, Quezon City
2. FIRE (Ar. Catherine Balce-Carunungan)
As the Covid-19 pandemic looms with devastating effects on national health-care systems and the economy, most architects and designers are finding themselves in the same position as everyone else: anxious about the future as major projects are postponed or come to a halt. This isn’t the case for Architect Catherine Balce-Carunungan. Our girl on fire has been busy since last year, designing crisis ready health care facilities all around the country.
For Ar. Cathy, her task doesn’t end simply at the creation of physical buildings. Witnessing how the current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of global health services and has also shed on how underprepared we have been around the world for an outbreak of this nature, she made it a point to use her God-given skills to power through the current circumstance and take on a more targeted and pragmatic response to encourage patient recovery while keeping building construction and maintenance costs pandemic-friendly. As evident in the hospitals she has designed (including the renovation of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Pope John Paul Hospital and Medical Center, and Assumption Specialty Hospital and Medical Center, and the 15 others around the nation that she’s currently working on), she’s determined to improve the experiences of those inside the hospital - both medical staff and patients. She is dead set to bring back people’s trust in health care buildings that for a time, no longer felt safe. “Through my designs, I want to change people’s perception of hospitals as places of struggle, pain, and sickness. I’ll bring back the mindset that as soon as you enter it, you’re already on your way to full recovery”. Here’s Ar. Cathay’s take on building crisis-ready health care buildings.
Camarin Doctors Hospital, Caloocan City
How did you start specializing in hospital design?
I was at the right place at the right time. At first, doctors would come up to me, wanting me to make the hospital look good. But as the project progresses, I realized that they need more than making the facility beautiful. I, as the architect, also need to make it conducive enough for healing to take place. I do not take this responsibility of helping them save lives through my designs lightly. I started going to seminars, conferences, and regularly meeting with the doctors who have a lot of input in how the facility should look and work for them and the patients.
It must have been very interesting to collaborate with professionals, such as these doctors, who are from a different field. How are you getting their input?
I am able to establish a good relationship with them. This relationship is pure hard work, it didn’t happen overnight. You have to be at par or maybe a step ahead because doctors have high knowledge of their craft, and you wouldn’t be able to get their trust if you yourself do not know what you’re saying. So I did ample research and honed my craft. And once they feel like you know [what you are saying and about to do], they’ll never let you go!
What was the collaboration like?
I am very close with them. I am the type who will hold their hand and assure them things will work out fine. Aside from getting their [doctor clients] input, I am with them when they get the license to operate the hospital. I even accompany the inspectors of the Department of Health during their site visits. You should be able to prove to the inspectors that the hospital is ready to take in the patients and treat them well through its facilities.
Julius K. Quiambao Medical & Wellness Center Inc., Bayambang, Pangasinan
What are your top 3 non-negotiable design tips when it comes to hospital design?
1. Structure should be sturdy. The hospital should be the last building standing when a crisis or disaster strikes. The structure needs to be able stand an intensity 9 earthquake. A hospital should still be standing after a quake because it is a place where people can go to to be treated. All of our hospital projects have met these requirements. We hire a triple AAA contractor to follow the designs as planned and make no compromise to make it less than what is stipulated in the Building code of the Philippines for hospitals. Moreover, we also hire a project manager to ensure that the designs are being followed by the architect and designer in the bid plans.
2. The hospital needs to have a healthy exchange of air. The hospital shouldn’t be a sick building. Clean air needs to go in and out. How do you do that? We ensure an effective filtration system, ventilation, laminar flow, positive and negative pressure (these are all mechanical systems) in our projects.
3. Hallways should promote a good traffic flow. You should be able to provide ample spaces for the hospital tenants (health care staff and patients) to circulate. There is always a reason why the Department of Health is stipulating that hallways need to have a minimum clearance of 2.44 meters for safe traffic flow. This will ensure that the stretchers are rotated safely without discomfort to the patients and there is enough space for patients in wheelchairs to roam around. We shouldn’t be making things more difficult for these people who are already in pain.
You have also mentioned that you work closely with the Department of Health. What is the kind of work you do with or for them?
The DOH has a checklist for all hospital levels. Architects follow this checklist, and everything [listed there] has to be in my design. Most of the time, I present my plans to them. And since I am already working on 16 hospitals, I know their requirements and meet them. However, if there’s something that needs tweaking, I don’t mind getting the plan out to fix it. I trust that they know a lot and put in a position for a reason. I always learn something new everyday. They also learn a lot from me. I enjoy these healthy exchanges of ideas!
There’s a spark in your eyes when you are answering my questions. Why is that?
The Lord placed me here and gave me these specific sets of skills so I can use them during the pandemic. As architects and global citizens, it is our responsibility to work out how to address the sudden heightened need for hospital infrastructure, both in the immediate future and as a long-term solution, to better prepare us for future outbreaks and disasters. This is a legacy that I would like to leave behind.
Assumption Specialty Hospital & Medical Center, Antipolo
Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Sta. Mesa
• Appointed by the Professional Regulations Commission (PRC) to be part of the TWG to develop an updated Philippine Hospital & Health Facilities Design Manual, Ref. PRC Resolution No. 3 Series of 2021, March 2, 2021
• Satisfied the requirements of the ASEAN Mutual Arrangement on Architectural Services is emplaced in the ASEAN Architect Register. Registration Number 17, July 4, 2014
• Conferred the title FELLOW by the United Architects of the Philippines for having rendered notable contribution (for outstanding achievement in the category of Architectural Practice) to the advancement of the Architecture profession, April 16, 2015
• Established the architectural partnership firm of Carunungan & Partners with spouse/partner Jose Ramon P. Carunungan & registered this in SEC, April 22, 1997
• Successfully passed the licensure exams for Architecture with registration number 7623, October 30, 1984
• Graduated Bachelors of Science degree
in Architecture at the University of
Santo Tomas, March 28, 1984
3. AIR (Ar. Rebecca Plaza)
Once upon a time In Ancient Greece, all citizens had to chant the Ephebic Oath: “My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it.” For
Ar. Rebecca Plaza and her company, Plaza + Partners, architecture is their way to improve both life today and for generations after us; to ‘design for better’ isn’t just their motivation, it is their mission.
Established in 2015, Plaza + Partners has grown to become an interdisciplinary team of architects, interior designers, and urban planners. Merging sustainable design solutions with a life-centric ideology, Plaza + Partners has made a permanent mark on the civic landscape of the country. The practice has developed and reinvented public spaces such as the market, community centres, and hotels with Rebecca at the helm After graduating from the University of Bath with exceptional honors and working at some of Britain’s top architecture firms, Rebecca has returned home to carve out her vision of architecture in her native Philippines.
Entering her 30s more driven than ever, it would be easy to attribute Ar. Rebecca’s social commitment to naiveté. It would be easy, but it would also be wrong. She’s cut her teeth on the corporate grindstone, and the experience has made her sharp and cagey. She is driven by a social responsibility tempered by her dedication to the craft of architecture and her genuine love for people. For D+C’s Women’s Month issue, we sat down with Ar. Rebecca, wanting to know more about her design philosophy and why it’s such a breath of fresh air in this modern world. Architecture, statistically, has always been a male-dominated field.
What kind of friction or discrimination have you encountered in the past, and how have you responded to it?
I am grateful to have never experienced an encounter where I felt my gender is an obstacle to my ability to attain a goal I’ve set out to achieve. Perhaps I am lucky to be living in a time where many women before me have paved the way for this generation to transcend a glass ceiling, (Thank you Zaha Hadid, Jeanne Gang, Frida Escobedo). Perhaps this is also because I simply see no disparity between men and women with regard to intellectual ability, so I don't think about it enough for it to be an issue. I grew up in a household where women were equally encouraged like men to achieve our goals; my parents always told us kids that “we had to learn how to take care of ourselves because who else would?”
I lived in the UK for quite some time and perhaps my ethnicity would surprise people. There aren’t too many female Filipinos practicing in London so I was an uncommon breed. But in the same way I see gender, I never thought about race too much. I was just myself and tried to shed light on why everyone should love Filipinos. Perhaps it is a mindset, but also, I’ve just been lucky to surround myself with people who embrace diversity, and I repel people who don't. Finally, I think when you work hard enough, or ten times harder than the people around you, it’s often hard for them to neglect you; so I just make sure I put in the hours to perform at a high level of standard.
As a Filipino woman, what is architecture to you? How has it affected your life outside the profession?
Architecture is a means to improve life and the communities we live in. For most of our waking lives, we come in contact with the built environment. We find shelter in our homes, walk along streets lined with buildings, stay indoors to work and play, and then return back home for another night’s sleep. The buildings we create today will outlive us and will have lasting impact for years to come. The built environment’s ability to shape our lives and that of future generations gives architects and designers the primary duty to ensure a better future whilst acting as stewards for the natural environment.
At this point in my life, I find that architecture and myself are inseparable. There is no “life outside the profession”; a life in architecture this is the life I have chosen. It is not simply an occupation, but a way of life. Being an architect is a lifelong commitment to continuously shape the built environment into a platform for citizens to thrive.
In your career, what do you feel has been your biggest victory so far? In contrast, what was the lesson you feel was the hardest won?
Our biggest victory so far is being able to practice today. Every single day is a new opportunity to be able to explore new ideas or challenge conventional ones. I am proud of the portfolio of work Plaza and Partners has been able to accomplish in the last six years -- we’ve had the privilege of working on a wide range of projects from an 18 square meter house to a 13 hectare sports complex. Every project we have worked on has been a learning experience and a chance to create a better humanity.
We often only ever highlight the good times and the achievements, but rarely the struggles and the failures. I rarely talk about the start of my career when I walked the streets of London, knocking on doors at the height of the global financial crisis, homesick, trying to find a job; the early days of setting up my own practice where I had to personally buy PCs, set them up myself, do the accounting and collections; occasions where we struggled to get work or get paid by some clients; the problems on site that needed troubleshooting. All these just build character though. So every challenge is actually just a test of endurance. As they often say, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
Neither gender nor age have stopped Rebecca from excelling in a male-dominated field. She has spoken widely on international platforms amongst world leaders including the World Economic Forum on ASEAN alongside Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Singapore's Senio Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information. (In the picture: Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of Health; Markus Lorenzini, President and CEO of Siemens Southeast Asia; Nguyen Thien Nhan, Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam; Vish Iyer, Vice President of Cisco Systems Inc.; Yasu Ota of Nikkei Asian Review)
A lot of your architecture is very socially motivated. Harvest Marketplace and Bukidnon Sports Complex are but two of your concepts and projects that were socially aware. What type of life can your architecture offer to the underprivileged?
Architecture is the most public and social of all arts. You can put away a painting when you tire of it, you can turn off the radio when you don’t like the music playing, but you cannot do that to our built environment. The buildings we create affect everybody who ever walks around an area a building is erected in; society has a stake. We must make people realize that architecture and design is not just about marble floors and glass towers, but about creating socially aware communities that can benefit the marginalized, the people who need it most. If we are able to design houses that can withstand inclement typhoons and flash floods, we would already be using design to improve the lives of the underprivileged. Good buildings are enjoyed by all; they enhance a community and provide a healthy and livable platform for people to thrive.
What lessons did Plaza + Partners learn as a young start-up that allowed it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more senior architectural firms in the Philippines?
I don’t think I necessarily stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the larger, more established firms. Many of the more senior firms are led by my mentors whom I have high respect for. Architecture is a long game, there are no shortcuts. But perhaps, it is a mindset; the hard work, will and determination to keep going that allow me to work on projects that are typically entrusted to more experienced architects. It must also be noted that good projects are the product of good collaboration with our clients who champion the projects to begin with. We at Plaza and Partners often work with clients who are looking for something different and new; clients who want to challenge the status quo and thus look to work with someone younger, with different ideas. I also have an unshakeable belief that if you want to achieve something, you need to go out and get it.
This stadium in Malaybalay, Bukidnon is currently being erected. It is conceived as a place for all people -- a place for the community to come together and rally on as better citizens.
The facade is developed from the ethnic patterns of the Manobo tribe.
Is there any advice you can give young women dreaming to be architects? What do you need to not just survive but thrive and succeed in this industry?
Believe in yourself and in the ideas you have. Challenge yourself and your ideas. If you do not believe in yourself, then who else will?
Architecture is not for the faint of heart. You need to give it your 150%—you need to give it your all and once you make the commitment to do so, never look back. If you don’t love it enough, you might survive, but you won’t thrive.
Many young adults are misguided that architecture is a financially promising career. It isn’t. There are other professions, businesses and careers that are more rewarding, but that's not why people become architects. You become an architect to create impact; you rejoice in the small wins. When you are able to build something that positively impacts people’s lives; when you are able to do something good for your community; when you are able to add value to the neighborhood where the building is; when you can do these, then you’ve succeeded. But success is temporary. You’re only as good as your last project. Each project is a learning experience for the next one you’d take on. It is said, “success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”
The professional world can be rough. It can be stifling seeing everyone around you walk on a tightrope of questionable morals, pressuring you to do the same. However, amidst these ethical balancing acts is Rebecca Plaza, her feet planted firmly on the ground, but head and shoulders above the rest. For her and Plaza + Partners, the city is not just a place to carve out your spot in the skyline. Ar. Rebecca’s city is a testament to human civility. It is evidence of what men and women can achieve not as individuals, but as a collective. This is not a radical concept. It is fortunate that six years ago, Ar. Rebecca resolved to make our city greater than she found it. And it is even more fortunate that she’s just getting started.
Every project is an opportunity for Plaza and Partners to learn more about themselves and the Philippines. This hotel in El Nido, Palawan required deep research in local materials so that majority of the construction elements utilized are found within a 40km radius of the site.
Buildings are permanent structures that will outlive us. This hotel in Baguio was therefore conceived with the idea that it reflects its surroundings and the building around. Its biophilic nature blends with its surroundings and is an exciting new addition to the Baguio skyline.
Rebecca Plaza is the founder of Plaza + Partners, an interdisciplinary team of architects, interior designers and urban planners, working together to develop sustainable design solutions supported by rigorous research and attention to detail. Alongside this, Rebecca is a Director at Anthology Architecture and Design Festival and a Global Shaper of The World Economic Forum. Prior to establishing her practice, Rebecca worked at Lor Calma + Partners and Palafox Associates in Manila and Jestico Whiles and John McAslan and Partners in London. She graduated from the University of Bath and did design and research at the Architectural Association in London and The University of Hong Kong.
4. WATER (Ar. Toni Vasquez Shawan)
To build. This is the purpose of the architect. Houses, buildings, hotels—you can specify the type, size, or color, but to architects, they are one and the same: they are built works. However, they are not the only profession called to build. Mothers build—they build families, bearing a child for nine months within them, nursing and feeding them as they grow, teaching and directing them as they mature and direct their own paths.
Ar. Toni Vasquez-Shawan is a builder thrice-named. She is an architect, living in that world since she was in sixth grade. She is a mother, welcoming her first child, Theodore Vincent, to the world in 2018. She is a child, a daughter to the late, great Teofilo “Topy” Vasquez and successor of his 27-year old company, TVA&P.
Beyond all these labels, however, Ar. Toni continues to build. There’s a certain overflow to her capacities that allows her to spill over the boundaries of these titles, blending them all together to create a tailor-made role that fits her and her alone.
For D+C’s Women’s Month issue, we spent some time with Ar. Toni and discussed all manner of topics, from women in the workplace, the professional value of motherhood, her father’s life and passing, and of course, architecture.
Architecture, statistically, has always been a male-dominated field. What kind of friction or discrimination have you encountered in the past, and how have you responded to it?
Having exposure to the practice early on, I knew what I was getting into right from the get-go. I dove into this career mentally prepared that I’m entering a man’s world. If anything, the fact that this field is a road less traveled for women is one of the things that attracted me to it. So I knew it was going to be tough, it was going to be frustrating, and that the culture won’t change overnight. So while there were unpleasant situations that got to me somehow, having the right mindset allowed me to convert those moments to educate myself on how to steer the situation to my advantage next time it happens again.
Every interaction is part of the learning curve. So you study how to navigate, adapt, and make it work for you. Working with men from different age groups all my life, I find that sometimes it isn’t that they want to disrespect you necessarily. Particularly on older men, more often they just don’t know how to work with someone like you. We need to understand that the baby boomers are not used to having women in the field, let alone a woman with a voice.
This is not to say women should be complicit or suppress what we feel, but we also need to give a little wiggle room for people to catch up. Some thresholds need to be set so that you can gauge what is tolerable and what’s not. Being emotionally charged and offended at every little thing can be counterproductive. Allowing yourself to feel like a victim makes you lose more control. It’s crucial to know how to be placid and not let trivial moments in a day penetrate through, especially to a career requiring a lot of concentration. We make significant work decisions every day, left and right. So I choose not to dwell and instead concentrate on where I can reclaim my power.
The strategy that I’ve learned most effectively for women in the workplace is knowing the material and coming prepared. I never go into a meeting without knowing what to say. It’s like playing chess. Study the agenda, anticipate the angles that can escalate, and be the voice that provides solutions and workarounds. Make them realize the value you put on the table, that you deserve to be there, and that you deserve to be heard.