The Philippines’ navel idea at 16th Venice Architecture Biennale

The Filipino dish dinuguan was the star of Venice Architecture Biennale’s finissage this year. To Filipinos living in Venice, the dish, common in the Philippines but difficult to make in Italy because of the rarity of its ingredients (pork blood, in particular), is only whipped out on extra special occasions. Like a beacon to all kabayans, it draws everyone to one place. Inside Santa Maria della Fava Church on the night of Nov. 25, we found our “free space,” our very own piazza. It had been raining all week, and after a long, freezing walk from the pier, nothing was more welcoming than the aromas of home and the Filipino equivalent of “Hello” — “Kain tayo.”

“Freespace” is the intriguingly vague concept that guided this year’s Biennale participants. The day before the finissage, we toured the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale. On its second to the last day, the Philippine Pavilion was busy with visitors — students, architects, tourists, foreigners and Filipinos. This year’s curator, Edson Cabalfin, warned us, “After the tour, there will be graded recitation.” We shook in our boots. A professor at heart, Cabalfin incorporated his love for teaching and enduring curiosity about the youth perspective into his work, “The City Who Had Two Navels.” He said, “I had always wanted to do something like this as a contest, but with only seven months to prepare, we didn’t exactly have the time,” referring to the student submissions that tackled his two otherwise overwhelming concepts in concise and easily digestible modules. Instead of holding a competition, he selected schools to represent Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Navel 1, titled “(Post)Colonial Imaginations,” included works by De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde, School of Design and Arts (“Futures of a Past”), TAO-Pilipinas Inc. (“Architecture as Participatory Design”), University of the Philippines – Mindanao, Department of Architecture (“Badjao Eco-Village: Empowerment Through Indigenous Architecture”), and “Nation as Spectacle: Philippine Pavilions in International Expositions, 1887-1998,” which was part of his dissertation and a subject he has long been passionate about.

Navel 2, called “Neoliberal Urbanism,” featured University of San Carlos – School of Architecture, Fine Arts and Design (“Sulog: Currents of Unity”), University of the Philippines – Diliman, College of Architecture (“HyGrids: Projecting the Future of Cities in the Philippines”), and Marvin Maning and Jinggo Montenejo’s “Everyday Urbanism: Metropolitan Cities of Manila, Cebu and Davao.”

Between the two navels was a semi-enclosed viewing area showing artist Yason Banal’s “Untitled Formation, Concrete Supernatural, Pixel Unbound.”

Assembling The Navels

This year’s exhibit was the opposite of what one would expect. Amid a local landscape that has increasingly celebrated indigenous materials and handicrafts, Cabalfin chose an unlikely, modern, and mildly futuristic aesthetic. No banigs. No bamboo. Nothing about the display said “native.” In fact, from the outside, it looked like the venue of a raging ‘90s rave. The only pavilion filled with blue light, it drew in the youngins like moths to a flame. Everything was intentional.

“I want it to contrast with the space. That’s also the reason why I wanted it to be glowing. Theoretically, it was just an about-face response to the indigenous materials. On the outside, I consider it as very didactic, and then the middle is experiential,“ Cabalfin told The STAR.

Visitors have commented that the Philippine pavilion is one of the richest and most memorable they’ve seen this year. One could credit Cabalfin’s strategic design for that, but mostly, its impact stems from the depth of its narrative. “I thought this would be a good way to frame Philippine architecture and our built environment. I focused on the challenges of Philippine cities, in particular our three biggest cities, Metro Manila, Cebu and Davao. I assembled a think tank consortium composed of four schools of the Philippines, a multimedia artist, two photographers, and TAO Pilipinas. I wanted to show that the two forces — colonialism and neoliberalism — are actually interacting,” he said.

“When I was working with the schools, I gave them a workshop. I visited them three times throughout six months. What’s fascinating is that they were so appreciative of the entire process because they learned a lot. Which is also what I am hoping for. The word “neoliberalism” in relation to architecture was not necessarily in their vocabulary. Even Filipino architects said, they never thought neoliberalism had any connection with architecture. But, architects are complicit. Sila yung nagdedesign ng mga malls, condominiums, the cities,” he said.

Beyond a statement of facts, the exhibit at the Philippine pavilion this year posed important questions — for developers who are designing after foreign models, for private institutions that are building malls and other privatized public spaces, for the government, which is supposed to create public spaces for its citizens. “We are all involved. We are all complicit,” he said.

The exhibit and the process itself drew a range of reactions. Cabalfin shared that a foreign architect commented on Instagram that asking if one could truly escape colonialism is the wrong question to ask. “Even though they were criticizing the question, it was a great response. As a Filipino, I think colonialism is something that we still grapple with today. We can’t necessarily escape it.” He shared how some foreign guests were surprised about the cities of the Philippines, as presented in the “Neoliberalism” navel. “They didn’t realize the level of development that’s going on,” he said.

The feedback he appreciates most is from the people he worked with through the seven-month process of bringing the exhibition to life. “Looking at the contributions of everybody, what I realized, ‘Ah, it is true!’ Na-prove yung hypothesis ko na we can be optimistic. Even if this is just a small group, I saw the variety of ideas they presented and the power of their ideas. They’re not pessimistic. I don’t want people to think that we can’t do anything about colonialism and neoliberalism.”

Cabalfin shared his plans of bringing the exhibition to the Philippines in 2019. “Filipinos in the Philippines will be the fourth audience,” he said. “The main installation will be the same, but I’m adding another layer to it. Dalawang pusod parin! But I want to revisit my original concept of doing a national student competition. My hope is to select a couple of projects that we can add to that new layer.”

Why Biennale?

Cabalfin says, to him, the most important part of the project is being part of the conversation, not just between the 63 countries that exhibited in Venice, but also the people who are reading about it on the papers and through their phones. Through the Biennale, the Philippines, which has been participating for five years now, after 51 years of absence, has shown the world aspects of our culture that may have otherwise remained unknown or misunderstood.

“A Philippine Pavilion in the Venice Biennale is a way for Filipinos to enter the minds of other people and cultures, thus expanding our horizons and helping much to bring about international understanding, harmony and peace. This is one way of conversing with other nations, it is an avenue to establish contact and share our culture with the world. Art is a form of cultural diplomacy, which is a soft opener to our political and economic initiatives with other nations. Moreover, our participation in the Venice Biennale is one of the many other projects we have initiated to mainstream art and culture into the national development agenda,” Sen. Loren Legarda, who, with the National Commission of Culture and the Arts, has been championing the Philippine Pavilion since its comeback, said in an interview with The STAR.

This year, 12 curatorial proposals were submitted for a jury composed of NCCA Chair Virgilio Almario, Leandro Y. Locsin, Fernando Zobel de Ayala, Carol Yinghua Lu, Lani Maestro, and the Senator. “For me, the concept of Edson stood out because it did not only look at city as built structure or architecture, but it also looked deeper into the people who live in the city, the whole ecosystem, how the built environment affects the individual and the society,” she said.

In 2019, the Philippine Pavilion will present “Island Weather,” curated by Tessa Maria Guanzon, featuring artist Mark Justiniani, at the 58th Venice Art Biennale. The Pavilion will be open to the public on May 11, 2019 and will run until Nov. 24, 2019.