Fueled by the patronage of Imelda Marcos, Leandro Locsin found himself tangled in a political undercurrent. Over a decade since the national artist’s death, we build a case for the enduring significance of the Poet of Space.
A MOMENT IN TIME. A 1968 Claudio Bravo portrait of Architect Leandro Locsin and his wife, Cecilia Araneta Yulo-Locsin. The Chilean society portraitist painted the couple during his stay in Manila 47 years ago.
The inauguration of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Theater on September 8, 1969 signaled the Philippines’ crash entry into the world stage, which some critics deemed as part of an ambitious scheme to present the country’s emerging—and fabricated, as Marcos oppositionists would claim—identity as a new and modern society. It would also serve as a preview to the magnitude of a future despot’s power and his wife’s tragic, spendthrift ways. The theater was the first structure to rise from Manila Bay’s newly redefined coastline, part of several buildings in a planned “district for the arts, conventions, and exhibitions,” as Andy Locsin described the project, which was realized mostly through the visionary imagination of his father, the esteemed architect Leandro V. Locsin.
The CCP Theater would draw the ire of the Marcoses’ critics, foremost among them the incumbent president’s nemesis, Senator Ninoy Aquino. In his scathing February 1969 speech, “A Pantheon for Imelda,” delivered just months before the CCP’s glittery inauguration, Aquino described the structure as a “monument to shame,” a flamboyant folly that he thought was insensitive to the plight of the country’s impoverished citizens. But the Marcoses wouldn’t let poetic declamations stand in the way of their grandiose plans. In time, a series of monoliths would sprout in the reclaimed sprawl, most of which were designed by the elder Locsin himself.
Caught in the maelstrom, controversies would follow the architect to his grave. In an article published in The Philippine Star shortly after Leandro’s death on November 15, 1994, writer F. Sionil Jose called the CCP Complex structures “fascist buildings.” Though he described the National Artist for Architecture as “a good man, a very decent man,” Sionil Jose decried the accolades lavished on him for his architectural accomplishments, going on to say that as an architect and as an artist, “I think he is overrated.”
Leandro seemed unfazed by people’s harsh words, which his son says were mostly “political in nature, with perhaps a few inevitable shots from those who do not agree with the architecture.” Andy further explains that “in general, [my father] had a very balanced and realistic view about these buildings, fully understanding that, by their very nature and circumstance, these projects did not exist in a vacuum apart from the realities of national political life. Possessed of the knowledge that he undertook these commissions fully in good faith and mindful of the integrity of his delivery as a professional, he took these criticisms in stride.”
The Brutalist facade of the Philippine International Convention Centre, Asia’s first international convention center, in 1978.
But it would be a fellow architect who would present the most provocative critique of Leandro’s controversial entries in his startling library of accomplished works. In his 2003 book, Edifice Complex: Power, Myth and the Marcos State Architecture, Gerard Lico cites the CCP complex as the centerpiece case study for his examination of the relationship between power and architecture. In the tome’s 196 pages, Lico builds his case methodically, presenting the premise from which he draws his intriguing views. He cites the role of architecture in societies, and outlines historical examples of how design was deployed as a tool by colonial rulers in perpetuating a subliminal sense of conquest. He devoted an entire chapter to the CCP Complex and, with scholarly astuteness, scrutinized and presented the hidden narratives and myths that the Marcoses perpetuated by way of state-sponsored edifices.
Andy doubts that there was a conscious effort toward this end, saying, “In many cultures throughout history, a link between power and design have been argued and demonstrated quite convincingly, as evidenced by actual documentation of an overt intent to establish a state architecture, aesthetic, symbolism, or iconography. Whether or not this was true of the political dispensation at the time can only be speculation, as I am not sure there is documentation that states this in the case of the structures within the CCP Complex.”
The dramatic staircase of the PICC lobby.
Lico himself thinks that Leandro, who he regards as one of the greatest Filipino architects, wasn’t conscious of the Marcoses’ covert plans. It is in the book’s final chapter, titled “Beyond Frivolity and Political Amnesia,” that Lico delivers his masterstroke. Unlike most critiques which lacked an agenda beyond stating what was already apparent, Lico presents learnings from the Marcos experience, and goes further with a positive note: “We hope that the oppressive architectures can be reclaimed and rearticulated into structures of emancipation and agents of the people’s empowerment.” This paves the way for an examination of Leandro’s works in the context of present times, as an architectural expression without the political colorations.
While he drew the most flak with the CCP Complex, the site offers an aggregation of Leandro’s tantalizing oeuvre. The main theater, the Folk Arts Theater, the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), and the Sofitel Plaza, among others, reveal a disciplined cohesiveness, a spirited imagination of space, and a maverick’s daring vision. The buildings’ brutalist slant is apparent in the concrete skins and massive volumes, but Leandro infused the design language with his own signature stamp. “My father and the firm did experiment with many forms and textures within this rich brutalist language,” Andy recalls. “Crushed shells, granitite, pebble washes, bush hammering, off-forms, crushed glass, exposed aggregates—many of these texturing techniques were incorporated into the geometries, straight edging, curves, sinewy forms, and organically plastic shapes of reinforced concrete in his architecture. He used to say that reinforced concrete is our country’s ‘natural material’ because of its ample supply, economy, durability, beauty, and the skill that the Filipino craftsman inherently possesses to render it artistically.”
Leandro V. Locsin’s infamous patrons have long fallen from power. But his buildings stand as testament to a man with remarkable talent, one who possessed a rare quality that is lacking in most practitioners of the architectural craft today.
“It’s very clear to myself and his colleagues that he approached architecture with an artist’s soul . . . rather than through a developer’s pen, an engineer’s rationality, or a marketer’s hype,” Andy asserts. “And yet, somehow, these buildings may have lived up to some of these other criteria relatively well. I do not think that there was a conscious and overt message, political or otherwise, that he intended to communicate through the architecture. I believe these works are truly reflective of an intensely personal sense of aesthetics, proportion, scale, utility, integrity, and nationalism.”
This article first appeared in Rogue’s October 2015 issue.