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March 01, 2004


Much has been written about the origins, development and forms of Art Deco architecture in Europe and America, though much has still to be researched on the development of Art Deco outside Europe. This paper considers the development of Art Deco architecture outside Europe and America as having “discourses” of its own, by which we mean having their own issues, themes and dynamics situated within a distinctive political, cultural and social context (Edgar & Sedgwick 1999, 116-119).

Following the recent developments in theorizing architectural historiography, postcolonial theory informs the understanding of history by a heightened awareness of the inherent politics within architecture (Bozdogan 1999, 207). Architecture is understood here as a socio-cultural phenomenon rather than as a static and inert “object” that can be studied only in terms of its formalistic characteristics. Art deco may be then understood as a site of power relations through which a continual dynamics of domination & subjugation, inclusion & exclusion as well as resistance & empowerment are being played out.

Why do we need to regard art deco in terms of a different theoretical frame? Considering how existing scholarship on Philippine art deco architecture is highly formalistic, such as those done by scholars like Klassen (1986), Perez III (1991) and Tiongson, ed. (1994), these investigations do not give us a critical and discursive understanding of the style. They are uncritical because they do not question and challenge the underlying premises of the methods of historical analysis. The scholarship is also undiscursive because it does not allow the style to be placed in interaction and in dialogue with its socio-cultural context.

If historical accounts on Philippine art deco have now become insufficient and uncritical, how then can we reconfigure the historiography? How can we look at it beyond mere forms and objects? How then can we understand art deco architecture as a socio-cultural phenomenon? This essay will essentially follow Sibel Bozdogan’s proposal in reconfiguring architectural historiography. She outlines:

The first principle is not to lose sight of the provisional nature of identity politics if it is not to be turned into a new orthodoxy… The second principle is not to lose sight of the absence of any necessary and/or automatic connection between the work of art/architecture and its politics (Bozdogan 1999, 208).

These principles thus give us the opportunity not to totally reject the western canon and replace it with the marginalized “others,” but rather to demonstrate the interaction, encounters, mediation and transformation between them (ibid., 208-211). Furthermore, Bozdogan also does not propose the replacement of the notion of the architect as “genius” with an equally problematic conception of the architect as a “passive agent” of ideologies, but rather manifest how the architect/designer’s intentions are in fact entrenched within the intricacies of the politics pervading in the historical context (ibid., 211-214). This essay examines these issues of identity and power and how they are manifested and reflected in the production of art deco architecture in the Philippines.

Problematizing Art Deco: Theorizing the History of Filipino Art Deco

By “identities,’ this paper means “how we identify ourselves as members of a knowable ethnic, national, gender, religious and sexual groups” (Fuery & Mansfield 2000, 143). Identities become politicized because these are not just innocent associations but are conscious and unconscious negotiations with “others.” They are also political because certain identities become privileged over others, that is, some identities dominate while others are subjugated. A hierarchical relationship oftentimes segregates and marginalizes an underprivileged identity. In architecture history writing, this is very apparent in the way certain groups of people, buildings and events are made “visible” (such as European-American monuments and architects) while others are rendered “invisible” in historical accounts (such as buildings and designers from so-called “developing countries”).

Historiography can become a site of empowerment by reinscribing these “invisible” identities within the historical narratives. Thus in reconsidering the historiography of art deco architecture in the Philippines and in general, we acknowledge that the history is not just limited within the boundaries of Europe and America. Alternatively, we demonstrate the interaction, slippages, negotiations and struggles that exist within the discourse of art deco architecture.

What are the questions then that the history of art deco architecture poses in terms of identity politics in the Philippine context? This can be discussed in light of several issues: first, cross-cultural encounters, or how art deco is a setting where differing cultures interact; second, cultural representation, or how art deco became a technology for expressing culture; and third, self-exoticism, or how art deco became an instrument by which Filipino architects presented themselves as “exotic.” This paper will develop from these three themes as supplementary theoretical frames by which future studies and critical historiographies of Philippine art deco architecture might proceed from.

Art Deco and Cross-Cultural Encounters

The onset of the 20th century historically signaled for the Philippines a “change of hands” between two colonial powers, that is from the “old world” Spain to “new world” America, after the historical declaration of independence on June 12, 1898 and the eventual signing of the Treaty of Paris on August 13 of the same year. Politically, the colonial policies of America for the Philippines were aimed at “civilizing” the Filipinos. Colonial revenues were primarily directed towards the implementation of educational programs, sanitation, public health and infrastructure projects (May 1980, 180). This change of hands has become an important factor in the introduction of new architectural styles to the Philippines, signifying new values and ideas in a new age (Alcazaren 2000, 32-33; Perez III 1994, 3-4).     

Art deco architecture gestures this cross-cultural interaction as Filipino designers adapted “western” tastes and designs as means of taking part in this new colonial era. Through the Filipino architects studying in American and European universities, the style was transferred to the Philippines during the 1920s. Returning to the Philippines after their study abroad, the designers willingly adapted the “new” aesthetic as they have deemed it to be “contemporary”. The designers were consciously looking for new architectural expressions as a means of manifesting this new age. For them, the sense of contemporaneity was to veer away, if not reject, the “old” colonizer’s culture by abandoning Spanish colonial architectural details and forms. “Modern” here meant being anti-Spanish. The experience abroad allowed the Filipino designers to expand the architectural vocabulary, and in turn use them according to their own interpretation.

Though this might seem innocent at first, the act of transference can also be interpreted as a hegemonical process of transposing culture. It is hegemonical, according to Antonio Gramsci’s conception, because the form of domination is by consent and through subtle efforts, not by force nor active persuasion (Aschroft 1998, 116-121). The Filipino architects were sent to study in universities outside the Philippines by the insular government as part of the process of “training” the Filipinos for future governance (Salamanca 1968, 90-92). In actuality, the designers also became instruments by which the colonial government implemented changes. Thus, the supposed “willing” transference of an architectural style was in fact embedded within a broader “civilizing,” and thus “colonial” program of an imperial government.

Philippine art deco style became a site of contestation and dialogue between “cultures”, but it was not necessarily limited to American and Filipino alone. It was the merging of several cultures. Thus, with such kind of intermingling and interaction, a new “hybrid” of art deco architecture emerged that is seemingly unique to the case and context of the Philippines.

The Metropolitan Theater for example, interpolates different sources for the Art Deco design (Figure 1). On one hand, there is a clear linkage with the Beaux Arts tradition. This is reflected by the symmetry and balance that is achieved by its almost rectangular plan flanked by wings and pavilions (Figure 2), the stepped massing juxtaposed with undulating surfaces and the very strong harmony achieved through repetition of elements present in the facade. On the other hand, there is also a strong affinity to European-American art deco heritage as exemplified by the geometricized and stylized features on its ornamentation. Present are sunburst patterns on stained-glass windows, zig-zag motifs on polychromatic tile work, as well as fountain designs on small minarets on the parapet and low-relief medallions on the colonnade. Furthermore, the hybridity in the design is emphasized as it incorporates motifs from Philippine sources. Juan Arellano utilized stylized versions of Philippine flora, such as bananas, mangoes, bamboo, hibiscus and birds-of-paradise flowers on ceiling patterns, balustrades and lighting fixtures (Figure 3). At the same time, other Asian patterns like the batik, the Malaysian and Indonesian resist-dye technique for fabrics, were used extensively on the exterior surface of the building (Figure 4).

Although one might say that there was a clear asymmetry of this cultural interaction, it is not a simple act of a foreign culture imposing their own on a “weak and uncivilized” culture. Filipino culture, as the “colonized”, is not to be depicted here as a passive unresisting entity or empty space freely accepting the “colonizer” imposition, an unmediated transposition and domination of culture. Furthermore, the distinction between the culture of the “colonizer” and the “colonized” is blurred as the intermingling and hybridization of cultures take effect. The simplistic view of the binaries of “colonizer-colonized” and the “dominating-subjugated” dichotomies as a unilinear transposition of culture is thus challenged.

Art Deco and Cultural Representation

Art deco architecture, as widely known, employs the stylization of motifs from different cultures. What Europeans term as “primitive cultures” and “ancient art,” such as Egyptian, Assyrian, Native American, & Pre-Columbian cultures, have often been the source of inspiration for a lot of the European and North American versions of Art Deco architecture (Weber1985, 16). In most of these cases the cultures that are being represented in the architectural details are not indigenous to the country where the architecture was designed.

This method of stylization becomes a politicized process of reductionism or stereotyping. It is politicized because an architect or designer attempts to interpret and present a culture that he/she is not necessarily a part of. Oftentimes, a culture is misrepresented by being reduced to a particular stereotype through stylization. By specifically choosing certain symbols, motifs and themes from a studied culture towards the building design, there already occurs a biased decision.

In Philippine Art Deco, this reductionism is also present in the way Filipino architects have represented different cultures. The design of cinema houses illustrates this phenomenon. The Bellevue Theater (Figure 5), built in the 1930s, distinctively features Mudejar elements, a mixture of Moorish, Spanish and Muslim influences as reflected in the minarets, the harem maiden figures at the lobby (Figure 6), and the domical structure at the top. On the other hand, the Lyric Theater designed by Pablo Antonio in the 30s provides a western Asiatic and Islamic atmosphere through pointed arch windows, pilasters topped with finials and an onion-form pediment located at the middle bay of the façade (Figure 7). These were attempts by Filipino designers to appropriate imagery from cultures different from the experience of the Filipinos. The imagery, however, still remains stereotypical.

In this sense, the representation of culture was for the projection of an “exotic” culture and ambience detached from the quotidian experience of the Filipino. The style provided this exoticized mood because of the style’s capacity to accommodate adaptation, transformation and reinterpretation of visual allusions. Previous styles, such as the Spanish-colonial and neoclassical systems, were not as flexible compared to art deco. One might also speculate that architecture here was particularly used to facilitate the consumption of the technology of cinema.

In another instance, Art deco was also used to project a sense of progressive and sophisticated culture. The colonial government was very much aware of the image of the country as an American colony. Operating within the precepts of “benevolent assimilation,” the Philippines was to become the “laboratory” and at the same time the “showcase of democracy in Asia”. As such intentions were part of the political agenda, the Philippines was to be projected as a progressive and modern country under the colonial rule. Architecture became one of the instruments for projecting this “modern” aura.

Streamlining, or the act of smoothening surfaces and volumes based on aerodynamic principles, became a popular method of depicting speed, futurism and modernity. In American art deco, this method was practically used everywhere: from radios to cars, from furniture to cosmetic cases & jewelry and of course to architecture (Heide & Gilman 1991). One could already surmise of the very close relationship between American and Philippine art deco as evidenced by the abundant examples of streamlining.

This technique of streamlining is very conspicuous in the Jai-Alai building designed by Welton D. Beckett and Walter C. Wurderman in 1940. The strip windows, the horizontal ledges, the slender columns and the profuse use of chrome and glass evoked this sense of modernity, which was very different from its Spanish-colonial neighbors along Taft Avenue in Manila (Figure 8). Among educational institutions, speed in streamlining meant movement and sophistication of knowledge, as in the case of the Far Eastern University Main Building in Manila which was built in 1938 (Figure 9). The Rizal Memorial Stadium, also in Manila, similarly invokes streamlined features through undulating horizontal lines combined with flat surfaces edged by rounded mouldings (Figure 10). Thus in civic design, streamlining suggests the government’s image as a stable institution, very modern and up-to-date.

Commercial structures, such as the Crystal Arcade built in 1932, celebrated “modern” materials such as glass and reinforced concrete through the inclusion of continuous concrete walls and large glass panels in skylights and curtain walls (Figure 11). Here, the style gave the impression of economic progress and stability to commercial institutions. Other commercial institutions tended to give out a feeling of opulence through the rich embellishments on the building. Resorting to geometricized patterns such as chevrons, triangles and squares incorporated with stylized floral patterns, both the Perez-Samanillo Building, built in 1928 (Figure 12), and the Geronimo Reyes Building built in the 1930s and is lavishly ornamented on the base and parapet.

Both the government and the private sector participated in the projection of a modern country under colonial rule. In a lot of these cases, the imagery proved to be useful in making a contrast with the previous architectural styles. There is however a paradoxical moment in the art deco system. One side of the style admonishes the creation of a progressive and modern cultural symbolism while another particularly reduces cultures to “frozen” and “essentialized” stereotyped identities. In a way, it is especially this paradoxical capacity of the style that made it appealing and favorable to the public and private institutions in expressing the values and ideologies of the period.    

Art Deco and Self-Exoticism

One would immediately think that vernacular motifs would easily get incorporated into the architects’ designs as they are readily accessible and expedient. However, how is it that European and American designers borrowed imagery and symbols not indigenous to their own culture (i.e. the French taking on Egyptian, African and Assyrian motifs), while Filipino designers actively used Philippine indigenous motifs as art deco ornamentation? Does it seem then that Filipino designers operated on a different idea of appropriating imagery?

The Capitol Theater, designed by Juan Nakpil in 1935, explicitly portrays Filipinas in the native garb on the front elevations. The women, set within a tropical landscape, evoke a faraway rural and bucolic place very much different from the urbanized and built-up setting of the commercial district of Escolta in Manila. If the situation is closely inspected, the Filipino designers employing art deco were not considered as part of the “rural folk” being represented in the stylistic ornamentations, but rather were metropolitanized architects who were in fact part of the “new” cultural elite of cosmopolitan Manila (Salamanca 1968, 91-92). Thus, they were not necessarily experiencing in their daily lives the “rural” and “native” imagery that they were enacting.

Filipino designers, as they were also participating in the discourse of exoticism in Art Deco, similarly utilized an “other” culture to project a sense of contemporaneity and novelty. Exoticism in this case was sourced from within the Philippines. “Rural” scenes and “native” imagery seem to have become the standard source for the “other” culture. Can this then be called “self-exoticism” as the designers and architects tended to exoticize their own culture?

One has to contextualize this self-exoticizing tendency within the issue of nationalism. The formation of the country as the “Philippines,” being a homogenous geopolitical entity, was still in its formative stages during the early part of the 20th century. The metropolitanized Filipinos had the difficulty of reconciling the aim of a politically homogenous “nation” with the reality of a culturally heterogeneous archipelago.

The idea of identity in architecture held by architects at that time was also founded on the concept of a distinctive homogenous architectural character. In the same way that supposed “Egyptian” motifs in Art Deco were often identified in terms of pyramids, papyrus bell capitals, sphinxes and hieroglyphics, the idea of “Filipino” in architecture was also defined by specifying easily identifiable and distinctive visual architectural clues. The architects, being metropolitanized themselves, struggled to search for these perceptible cues. Thus, the designers turned to the various cultures within the Philippines as sources of what they considered as “authentic Filipino”. By returning to an alleged “essential” and “pure” Filipino culture, they were able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the architectural world. The use of tropicalized landscapes, scenes from rural life and patterns from fabrics were then construed as a return to the “roots”. Thus, it can be speculated that the driving motivation for self-exoticism was in fact engendered by the prevailing idea of “identity” itself in architecture.

What becomes suspicious in the European-American and Filipino cases of exoticism is the tendency to reduce the represented culture as an essentialized identity. In essentializing, it is thus assumed that the cultural identity is a static, unchanging and compartmentalized set of recognizable characteristics that belong exclusively to a particular group (Ashcroft et. al. 1998, 77-80). By presenting supposedly Filipino motifs, like bananas, mangoes, bamboo and weave patterns, the architecture projects this image of the Philippines as just a “tropicalized culture”. The imagery however does not take into account the myriad ethno-linguistic groups, the cosmopolitanized cultures as well as the layers of colonial culture that have been incorporated into what is considered as “Filipino”. Hence an essentialized “native” identity does not allow the inclusion of variations, aberrations, mutations and complexities of identities that have evolved through time. Again, this exoticizing becomes political as it excludes versions of “cultures” that does not fall within the static categorization and imagery that the architectural style purports.

This self-exoticism should also be interpreted then as resistances, a binary opposition or a counter discourse to a dominating power. In art deco for example, the creation of an exotic “Filipino culture” through the symbols was being opposed to the Europeanized motifs and patterns. The tropicalized mangoes, bananas and birds-of-paradise in the patterns of the Metropolitan Theater are to be contrasted to the allusions to Greek theater and African references. In a parallel instance, this resistance was a means of re-articulating themselves within an imperial discourse. Understood as an appropriation, this becomes a strategy by which a postcolonial culture uses particular aspects of imperial culture as a means of articulating their own cultural and social identities (Ashcroft, 1998, 19). It was a claiming of one’s own. Following postcolonial critic Bill Aschroft, the Filipino architects can be viewed as a “subject who consumes the dominating culture in strategy of self-fashioning and self-representation” instead of a “passive subject unable to escape the pressure of imperial ideology.” (Ashcroft 2001, 40) In these highly charged politics of architecture postcolonial architectural critic Sibel Bozdogan also warns of a simplistic view between the artist and ideology. She maintains:

As much as artists/architects are not creative geniuses working in full autonomy, neither are they unequivocal instruments of politics or ideologies they may serve or chose to operate within. (1999, 212)

This means that one does not simply view architects as passive entities who have no agency to decide, but are rather complex beings, continually participating, reflecting, negotiating and informing cultural practices. Thus this exoticized tendency in the Philippine art deco representation can be attributed to both artistic creativity and institutional implementation, and not be blamed simply on one participant of the cultural process.      

Implications: Art Deco, Identity Production and Empowerment

Art deco is thus seen as an articulation of the search for identity/identities: identities of the Filipino architect, the political institutions, the “colonizer” nation-state as well as other sub-cultures. In this crucial moment of adapting and adjusting to the new colonial powers, the Filipino identity has been brought to fore as an important question. Is being Filipino now a total rejection of the Spanish “heritage” that has for so long dominated Philippine culture? How is the identity now to be understood as a new layer of cultural influences are being transposed, transplanted to the Filipino by the Americans? Are Filipinos still “Asians” despite the waves of European and American cultural hegemony? The time and space of the rise of Art Deco architecture in the Philippines was directly related to the colonial and postcolonial experience of the Philippines.

Furthermore, art deco as an architectural style is seen here as not innocent, inert or neutral. It is not innocent as such that the style was a conscious effort of adapting foreign aesthetics. It is not inert because of the hierarchical and asymmetrical relationship that occurs between cultures. It is not neutral due to the “biases” that the style has towards the representation of culture. Therefore, the style is understood here as a politicized operation of identity-formation. It is not merely a mélange of forms and objects that are put together innocently, rather is the manipulation of imagery to suit a particular agenda of both the artist-agent and the social institutions. In the search for identity, the style was the instrument by which the society itself (the interaction of structure and agency) experimented to express the various issues surrounding architecture culture of the early 20th century.

Thus, as much as art deco is seen as the seeming “infiltration” of a foreign agent in another culture, the style can also be read as the means an “infiltrated” culture adapts and responds to an outside power. It then can be understood as the dynamics of the imposition of power by the colonizer and the demonstration of resistance and empowerment of the colonized. In these conceptions then one is able to expand one’s investigation of a style as a reified and autonomous form making process towards the recognition of architecture as a cultural phenomenon amidst multiple influences, politics, audiences and intentions.

In negotiating a new historiography of an architectural style, art deco architecture outside Europe and America can now be recognized as having a discourse on its own. The manifestation of art deco outside Europe then testifies how a style can have a life of its own, different from its origins and evolving according to the dynamics of society and culture. Consequently, it should be acknowledged that the history of Philippine art deco cannot be viewed as detached, autonomous or even simply as “extensions” of the history of European-American art deco, rather are “intertwined histories” inextricably linked and formed. Realizing the dynamic characteristic of the style, art deco then can be recuperated from the margins of architectural history and put to fore as a legitimate manifestation of the cultural dynamics of the era and the expression of the struggle for identity of a postcolonial society.



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