Let us examine how our cultural cringe and the impact of brain drain affected the state of Philippine architecture.

The Philippines always had the opportunity to become the best of what it can be. It has the best of both worlds with its rich cultural mixture of East and West, its bountiful natural resources and a large population of skilled and educated citizens that have gone far and wide to make our globalized world up and running. However, it has remained a laggard when it comes to infrastructure and overall national development that most Asian countries boast like China, Japan, South Korea and to a certain extent, our immediate neighbors of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Metro Manila may be the most developed metropolis in the country with all the high-rise apartments and condominiums, ultra-modern mega malls and extensive highways yet it is still stuck in perpetual traffic jams and gridlock thanks to poor urban planning, inherent corruption and rapid urbanization. All economic development are centralized and revolved around Manila and all the major regional cities like Cebu and Davao.

Cultural Cringe

Renowned Filipino architect Jason Buensalido said “I think Philippine Architecture has no singular voice yet, there’s too many thematic developments that don’t really speak the culture of the Philippines well and I think one of the reasons why this is so is because of top-down development, wherein profit is always the first priority when coming up with real estate developments, such as subdivisions, high-rise buildings and residential projects.”

Most developers are building more and more shopping malls instead of preserving heritage structures only to end up creating residential gated communities with a more Mediterranean theme that is not what you expect to see in this part of the world.

It's unfortunate that we have not capitalized our own architectural heritage by making it known and distinct from all Western-style architecture so that you will definitely identify it as our own. When you visit Bangkok, Jakarta, Beijing or Tokyo, you will immediately know that you're there because of their distinct visual features that perfectly blends in with their culture and history. Whether such structure was built centuries ago or a recent one, it speaks its unique cultural appeal and expresses the sentiments of what the place is all about. As for the Philippines, we are still stuck in an identity crisis devoid of a single architectural voice that will compliment the urban experience with what our unique identity.

Whatever happened to our bahay na bato and bahay kubo influences? We're supposed to be building Filipino-style houses and preserving colonial heritage structures, not developing massive gated communities that separates the haves and have nots or building garish, faux-classical structures. Have you ever thought that the Temple of Leah or the Greek ruins at Batangas' Fortune Island truly fits in our country's architectural landscape? So much pretension for the sake of tourism money while more and more ancestral homes from Vigan to Tanjay now fell into utter disrepair.


"Whether it be a park or a lake front development, whatever it is, it has to reflect our culture and our identity. And when you talk about culture and identity, it’s a certain way of doing things by a certain set of people, and we have this basically. If you look at other industries, like furniture, graphic design, product development, all of these industries are starting to speak or reflect who we are," architect Buensalido added.

More than a hundred years ago, the great American architect had a grand city plan of Manila as truly the 'pearl of the Orient.' He once said in 1905: "Possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice, Manila has before it an opportunity unique in history of modern times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting."

Unfortunately after 40 years, the once great metropolis is a smoldering shell of its former glory after the devastation it suffered during the tumultuous Battle of Manila that eventually forced the Japanese out of the country. The urban planning mistakes only happened when the country gained its independence from the United States. Eminent architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. said that local/national government officials have eventually threw away Burnham's grand plan of "grand scale, wide radial boulevards, landscaped parks, and pleasant vistas," thus started the uglification of Manila.

What makes it frustrating nowadays, experts are seldom consulted by government and implementing agencies. They leave old historic structures rot and decay where these priceless relics of the past are demolished to give way to "modern" developments only to regress by adopting themed buildings that are not reflective of the country's architectural heritage.

Brain Drain and Patronage Politics

The Philippines has a lot of talented and skilled architects, engineers, interior designers and builders who end up going abroad to work. Despite having 38,500 registered architects, only $28.8 billion is allocated in infrastructure and other construction projects. Meanwhile, Indonesia has only 5,500 registered architects but construction amounted to over $344 billion!


Cities have suffered urban decay due to bad infrastructure and lack of investment of it. The country has a demand-driven buoyed by OFW remittances and business outsourcing. With that dependence, real estate developments are built upon it with massive investment in new high-rise residential buildings, shopping malls, and gated communities. Building of infrastructure centered around impractical flyovers, pedestrian walkways, and other "pet projects" by local and national officials that are often tied up to their controversial pork barrel funds.

Looking Ahead

In recent years, there have been efforts to establish a policy wherein every city and towns will have an ordinance mandating all constructions and reconstructions should be inclined with the local architecture and landscaping styles to preserve and conserve the country's dying heritage sites that were ultimately demolished to give way to culturally-irresponsible development and lack of clear architectural vision.

Many advocates want to emulate what was implemented in other countries that preserved their monuments and architectural wonders. Maybe one of the reason why it has a hard time taking root in our country due to a lack of a massive architectural wonder (like the Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China or the Parthenon of Greece) to look up to.

There also have been calls for the reinterpretations of indigenous, colonial and modern architectural and landscaping styles that are prevalent or used to be prevalent in any city or town. Furthermore, they call upon a rebirth of traditional Filipino landscaping and town planning especially in the rural areas since it can easily be implemented in heritage areas within a 50-year time frame.

Unfortunately, many Filipino architecture and engineering experts lack the sense of preserving heritage townscapes where business proposals to construct structures that are not inclined with the local architectural styles have been continuously accepted and constructed thereby destroying much of the local architectural townscape one building at a time. It is only a matter of time that most major cities will burst out of its seams and implode itself from within as all the historical structures will forever be lost for good.

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JP Canonigo

I am a historian / professional blogger / online content specialist / SEO copywriter / video game junkie / sports fanatic / jack-of-all trades.

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