Visual Essay

The City Who Had Two Navels

by Edson Cabalfin

“When my father was over there last year,” he said, “he went to see what was left of it. There wasn’t much—a piece of a wall, a piece of the azotea—but the main stairway, which was all of stone, quite intact; had even kept most of its balustrade. My father said it looked very sad: a stairway in a field of ruin, going up to nowhere. . . .”  
-Pepe Monson, in Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1961)

Pepe Monson, one of the protagonists in Filipino National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s novel, “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” (1961), describes in the brief passage above the old house of his father Doctor Monson in Manila that was destroyed after the liberation of the city during World War II in 1946. The stairway, laying in ruin, although having kept some parts of it intact despite the bombings of the city, reminded Señora de Vidal, Pepe’s visitor that night, of the days when she used to visit the house in the golden era of tertulias, or social gatherings held in the stately home of the Monsons. Despite being completely decimated during the war, the house remained as Doctor Monson’s connection to the motherland as he waited to go back home from his self-imposed exile in Hong Kong.

The old Manila house in Joaquin’s novel reminds us of how our past sometimes continues to haunt us even up to the present, or how our memories of the past can also keep us alive into the future: the stairways that lead to nowhere. There is no certainty in those remaining steps in the old house. Parts of this memory, laid bare in fragments, fractals, or remnants, on occasion, are all that we can work with to reconstruct what we had. Sometimes, it is only nostalgia, our umbilical cord to past events, that binds us to our hopes and dreams. At times, the burdens of our past prevent us from moving forward.

Inspired by Nick Joaquin’s novel, “The Woman Who Had Two Navels,” the Philippine Pavilion for the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018 confronts the tension between the vicissitudes of the past and the challenges of constructing contemporary subjectivity. The Pavilion explores this relationship between the past, present, and the future by focusing on the built environment as expression of self-determination and as setting for global and transnational revolution. Following the call for examining an idea of “freespace” by the Biennale curators, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, the Philippine Pavilion seeks to interrogate architecture and urbanism’s ability to empower and transform people’s lives. “Freespace” or “pookginhawa” in the Philippine context underscores the strategies by which Filipinos use the built environment as modes of resistance to and appropriation of an ever-changing world.

Pivotal to this year’s Philippine exhibition is the concept of the “navel,” or “pusod” in Filipino, one that reminds us of how once we were connected to our mother when we were in the womb, the umbilical cord providing us nourishment and life. In Joaquin’s novel, Connie Escovar, while discussing with Pepe Monson in Hong Kong, contemplates on the impact of having two navels in her life, a condition that supposedly gives her a certain special quality. Whether it is something that is real or imagined, her having two navels endows her with a uniqueness that empowers her to do whatever she wants. But that circumstance also somehow prevents her from being completely in the world, a condition that haunts her all her life. The notion of the two navels in Joaquin’s narrative, presents the tension between the past and the present, and how our past continually transforms our present and inevitably, our future. The navel, an inescapable presence, thus reminds us of what was there before, the absent umbilical cord, that was necessary to our survival in this world.

The navel is also a significant symbol and concept in architecture. Vitruvius, the Roman architect who lived during the first century B.C., laid down one of the earliest principles of architecture in his collected volumes of De Architectura (Vitruvius/Morgan, 1960). In his treatises, Vitruvius specifically attributed the centrality of the navel in the human body and its subsequent manifestation of divine perfection. In the image of the “Vitruvian Man,” the center of the human body is the navel from which the circumscribed circle emanates from this point. He demanded that the proportions of architecture be based on the human body. Architecture thus cannot be divorced from the body and from the universe.

For the Tausug of the Sulu archipelago in Mindanao, southern Philippines, their stilt-raised house, bay sinug (literally meaning “house of the sea”), is composed of nine posts, each corresponding to various parts of the human body. The center post is considered the navel of the house. This central post is connected to the shore by a rope, to signify the umbilical cord that connects the house to mother earth (Perez III, Dacanay and Encarnacion-Tan, 1989). This bond that conjoins architecture and nature is important in emphasizing the rootedness and dependence of the house to its natural context. The posts and the umbilical cord also express the intimate relationship between house and body. Again, architecture can never be truly isolated and divorced from its surroundings.

The Philippine Pavilion contends that the city and the built environment are like the human body, an embodiment. The city does not exist in a vacuum because it is always embedded and tied to a complex network of actors, agents, structures, and systems. It also has an identity, one that is also shaped by layers of history and a multitude of factors. As much as we think of the city as an object, it cannot be reified into a static entity. The built environment is a dynamic phenomenon. Titled “The City Who had Two Navels,” as critical response to Joaquin’s important literary work and in celebration of his birth centennial, the Philippine contribution to the Biennale highlights two “navels” that are in constant dialogue: first, how colonialism impacts the formation of the built environment; and second, how the process of neoliberalization alters the urban landscape.

The first of these two “navels” recalls the role of colonialism in the construction of the Philippine built environment. Subjugated under Spanish-colonial control from the latter part of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, and later under American-colonial rule, in the first half of the 20th century, the colonization of the Philippines brought unprecedented change to the architecture and planning of cities in the islands. Historian Gerard Lico (2018), in his contribution to this catalogue, shows through a historical assessment the impact brought about by Spanish and American colonialism over four centuries. Lico defines colonialism as a “set of encounters between the colonizer and the colonized in a complex relationship based on the imposition of political control of powerful states over weaker ones” (Lico, 2018). He further argues that this imposition of control, often by a foreign power (the colonizer) over a local people (the colonized), would have a direct and explicit effect on the way spaces are produced. He shows in his essay that the spectrum of the colonial impact on Philippine built environment is vast and varied: from houses to commercial buildings, from communities to entire cities; from the northern to the southern ends of the country. Colonialism thus, would inevitably be inscribed within architecture and the built environment (King, 1979; Cabalfin, 2016).

“Igorot Village,” Philippine Reservation at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri (USA).
SOURCE: Stevens, W. (1904). The World’s Fair Comprising the Official Photographic Views of the Universal Exposition Held in St. Louis, 1904, Commemorating the Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. Saint Louis, MO: N.D. Thompson Publishing Co.

Estela Duque (2018) extends this argument by interrogating the entrenched relationship between prostitution, militarization, and colonization of Manila. In her essay for this anthology, she investigates the role of architecture and planning in the deployment of colonial control over the Philippines through various governmental institutions such as the Unites States Army, Department of Commerce, the Board of Health, and the Bureau of Public Works, or part of what she calls “infrastructural colonialism” in the early part of the 20th century. In her study, using archival records and historical analysis, Manila’s urban form was embedded within colonial policies that instituted systems of segregation, domination, and militarization. Following Foucauldian notions of governmentality, colonial power is established through coercion with the spatial reorganization of human bodies (Foucault, 1979; Foucault, 2010).

For the 2018 Philippine Pavilion, another aspect of this relationship between architecture and colonialism is explored by focusing on a specific sliver of architectural production: national pavilions in international expositions. The Philippines has been showcased in various modes over more than a century of world’s fairs and international expositions (Vergara, 1995; Cabalfin, 2012). As with the Venice Biennale emerging from the late 19th century, whose impetus was to showcase the artistic works of countries in a common and singular space, universal expositions similarly endeavored to display the industry, technology, and trade as a celebration of human achievements. As discussed by other scholars, such as Robert Rydell (1984), Patricia Morton (2000), and Merieke Bloembergen (2006), these world’s fairs were specifically used by the colonizers as instruments to justify their presence in the colonized lands. Following the dominant race discourse at that time, the colonized were often portrayed, through their dress, rituals, and objects, as exotic and primitive, when compared to the European colonizers. In this colonial logic, the colonized, like the Philippines and the Filipinos, were always seen as perennially inferior or, how historian Dipesh Chakrabarty describes the colonized, as being perpetually in the “waiting room of history,” never to actually measure up to the colonizers (2000, p.8).

Photography was crucial for colonialism to perpetuate this imagery of the exotic and the primitive (Ryan, 1998; Hight and Sampson, 2002). As an instrument of colonization, photography was used as documentation that attempted to faithfully reproduce the supposed levels of degeneracy of races by comparing various peoples with European civilizations. Postcards, books, stereograph cards, and other forms of media, were widely disseminated during the early twentieth century; these created edited imaginations of other cultures (Alloula, 1986; Pinney and Peterson, 2003). As a process of “othering,” the photographs placed non-European cultures in diametrical opposition to Europe, an idea that Edward Said (1978) argued in his seminal work Orientalism. Photography therefore, cannot be considered as neutral and innocent, but rather it was used to create asymmetrical relations between races and peoples (Tagg, 1993; Edwards, 1994).

In the context of the universal expositions, photographs and media also played a significant role in the propagation of the image of the nations displayed. Once the expositions close its doors and the pavilions and exhibits of the world’s fairs are dismantled, the photographs of these architectures are often what only remains. The photographs survived in the form of souvenir photobooks, catalogues, official reports, postcards, stereograph cards, and other ephemera (Greenhalgh, 1988). The architectural photographs of the colonial-era expositions also followed the racial discourses of the late 19th and early 20th century that placed the nations in a hierarchical structure: the European countries, with its metal, glass, and plaster neoclassical architecture, were rendered as more superior to the wood, grass, and bamboo huts of the colonized Asian and African nations (Morton, 2000).

The photo essay in this catalogue chronicles through photography the history of Philippine architecture in international expositions from the late 19th to the end of the 20th century. Evident in the archival photos of the Philippine displays is the racial discourse of “othering” consistent with other colonial expositions. As early as the 1887 Exposicion General de las Islas Filipinas (General Exposition of the Philippine Islands) held in Madrid, Spain, the glass and steel Palacio Cristal (Crystal Palace), which references back to the Crystal Palace in the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in London, was set in contrast to the replica village of the Igorrotes (Ifugao) and lowland Tagalog areas with houses made of dried grass, wood, and bamboo (El Globo, 1887; Guardiola, 2007). This trope of comparing the architecture of the colonizer and the colonized was consistent with subsequent world’s fairs in the United States, such as those in 1901 in Buffalo, 1904 in St. Louis, 1909 in Seattle, and others (Rydell, 1984).

“Visayan Village,” Philippine Reservation at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri (USA).
SOURCE: Stevens, W. (1904). The World’s Fair Comprising the Official Photographic Views of the Universal Exposition Held in St. Louis, 1904, Commemorating the Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. Saint Louis, MO: N.D. Thompson Publishing Co.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 held in St. Louis, Missouri in the U.S. was particularly significant because of its size and scope. It was touted as “an exposition within an exposition: the greatest exhibition of the most marvelous Exposition in the history of the world” (Bennit, 1905, pp. 118-120). Called the “Philippine Reservation,” the display featured 1,200 Filipinos living within a 19-hectare woodland promontory in the exposition site, with 13 villages replicating “tribes” or various ethno-linguistic groups, holding 130 individual buildings (Official Guide to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, 1904). A lake surrounded the “reservation” area to portray the archipelagic nature of the American colony. The villages featured various ethno-linguistic groups, including the Igorot (from Northern Luzon), the Negrito (of Central Luzon), the Visayan, and the “Moro” of Bagobos and Samals (Muslims from Mindanao). It also featured Spanish-colonial architecture, replicating landmarks in Manila, such as the walled city of Intramuros, the “Bridge of Spain,” the Manila Cathedral, Ayuntamiento, and Plaza Santa Cruz. Various exhibits showcased the material culture, industries, arts and crafts, rituals, and warfare of the local groups and the military (Official Catalogue Philippine Exhibits, Universal Exposition, St. Louis, U.S.A., 1904).

After gaining independence from the United States in 1946, the Philippines was again featured in various world’s fairs, including those in: Brussels in 1958, Seattle in1962, New York in 1964, Osaka in 1970, Seville in1992, and Clark, Pampanga in 1998, among others. The architectural representations featured a variety of forms: from reinterpretation of traditional lowland houses (Brussels in 1958) to being inspired from the salakot or farmer’s hat (New York in 1964); from a modernist interpretation of a boat’s prow (Osaka in 1970) to an homage to the bahay kubo or lowland house of bamboo and dried palm fronds (Seville in 1992) (Cabalfin, 2017).

The 1998 Expo Pilipino held in the former U.S. airbase in Clark, Pampanga, however, resurrected similar tropes found in the expositions of Madrid in 1887, Buffalo in 1901, and St. Louis in 1904. Celebrating 100 years of independence from Spain, Expo Pilipino architecturally created replica villages of ethno-linguistic groups in the pre-colonial section, moving on to the colonial zone highlighting Spanish-colonial architecture, and later telescoping to the future with the “Freedom Ring,” an amphitheater covered with a steel and stretched-membrane structure (Cabalfin, 2015). Historians Greg Bankoff and Kathleen Weekley, called these efforts a “recolonization of the past” as the process of colonization by the former imperial powers were now being performed by postcolonial agents (2002, p. 158).

During the post-war period, there was a conscious effort to declare a national identity by reclaiming indigenous Filipino culture not only in architecture but also in other fields and disciplines of art and culture (Manahan, 1994). Nationalism was embodied within post-independence discourse on Philippine subjectivity and identity-formation (Abueva, 1999). Philosopher and political scientist Anthony Smith noted that the ideology of nationalism conflates three core ideals: “collective self-determination, expression of a national character and individuality, and finally the vertical division of the world into unique nations each contributing its special genius to the common fund of humanity” (1971, p. 23). Philippine indigenous cultures were deemed to be those that continually existed prior to the arrival of the first Europeans, and therefore, were considered as unique and authentic sources of Filipino-ness. As autochthonous cultures, scholars and artists saw that this could be the source of the Philippines’ “special genius” (Gines, 2018).

The Philippine pavilions in the post-independence period deliberately referenced vernacular architecture, reminiscent of the ways that the replica huts in the colonial expositions were deployed as expressions of a Philippine identity, but differed in intent and portrayal. While the facsimile villages in the colonial fairs were meant to indicate the Philippines as primitive, the indigenous architecture in the postcolonial expositions was expected to underscore the uniqueness of the sovereign country. The supposed unique vernacular architecture was portrayed as the country’s contribution to the “common fund of humanity.” The intent might be different, but the tropes of expression are similar. The value judgment of the expression shifts and transforms depending on the context within which the architecture is used and positioned.

However, the use of vernacular architecture as points of departure for design and exhibitions is not necessarily devoid of controversy. By itself, featuring vernacular architecture in these expositions or any other displays, is not the problem. Vernacular architecture did not disappear once the colonizers arrived in the islands, but rather continues to be produced even today. Filipinos still build vernacular architecture that is consistent with indigenous knowledge and appropriate to the geographical, climatological, social, and cultural context. What remains to be problematic, nonetheless, are the ways that postcolonial Filipinos decide to continue to portray themselves as exotic and primitive. As was the effect then, the colonial narratives of the exotic and the primitive position the Philippines perpetually as inferior to others. By doing so, Filipinos are now responsible for perpetuating and reproducing the colonial narratives even after the colonial condition. Historian Partha Chatterjee exclaimed: “Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized” (1993, p. 216). Thus, to what extent can we say that we have exited this colonial condition? Is the postcolonial ever capable of being able to escape the colonial narratives? Can we then truly escape the colonial?

As I have argued elsewhere (Cabalfin, 2017), displaying countries is complicated. It inescapably involves a process of editing, simplification, and exclusion. If this is the case, is there still room today to have these kinds of displays? If indeed the exhibitionary process is ostensibly biased according to the agenda of the authority in charge of exhibiting, is it still necessary to participate in these kinds of events? One needs to acknowledge, as this year’s Biennale exhibition recognizes, that the Philippine Pavilion will not be able to fully showcase and feature every aspect of the country. The Philippine contribution to the Biennale, by necessity and practice, is a specific perspective that is intended to be part of a larger discourse on architecture and the built environment. The intent is to potentially proffer a critical view that pushes the discussion forward.

Skyscrapers, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City (2018)
SOURCE: Jinggo Montenejo

The second “navel” in the exhibition interrogates the force of neoliberalism in contemporary built environment. Geographer David Harvey in his germinal book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (2005, p. 2). As political economic policies that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, exemplified by the aggressive restructuring policies of Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and Ronald Reagan of the United States, the ideology advocates for liberal trade policies across borders, free market and competition, privatization, deregulation, and minimal state intervention. This was further manifested in the establishment of international regulating and governing bodies, such as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and of agreements between countries, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Rooted in classical liberalism philosophy of the 18th and the 19th century, neoliberalism as an ideology is hinged on libertarian ideals of individualism and personal freedoms (Harvey, 2005). While related to capitalism in terms of being profit-driven, neoliberalism is more particular in acquiring capital, that is, through the forces of free-market, free trade, and privatization. The effect has become pervasive across the globe, often linked with the process of globalization, where public and private lives are placed under strict governmentality and control, despite the ideals of personal liberty (Stiglitz, 2003).

While the economic and social impact of neoliberalism has been highlighted, the experience is not necessarily consistent (Harvey, 2008). Urban theorists Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck, and Nik Theodore (2010), for example, argue what they term as “variegated neoliberalization” or how neoliberalism is not necessarily homogenous across countries. There are definitely differences and unevenness in the development of countries (Harvey, 2006; Smith and Harvey, 2008). The international regulating bodies, such as the World Bank, was proven to be biased against developing countries and to primarily benefit the developed world (Bello, 1982; Stiglitz, 2003). It is in this context then that the way the Philippines experiences these political-economic policies is also quite different from the way the rest of the world does.

Skyline of Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City (2017)
SOURCE: Jinggo Montenejo

This “variegation” in neoliberal processes is palpably felt in the context of the built environment. Architecture, urbanism and the rest of the built environment is inextricably intertwined with neoliberalism (Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Kunkel and Mayer, 2011). The modes of production of cities are subject to the processes of privatization, free market, and deregulation, which are embedded within a complex globalized network (Sassen, 2011). Douglas Spencer in his book, The Architecture of Neoliberalism (2016), specifically talks about the complicitness of contemporary architects, such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, in the creation of oppressive environments under the auspices of neoliberal policies. It follows Michel Foucault’s ideas of “biopolitics,” where people’s lives are subjugated under the authoritarian control of various institutional mechanisms, such as prisons and hospitals (2010). In the contemporary setting, this can be extended to other forms of control embedded in the built environment, including: ways of segregating people by race, gender, and class; controlling through spectacle and surveillance; creating distinctions by hierarchy; and, other modes of power subjugations and coercions (Foucault, 1990; Markus, 1993; Dovey, 1999; Nightingale, 2016).

In the same vein, neoliberalism in the Philippine built environment is expressed and experienced in multiple ways. Philippine cities, much like other cities of the Global South, have emerged with their own contexts and challenges, and therefore cannot simply be dismissed as copies or derivatives of European-American urbanization (Roy and Ong, 2011). We see some of these challenges, such as the development of new enclave central business districts in metropolises, with the likes of Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Eastwood City in Libis, Cebu Business Park in Cebu, and Lanang Business Park in Davao, among others. No longer limited to what were traditional downtown centers in the city, these business districts emerge scattered around and within the larger urban fabric, but are considered as microcosms of the larger metropolis with its own systems, services, and staffing. The business districts, supposedly self-contained communities, embody a consolidated lifestyle combining residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational functions. The imagery of these lifestyle centers creates a vision of a secure, progressive, and luxurious environment, in contrast to the chaos and crime of the old city beyond its walls. Although they purport to be autonomous, these enclaves are not truly isolated. As Neferti Tadiar argues in her essay in this catalogue, the enclaves, what she calls as “city emulants,” are “condensed-scale, ‘self-sustained’ physical and virtual realizations of an urban ideal built out of global forms and tailored to local needs and tastes,” part of a process of “uber-urbanization” (Tadiar, 2018). These developments are dependent on labor that comes from communities elsewhere, on services and products that are created outside the cities, and on financing coming from outside the country (Tadiar, 2018). Often, the high-end luxury residential and commercial enclaves are reliant on cheap labor provided by populations residing in informal settlements adjacent to these developments (United Nations, 2003). One cannot also deny then the indivisible relationship of informal settlements to the growth and operation of cities (Davies, 2007; Neuwirth, 2004).

Informal settlements, Manila (2008)
SOURCE: Jay Plogman
Call center agents during break, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City (2018)
SOURCE: Jinggo Montenejo

Specific to these mixed-use developments in the Philippines is the particular growth of residential, commercial, and recreational facilities tied to offices of multinational Information Technology-Business Processing Outsourcing (IT-BPO) companies. The Philippines has become the largest provider of BPO services in the world, with about a million employees providing customer service, call and contact centers, medical and legal data encoding and management, and other back office services to corporations in the United States and Europe (Mitra, 2011; Vidaurri, 2015). The IT-BPO industry is significant to the Philippines, contributing to around 10 percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country, and revenues are projected to reach US$50 Billion by 2020 (Errighi, Khatiwada, and Bodwell, 2016; World Bank, 2017). Acutely unique to this situation are the ways that services in the city, such as restaurants, transportation, housing, and entertainment, are changing and shifting the city to a truly 24/7 city. Because of the work hours of these BPOs mostly being calibrated to U.S. time, or 12 hours behind Philippine time, workers populate and operate in the city at nighttime. Sleep, for example, becomes a commodity to purchase and a luxury that is controlled, and stress-related issues become more pronounced (Crary, 2104; Errighi, Khatiwada,and Bodwell, 2016 ). The city experience varies, depending on whether you work during the day or at night. How does a 24/7 city feel, move, and experience?

Connected to these enclave business districts and mixed-use developments are the rise of shopping centers and malls becoming the new public spaces in the cities. As air-conditioned and contained spaces, city dwellers inhabit these shopping malls as spaces of congregation, leisure, entertainment, and socialization (Tolentino, 2001; Gonzaga IV, 2014). It now replaces traditional public spaces created during the colonial period, such as open green spaces, parks, and plazas. As outdoor public spaces continue to shrink in the city, spaces for socialization and leisure continue to become interiorized within private malls. While the development of shopping malls is not new, having emerged after World War II (Schwanke, 2003; Hardwick, 2010), these commercial spaces are linked to neoliberalism because of the shift of public spaces into privatized and often militarized zones. Security is under strict control and entry is extremely regulated. As temples of conspicuous consumerism, the use of shopping malls are not truly egalitarian spaces as it is targeted to people who can afford to spend in these establishments. These are spaces that include some, that is, people mostly with money, while it excludes others, often those without money. Furthermore, being embedded within private enterprise, urban citizens are under the surveillance and control of private developers who own these mixed-use developments (Graham, 2011).

Glorietta Mall, Makati City (2008)
SOURCE: Jay Plogman
Residential subdivisions under construction, Cavite City (2018)
SOURCE: Jinggo Montenejo

Another development linked to neoliberal processes in the built environment is the aggressive expansion of residential subdivisions beyond the city borders. Creating what Terry McGee (1991) calls desakota, or the transitional and blurred boundaries between rural/farmlands and urban zones found in most Southeast Asian megalopolis, neoliberalism heightens the expansion of subdivisions in the peri-urban fringe in Philippine cities (Ortega, 2013). As the population continues to grow, spaces within the city continue to densify, and subsequently agricultural land in the peripheries are continually being transformed into residential and commercial zones. Fueled by remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), which account for about ten percent of the country’s GDP, the heightened production and eventual consumption of the residential subdivisions are intertwined with the transnational network of labor, marketing, and real estate development (Pido, 2017). The residential enclaves, linked to a vast network of roads and infrastructure that lead in and out of the urban centers, are possible because of investment coming from abroad and consumed domestically by the OFWs and their relatives. What might appear as modes of empowerment for millions of Filipino families, this transnational labor and real estate transaction is not necessarily positive at all times, as the concomitant developments continually dispossess the weak and disadvantaged in what David Harvey calls a process of “accumulation by dispossession” (Ortega, 2016; Harvey, 2005).

With the growth of Philippine cities following the patterns of neoliberalism, are our cities becoming homogenized? With every turn in the city, you see and experience the same type of restaurants, shops, and entertainment. As you travel across the country, be it in Cebu, Davao, or Manila, the metropolis becomes too much alike. You couldn’t even distinguish one city from the other as you encounter the same fast food chain, the same fast fashion shop, the same convenience store, and the same type of traffic congestion. Jun Gines (2018), in his essay for the catalogue, writes an auto-ethnographic account of his encounters with the city, an experience of “volatility” that continually shifts and vacillates. For him, the city is what shaped his identity and therefore the city becomes him. Subjectivities become volatile. The sense of place of Manila or Los Angeles within which he inhabited is critical to the formation of the ever-shifting identities. But what happens to the sense of place that each city embodies once it is globalized? Are our cities reduced to what Marc Auge (2009) calls “non-places” that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere? So, if all cities become the same, do our own subjectivities also become one? At the rate at which our cities develop, are we all destined to inhabit cities in the future that are identical, standardized, and homogenized?

The photo-essay by Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo in this catalogue and in the exhibit offers a view of the everyday urbanisms that show the similarities and distinctiveness of three metropolitan cities in the Philippines. In these photographs, Maning and Montenejo documented the simultaneous effect of neoliberalism as a homogenizing and diversifying force. Corollary to this homogenizing effect of neoliberalism, has architecture too been reduced to a formula? Are there go-to prescriptions for what constitutes a city? Have architects become complicit to the demands of neoliberal forces (Spencer, 2016)? Are architects simply following the requirements of developers to produce profit for them? Is creativity now dead? Much like colonialism, with its set of instruments in implementing control, has contemporary architecture come under the hegemony of the neoliberal agenda? Is neoliberalism the new form of colonialism?


Raymundo Pavo’s article in this anthology, “Epistemology of the Overlap” (2018), is instructive in reconsidering the relationship and interaction between colonialism and neoliberalism as two “navels” that shape the Philippine built environment. The essay is based on philosophical and ethnographic research that investigated the interface between the Taephag, the traditional thanksgiving ritual, and the Roman Catholic thanksgiving novena to San Isidro Labrador, as practiced by the Agusanon Manobo of Agusan del Sur in Mindanao during harvest season. He asserts that these two events exist as a hybrid ritual that do not necessarily negate each other but instead reinforces their existence as lived experiences for the community.

In the same light, as colonialism and neoliberalism at first seem to be understood as diverging forces, this exhibition argues that the interaction between these two “navels” can possibly provide new ways of comprehending urban development. As Pavo argues in his essay, the blurring of boundaries between two entities does not necessarily refer only to an antagonistic blending where one is subsumed by the other. He proposes a re-thinking of the concept of “overlap” as three modalities of “reconstituting, mitigating, and symbolic,” where overlap is considered as: “productive pairing or coupling (reconstituting), tightening or assertion of conceptual territories (mitigating), and conjunctive giving or generosity between an act and a life world (symbolic)” (Pavo, 2018). In this sense, the overlap between colonialism and neoliberalism can potentially render these urban forces as optimistic and not necessarily nihilistic.

Specifically commissioned for the 2018 Biennale, Yason Banal’s multi-channel installation, “Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound”, investigates the tenuous overlap between colonialism and neoliberalism. With the installation placed in the middle part of the exhibition, acting as the intersection of the two “navels,” Banal interrogates disparate issues of surveillance and spectacle, governmentality and biopolitics, the tension between nature and humans, and the struggle between authenticity and artifice, as manifestations of contemporary urban subjectivities. Shot using 4K, Full HD, and low-resolution through drones, 360-degree and phone cameras, the video installation mediates between the lived experiences of the city dwellers and the incumbent realities of transnational mobilities and network. He focuses on sites in and around the metropolis as spaces of contention and contestation: Manila Cemetery, a call center, Mount Pinatubo, Chinatown, former U.S. naval base of Subic, central business districts such as Bonifacio Global City, Manila Hotel, mixed-use developments such as Rockwell, and a host of others. He negotiates the city experiences through a series of digital interventions such as pixelations, layering, and juxtapositions, all intended to isolate the incongruent issues confronting urban development. His choice of sites is driven by what he considers as phantasmic and illusory occurrences, specters that haunt us while we inhabit the city. Creating an immersive environment in the pavilion, Banal challenges the visitor to contemplate on their own experiences and relationships with the city through the lenses of colonialism and neoliberalism.

To reconsider the paired forces of colonialism and neoliberalism as shapers of Philippine cities, a think-tank consortium was assembled specifically for the Philippine Pavilion. Four Philippine schools of architecture and a non-governmental organization, who were tasked to respond to the themes of the exhibit, were invited to form part of this consortium. These institutions are housed and embedded within the largest and densest metropolitan cities in the archipelago. They were also chosen based on their position as educational institutions, whether they are private or public, and an established or young program. The four schools are: the University of the Philippines – Mindanao (public and young) in Mindanao; the University of San Carlos (private and established) in the Visayas region; and, the University of the Philippines – Diliman (public and established) and De la Salle – College of Saint Benilde (private and young) in Luzon. TAO-Pilipinas, Inc., a non-governmental organization (NGO) of architects and planners based in Quezon City, has conducted projects all over the archipelago.

The schools were given the brief to: first, identify a site and/or problem facing the Philippine city within which the schools are situated; second, speculate on possible future scenarios as to how these metropolitan cities will evolve; and third, to respond to these scenarios as possible alternate futures. Different from the schools, TAO-Pilipinas was asked to reflect on participatory community design and capacity building projects that they have conducted over the last 17 years and specifically identify key learning from their experiences. The projects of the think-tank consortium included in this exhibition and featured in this catalogue all embody an optimistic attitude towards responding to the possibilities of the Philippine cities.

University of San Carlos’ (USC) Sulog: Currents of Unity interrogated the significance of Colon Street, the oldest street in the Philippines, as site of colonial history and contemporary commercial development. Decimated as a commercial zone as new central business districts emerged in the outskirts of the historic downtown area, the street still remains to be an important thoroughfare connecting the city and the site of important historical events. The team from USC responded to the challenges of Colon street by reimagining the district as an interconnected network of high-rise buildings encompassing the existing commercial buildings, reinventing it as a hub for new social activity for Cebu.

University of the Philippines – Mindanao (UP-Mindanao), similarly engaged with its past by addressing the existing informal settlements at the ocean’s edge of Poblacion area of Davao City in their project, Badjao Eco-Villages: Empowerment Through Indigenous Architecture. Highlighting the need to re-examine indigenous knowledge as an architectural approach, UP-Mindanao chose to reclaim vernacular architecture as a means of responding to the extreme neoliberal direction they anticipated Davao will take in its future. They saw the use of indigenous knowledge as a means to create the future city as resilient and sustainable.

Neither USC nor UP-Mindanao responded to their future speculations as solely nostalgic attempts to reconstitute the urban subjectivity of Cebu and Davao by focusing on the past, but instead actively addressed the possibility for heritage and commercialism to co-exist and comingle. In a way, they were exactly articulating through architecture how Pavo’s re-thinking of the overlap can be a “mediated” overlap where a hybrid identity can exist. Akin to Nick Joaquin’s proposition in his 1961 novel, USC and UP Mindanao asks us to resume our understanding on how our past can become a site of struggle but can also possibly serve as an instrument of emancipation.

For De la Salle – College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB), Pasig River in Manila, particularly the areas of Binondo and Intramuros, is a significant site in reconsidering the effects of colonialism and neoliberalism on the metropolis. The DLS-CSB team chose to imagine future possibilities by creating four narratives in their project, Futures of a Past. The urban narratives projected Manila in 2050 in four parallel tracks: What if Manila continued as an Austronesian city? What if Spain continued its colonization? What if the Japanese continued its colonization? What if Manila becomes a hyper-neoliberal and augmented/virtual reality city?

The University of the Philippines – Diliman (UP Diliman), in a similar approach, speculated the future possibilities of their own campus as a product of an American-colonial institution. In their project, HyGrids, a contraction of the terms “hyperrealist projections” and “conceptual grids,” UP-Diliman presented the possibilities of a campus as an intersection of colonialism and neoliberalism and investigated the various permutations between these two variables. Presented as a scale showing highly-built versus minimally-built and highly-vegetated and minimally-vegetated, the campus is re-envisioned as being overlaid with a system of conceptual grids interacting with the context layers of colonial history and neoliberal imperatives. In these architectural speculations, the imaginations are both hopeful and troubling.


If the schools anticipated possibilities through their speculative design research, there are organizations today that unmistakably provide hope through alternative practices. TAO-Pilipinas, Inc., a non-governmental, non-stock, non-profit organization founded by two women architects in 2001, aims to provide technical assistance to create resilient and sustainable human settlements for urban poor communities and disaster-stricken areas in the Philippines. Using research and capacity building and participatory design workshops, this grassroots-based NGO strives to elevate the living conditions particularly of those who might not have the capacity to pay for the services of an architect. They have conducted workshops, built homes, and engaged with different communities in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao over the years. In most cases, they facilitate and empower the communities to design the houses, evacuation centers, and neighborhoods for themselves. TAO-Pilipinas is a critical example of how the practice of architecture does not necessarily need to be solely based on the neoliberal agenda. They are the antithesis to the “starchitect” system that dominates contemporary architectural practice. The women-led group is a testament to the power of architecture to transform people’s lives.

The Philippine Pavilion asserts at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale that while colonialism and neoliberalism are seemingly insurmountable and hegemonic forces that dominate architecture and the built environment, there is still room to challenge and resist such structural systems. Architecture should not be construed as passive containers that are determined solely by technology, politics, and economics. Fundamental to the production of architecture and the built environment then is human agency. Subsequently, Filipinos should not be construed as passive receivers of external determinants. Filipinos are also not mere victims to colonialism and neoliberalism.

As Jun Gines (2018) in this volume argues, there is a need to shift the conception of people “from a subject to a self-disciplined body, from the subjugated to an objectifying body, from the objectified body to a body of contestation, from a controlled agent to enabler; and restart future potentials, perhaps as virtual enablers of life.” This is what “freespace” or “pookginhawa” means: there is an inherent agency that all people embody to shape and transform their own built environments. We should be cognizant of the possibilities, much like how the schools which participated in this exhibition, to free our imaginations of constraints or constructs that may have impeded us in the past. As Nick Joaquin explored in The Woman Who Had Two Navels where the past may have prevented the protagonists in redefining their futures, the Philippine Pavilion aspires to provide opportunities for re-imagining the futures of architecture. Ultimately, this is also a reminder that it is incumbent upon all of us to make architecture and the built environment to be more humane, equitable, democratic, inclusive, and emancipatory for renewed life and hope.

Along España Avenue, Manila City
SOURCE: Jinggo Montenejo

The essay is part of the catalogue of The City Who Had Two Navels curated by Edson G. Cabalfin, the Philippine Pavilion exhibition at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale (2018).


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Edson G. Cabalfin, Ph.D., is an educator, architect, designer, researcher, and historian. He is the newly appointed Professor of Practice in Design Thinking and Director of the Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship Program in the School of Architecture at Tulane University (New Orleans, LA). In 2017-2018, He was the Curator of the Philippine Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale 2018.

He received his Ph.D. in History of Architecture and Urban Development from Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) in 2012.  Under a Fulbright Fellowship, he obtained his Master of Science in Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH) in 2003. Prior to coming to the U.S., he received his professional Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees from the University of the Philippines in 1996 and 2001, respectively.  

Before his appointment at Tulane University, Edson was a tenured Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Interior Design Program in the School of Architecture and Interior Design in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati where he taught from 2009 until 2020. He has also previously taught in various capacities at Cornell University, University of the Philippines, Far Eastern University, University of Santo Tomas, and De la Salle – College of Saint Benilde.

Edson’s research in the last two decades have focused on the interdisciplinary and transnational intersections of architecture history and theory, cultural studies, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial theory, Southeast Asian studies, spatial justice, public interest design, and heritage conservation.  He wrote the book “What Kids Should Know About Filipino Architecture” (Adarna Books, 2015) and edited “The City Who Had Two Navels: Catalogue of the Philippine Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale 2018” (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2018).

A licensed and registered architect in the Philippines, Edson also runs his design consultancy Talyer Kayumanggi/Brown Workshop, based in Cincinnati and Manila, with projects in architecture, interior design, set design, costume design, fashion design, exhibition design, graphic design, and design strategy in North America, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in the last 25 years.  You can find more information about his professional work by visiting