BY SAM L. MARCELO, Senior Reporter

Power structures

Posted on April 13, 2012

The Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) opened in 1976, when the peso was around seven to a dollar and the government was on a construction spree that would, in the words of First Lady Imelda Marcos, "show the world that, see, we have a pretty face."

-- Jonathan L. Cellona
Designed by Leandro V. Locsin, named National Artist for Architecture in 1990, the PICC is a long and squat block of concrete that cost $65 million. Brutalist in nature, the fortress-like building took two years to build. It sits on 12 hectares of reclaimed land and has a total floor area of 60,000 square meters. From the outside, PICC is geometric, angular and intimidating.

In the book Edifice Complex: Power, Myth and Marcos State Architecture, art historian and architect Gerard Lico describes the PICC as a study in binary oppositions: "tremendous weight that looks light, horizontal tension negated by vertical soars, monumental sculpted masses floating weightlessly in a pool of still water."


Considered to be Locsin’s magnum opus, the PICC is one of several iconic buildings designed by the Modernist architect for the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Complex. In Edifice Complex, Mr. Lico explained that the building was part of Mrs. Marcos’s utopian City of Man and the centerpiece of her Convention City, where the powers that be were supposed to meet.

In October 1976, the PICC hosted its first prestigious international event: the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, where 4,650 delegates -- central bankers, ministers of finance and development, private sector executives, and academics -- gathered, as ever, to "discuss issues of global concern."

"The [IMF]-World Bank Conference in Manila was seen as an important opportunity to portray President Marcos as the leader of the third world," wrote Mr. Lico. In 1979, the PICC hosted the fifth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a month-long event that saw 5,000 attendees.

"Every king has a temple," said Roberto "Butch" Garcia, deputy general manager of the PICC, quoting Manila tour guide and performance artist Carlos Celdran. "And the PICC was the temple of the king. This building was a landmark for the accomplishments Marcos administration. It was an appropriate venue for the gathering of the greatest minds and that still holds true today."

3,000 lights drop from the ceiling of the central Secretariat Building -- Bernie M. Cabilin

Mr. Garcia’s office is in the Delegation Building of the PICC, a five-storey structure that houses 12 meeting rooms, two new banquet halls, two corporate boardrooms, registration and documents distribution counters, executive offices, office spaces and lounges.

According to the PICC Web site, six of the meetings rooms have a "new, totally different and an updated look" consisting of high ceilings and recessed downlight pendant lamps with dimmable halogen fixtures. Elsewhere, compact fluorescent lamps have been installed to save on energy. The PICC’s grand entrance is located in the central Secretariat Building, where 3,000 drop lights encased in lustrous metal tubes hang from the ceiling, collectively forming a pattern that resembles an inverted three-dimensional graph of a mathematical function.

A low-ceiling bridge connects the Secretariat Building to the Plenary Hall, which can accommodate 4,000 people in a theater equipped with a permanent stage, dressing rooms and VIP lounge. The PICC also has ancillary and outdoor areas, which, like the three buildings, house works of art by the likes of Arturo Luz, Jose Joya, Ed Castrillo, Abdulmari Asia Imao, Mauro "Malang" Santos, H.R. Ocampo, and Napoleon Abueva.

"The legacy of the PICC is in that a lot of leaders and fantastic personalities have walked our halls," said Mr. Garcia. The PICC guest book bears witness to the visits of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Luciano Pavarotti, Janet Jackson, Josh Groban, and Ricky Martin.


The PICC hosts an average of 300 events annually. The first and second semesters exhibit the same behavior, with January and July being low months; February and August, "pick-up" months; and March to May and October to December, a flurry of activity because of graduations, meetings, and Christmas parties.

In Edifice Complex. Mr. Lico recounts that "critics called the $65-million PICC a white elephant because it was one of the ‘most underutilized buildings in the country.’" Asked if he agreed with this observation, Mr. Garcia hedged. "The question is: do we make money? And the answer is: sometimes we do, sometimes we donít."

The PICC is the top-of-mind venue when it comes to events for 1,000 people and up, although it has rooms suitable for small gatherings of ten. Weddings, birthday parties, and family reunions have been booked at the PICC, which offers unlimited options. Ceilings: high or low? Floors: parquet, carpeted, or concrete? Lighting: natural or artificial?

More than a hundred schools hold their graduation ceremonies in the PICC every year, each one bringing in P250,000 in revenue for the PICC. Associations, which make up 1% of PICC’s clients, contribute 25% to the Center’s monies since a single conference represents revenues of about P5 million.

"Ninety percent of convention centers around the world are owned by the government and you know what, most of them don’t make money." said Mr. Garcia. "But you have to have one. Can you imagine the Philippines without the Philippine International Convention Center? How would you invite ministers and heads of state?"

The PICC is maintained by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and Mr. Garcia is thankful for this arrangement. "Had we been given to another government institution, we probably would have been converted into a public high school by now," he mused.

WORKS by major artists are scattered throughout the convention center. -- Jonathan L. Cellona

The building has undergone three major renovations: the first in 1995, in preparation for the 8th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Ministerial Meeting held in 1996; in 2005, in preparation for the 112th Inter-Parliamentary Union and related meetings held in the same year; and this year, 2012, in preparation for the upcoming 45th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) this May.

These renovations included the changing of carpets (a major undertaking considering that the Plenary Hall has 3,000 square meters of floor space), refurbishing of furniture, laying of fiber-optic cables, and landscaping. The sound system and speakers have also been updated; the acoustic ceilings and fabric walls, repaired.

"It takes a lot of money to maintain a convention center," said Mr. Garcia, who declined to give figures although he did say utilities alone were unbelievable.

For example, chillers located on the Sofitel side of the PICC are tasked with cooling halls a block away, on the other side of the complex. "They have to be turned on two hours before an event to get the temperature down to a comfortable level," said Mr. Garcia. If a conference is scheduled to start at 8 a.m., the chillers are already humming by 6 a.m.

The PICC itself is a lean organization composed of 89 employees while contractors for security, janitorial services and grounds maintenance number about 300.

"[The] PICC is an impetus for economic activity within the area since spending is not confined to the center alone -- a lot will benefit," said Mr. Garcia, pointing out that taxi companies, rental car agencies, hotels, and shopping malls all profit from events held at PICC.

This potential, he continued, remains untapped since the government has overlooked the entire industry of meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE). "There has been no strategy for MICE in the past seven years, no integrated approach," the PICC deputy general manager said, adding that the Philippines slid to 56th in the world as a convention destination from eighth in 1981.


Despite the lack of a holistic attempt to market the Philippines as a convention destination, the PICC will be hosting Manila 2012, the aforementioned 45th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the ADB.

This international high-profile, high-level event is expected to draw 4,000 visitors, among them heads of state. "This is what we do. We’re not overwhelmed," said Mr. Garcia, who has been involved in the year-long planning for Manila 2012.

Every nook and cranny of the PICC will be taken over by the ADB from May 2 to 5. The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, which is housed in PICC, will be on holiday during that period since even its rooms will be used.

-- Jonathan L. Cellona

Sixty-seven BMW 5 Series cars, one for each of ADB’s member states, will be used to ferry the delegates around. (Impressive, yes, but according to Mr. Lico, the Marcos government purchased 200 Mercedes Benz sedans and limousines in 1979 for UNCTAD V.) According to Mr. Garcia, these BMWs will be sold at a P1-million discount after the meeting is over.

The PICC is a cog in a machine. An event such as Manila 2012 is a big operation that involves several players. Via Mare is in charge of a menu that includes vegan and halal dishes. The Philippine National Police (PNP) is on top of security, which includes watching the Manila Bay and managing traffic with the assistance of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

Local government units of Parañaque, Manila and Makati; the Department of Public Works and Highways; and MMDA are in the middle of a beautification drive that includes the paving of roads, repainting of islands, planting of ornamental flowers, and the trimming of trees. The Department of Health will be conducting fire and earthquake drills. And above everything is the Department of Finance, the lead government agency for Manila 2012, while the Department of Tourism and BSP are co-chairs..

"The goal is least inconvenience to the subjects and to the public. We’re also aiming for sustainable instead of cosmetic improvements," said Mr. Garcia.

When the PICC opened in 1976, the thrust was global acceptance as exemplified by a spate of buildings that embraced Modernist architecture. "That’s not the case anymore. The world knows about us," the deputy general manager continued. "The order of the day is competitiveness."

(To learn more about the PICC, log on to www.picc.gov.ph.)