top of page

World-Class And Women-Led:How Ar. Cathy Saldaña And PDP Architects Transform Philippine Architecture

The architecture industry in the Philippines is constantly evolving, but a cohesive visual identity for Philippine architecture remains as elusive as ever. As Filipino architects innovate and compete in the global design industry, there is a greater need to articulate and define modern Philippine architecture.

PDP Architects Managing Director Architect Cathy Saldaña-Siegel envisions a future where local architecture is decidedly Filipino and sustainable. In 2022, PDP Architects celebrates thirty years of moving towards this future under Ar. Cathy's direction, where they balance functionality, Philippine aesthetics, and tropical elements in their award-winning works.

Starting Strong and Setting Standards

Becoming an architect was practically set in stone for Ar. Cathy, who began her practice in 1992 and opened PDP Architects in the same year. Her exposure to her father’s work as a geodetic engineer for the National Housing Authority coupled with her penchant for the arts and problem-solving naturally led Ar. Cathy to take up architecture at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Having learned the ropes from tropical architect and former University of the Philippines College of Architecture Dean Geronimo V. Manahan, Ar. Cathy's work has been consistently guided by principles of sustainability and green architecture. Ar. Cathy’s husband Alex Siegel describes her approach to light, ventilation, and open spaces as rooted in both tropical design and aspects of Filipino culture.

Ar. Cathy is also a pioneer of architectural outsourcing in the Philippines. Her impressive career would lead her to become the Country Representative for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in the Philippines for FY 2022 as well as the President of the Eastern Regional Organization for Planning and Human Settlements (EAROPH) for FY 2022 as well. She is also a member of the Board of the Urban Land Institute since 2020. She also sits in the Board as a Founding Director of PropTech, an organization leading the way for technology in real estate applications.

Even in her earlier projects, Ar. Cathy has worked with notable clients in the country—among these are Unilever, the San Miguel Corporation, Greenwich Pizza under the Jollibee Group, as well as establishments by known restaurateurs like Marvin Agustin and Raymund Magdaluyo. Ar. Cathy would later expand to mall designs such as the Serin Mall in Tagaytay, hotels and resorts such as Shangri-La in Boracay, and several other residential and commercial buildings.

PDP Architects boasts an extensive portfolio that has created a lasting impact in society by also mindfully developing hospitals, technology centers, and cold storage facilities. “I like to make sure that our firm gets involved beyond the ordinary. That's what I would like to look at. Beyond the ordinary,” Ar. Cathy proudly states.

Ar. Cathy’s approach to PDP Architects has always placed an emphasis on the collective rather than the individual. Naming the firm “People. Design. Places.” was a conscious choice to have the brand encompass all the associates in the firm, and not Ar. Cathy alone. She believes that the future of a company continues on. It is essential to Ar. Cathy that the design philosophies and essence of the firm should be maintained as it progresses, even if the leadership should be passed on.

Ar. Cathy believes PDP Architects as a medium-sized firm is perfect for her hands-on approach as a mentor to her associates. “I still get to decide, help, manage, filter each and every component of our process … My involvement is so intense. It's almost like I still have my finger dipped into every pie and I like it,” she quips. In managing PDP Architects, she stresses the value of teamwork, collaboration, and succession. Projects are always assigned to teams rather than individuals, and these teams are composed of experienced associates and junior architects involved in various creative typologies. Ar. Cathy’s emphasis on the people embodies the firm’s goal of “generating a flow that keeps the design cycle going.”

Blazing a Trail In the Architecture Industry

Ar. Cathy prides herself on being an accomplished female architect, mentor, and leader in a male-dominated industry. She strives to be a role model for young female architects and seeks to amplify women's voices in the workplace. She fondly recalls when she landed a big project in her earlier years for the Gokongwei family, and prominent businessman John Gokongwei himself had asked to see her to say: "It's the first time for our company to award this big a project to a lady... You are blazing a trail. It's wonderful to be able to work with a woman."

In PDP Architects, Ar. Cathy eagerly mentors young women under her wing and celebrates the veteran female associates in their firm. Currently, she heads the Women's Leadership Initiative and was selected to be the Philippine representative for the UIA International Women in Architecture.

When asked for her advice to women in architecture, Ar. Cathy encourages them to spearhead competitive and world-class projects: "Excellent work output allows your voice to be heard louder. A good product gets your voice amplified to many more channels over and over."

This has undoubtedly been proven by the rising number of esteemed female designers in the industry. Ar. Cathy believes this can be pushed further—she also calls for growth in women's involvement in the construction scene: "Women's attention to detail and their sense of compassion with the workers will help a lot. The voice of a woman is even more respected in the construction site. They take a woman seriously. I think women should head out more."

Dissecting Ar. Cathy’s Take on the Philippines’ Persisting Design Problems

Given her thirty years in practice, Ar. Cathy has seen the evolution of the Philippine architectural landscape and is privy to its problems. Advancements in both information and building technologies have made the industry more robust, with importation expanding the possibilities in materiality.

Ar. Cathy proudly claims that the Philippines is no longer a country of draftsmen, but one of excellent designers who can walk side-by-side with global giants. Although she admires how the recent generations of Filipino architects have defined Philippine architecture more succinctly, Ar. Cathy remains cognizant of its problems that remain unsolved: "Our cities don't look iconic. Our landmarks are not remarkable. We have destroyed a lot of our heritage sites and buildings."

The Philippine architecture industry must not only evolve to meet modern global standards but also to forge a strong visual identity that is markedly Filipino and sustainable.

To achieve this goal, Ar. Cathy stresses the importance of planning a design narrative for the country. She believes it should be modern, global, and contemporary—but necessarily possessing innate Filipino values with a decidedly Filipino visual vocabulary. Building this should not preclude the use of modern technology and modern materials. "Our interpretation of Filipino architecture should not be literal.

You can still have the nipa hut concept even in a modern setting, you can find the value of the bahay na bato and old Filipino settlements and still find them designed in a more modern way," she asserts. She urges designers and architects to forego the trite translation of Filipino as being merely "antique" or "colonial."

What PDP Architects proposes instead is to look at cultural elements from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao and apply them as inspiration in a contemporary way. “There are myriads of choices and selections not just in terms of themes and patterns but also in history and textures, color and influences. We are grateful for that wealth of ideas that can stem from all the different islands,” says Ar. Cathy. As an illustration of the incorporation of Filipino culture in modern, human-centered architecture, she cites the significance of food in Filipino culture and how this is seen in shared dining and living spaces in homes and pantries in office buildings.

Additionally, commonplace Filipino practices of having extended family and kasambahays in the household also add to the use of spaces in residential projects. Just as the country offers a wealth of historical, and cultural inspirations, PDP Architects also seeks to maximize the wealth of materials employed in its projects.

As Ar. Cathy eloquently puts: "We are mindful of materiality. There are many interesting Filipino materials and Filipino-inspired materials that we look at now in the contemporary setting. Even the beautiful, aged Capiz windows could be given a very modern light—literally. So many inspiring features of our coral reefs could be found in the tiles we select. The colors of our sunsets are beautiful even on the walls that we paint as well as the finishes that we choose.

We still have excellent woodwork and artistry as well as bespoke crafts that we can find that could be made modern and contemporary. When you put all of that together, that is what spills out into being a modern Filipino."

To address the difficulties of curating a wide variety of projects such as those handled by PDP A