José María V. Zaragoza, National Artist for Architecture.

Words  Augusto Villalón | Photos  Chippy Rivera

José María V. Zaragoza, an almost forgotten icon in the development of truly Philippine architecture, totally deserves the distinction of finally being conferred as National Artist for Architecture.

The unappreciated Zaragoza’s career spanned World War II eras, starting from the heady “Peace Time” of the Commonwealth days when the country weaned itself away from Spanish influence to embrace American ways. His long career continued through the post-World War II reconstruction of ravaged Manila, ending at the time after the country was shaking off the residue of a devastating dictatorship.

The last 50 years are a relatively lost period in the collective Philippine memory. Preferring to focus our attention on the architectural heritage of the Spanish Colonial era, we seem to have shut out those momentous years of post-World War II Philippine architecture. This dynamic period evolved into the innovative modern residences and public buildings constructed during the halcyon pre-Marcos days of the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the Philippines was considered among the most progressive environments in Asia.

After closer study of his accomplishments, Zaragoza emerges as an unnoticed figure worthy of deeper consideration because of his unique place in the protracted search for that elusive ‘Filipino Architecture.’

The Marcos era continued progress of architecture in the country mostly by constructing its own genre of architectural monuments that were testimonies to the administration’s achievements. This trend in construction continued the age-old practice of previous regimes to proclaim their greatness through monumental architecture: the Spanish did it through building colonial towns and churches, and the American imprint was through neoclassic structures in the image of Washington DC during the early 1900s. They built provincial capitols, grand Manila structures like the Post Office, Philippine General Hospital, and Congress (now the National Museum of the Philippines).

The post-war era was a stimulating time for the Philippines, when Asia recognized the country as a regional leader whose quality of life ranked among the highest in the region. We were certainly no backwater country then. The Philippines was the only Asian country with a smooth blending of Philippine, Spanish, and American influences, a unique quality that drew visitors from neighboring countries who traveled to Manila for infusions of its multicultural milieu that was evident in the unique local lifestyle and reflected in its architecture. It was said that at that time Manila, especially the sweeping seaside vista of Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard, manifested a distinct visual identity unlike any other cityscape in Asia, a cityscape more attuned to the Latino seaside boulevards of Rio de Janeiro in sight and feel. Zaragoza’s architecture evoked the seamless blend of Asian, Spanish (although in his case, more Californian and Latin American than Iberian), and American architecture that reflected the multicultural Philippine lifestyle.

It is within this multicultural perspective that the architecture of Zaragoza should be viewed because it is in this context that he made his greatest contributions through producing architecture that was perfectly attuned to the tropical environment and the Philippine lifestyle. Although the previous generation of Philippine architects (Juan Arellano, Tomás Mapúa, Pablo Antonio, Andres Luna de San Pedro, and others) were foreign-trained, Zaragoza was among the earliest products of Philippine architectural education, having graduated from the University of Santo Tomás in Manila in 1936, and passing licensure examinations in 1938 to become the 82nd architect of the Philippines.

He looked not only to his native Philippines for inspiration but actively broadened his horizons through seeking international contact. Early in his career, he initiated a vigorous personal correspondence with the great Frank Lloyd Wright, finally visiting the master’s Arizona atelier in 1956. Although Zaragoza imbibed American architectural influences, especially those of Wright, he was more deeply attuned to the European and Latin American spirit. It was this influence that set him apart from his contemporaries who looked toward the United States for inspiration.

Zaragoza, a deeply religious man, earned a diploma in liturgical art and architecture from the International Institute of Liturgical Catholic Churches in Rome which developed in him an expansive, innovative and thoroughly reverential approach to church design as seen in the major religious structures completed during his career: Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Tala (1950), Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City (1954), Villa San Miguel in Mandaluyong (1954), Pius XII Center in Manila (1958) and, finally, the controversial expansion of Quiapo Church (1984).

After closer study of his accomplishments, Zaragoza emerges as an unnoticed figure worthy of deeper consideration because of his unique place in the protracted search for that elusive “Filipino Architecture” because his architecture is, indeed, Filipino in every way.

Culturally grounded in Philippine architectural vocabulary, Zaragoza distilled traditional forms and architectural imagery, reinterpreting them in the modern architecture of his day. For instance, he took the familiar Spanish colonial arches, removed the fussy baroque details of old, reconstructed them in cement, and rendered them into the simplified, unornamented shapes that are considered hallmarks of the sophisticated International Style of the 1950s. This monumental minimalism is best experienced in the procession of arcades surrounding the open courtyards of the Santo Domingo Church Convent in Quezon City: evoking cloisters of old through the use of simple yet eloquent modern architectural forms, unornamented, serenely elegant, an architectural composition evoking in a thoroughly modern vocabulary all of the familiar visual reminders of old Spanish colonial cathedrals in the Philippines. Zaragoza’s strict architectural composition—carried out with total restraint, without the overwrought baroque trappings that Filipinos love to the point of cliché—has proven itself to be timeless.

The monumental minimalism of Zaragoza’s Santo Domingo Church Convent in Quezon City is best experienced in the procession of arcades surrounding the open courtyards.

The strong impact of Zaragoza on Philippine residential architecture was heretofore likewise unrecognized. His designs developed the visual framework associated with the popular “Spanish style” of architecture favored in residences of the 1950s to 1960s. Although no such style exists in Spain but rather recalls the sprawling California-style villas of Los Angeles, the genre was nevertheless called “Spanish style” in the Philippines. Among the best surviving examples is Zaragoza’s 1951 Casino Español de Manila, a shaded, cool, and serene oasis in the traffic-choked center of Manila, a sanctuary of gentility. The Casino Español features a series of interior courtyards framed with deep, arcaded loggias that open to the outdoors on one side and are separated from the interior spaces by arched door and window openings. Terra-cotta tile frames edges of low-pitched roofs. Heavily varnished wooden beams support low, sloping interior ceilings covering interior rooms that are walled with plain, painted concrete, and floored with ordinary red cement tiles. The look evolved into the residential prototype of the era. It was residential architecture so appropriate not only to the tropical environment, but to the pulse of the era. It was architecture that reminded but did not replicate the Spanish-American roots that influenced Philippine lifestyle during the post-World War II days.

In 1960, the internationally eminent Brazilian architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa invited Zaragoza to be among the guest architects to participate in the massive project of designing Brasilia, the new capital for Brazil. This opportunity was not lost on Zaragoza: since that time, the Latino imprint on his work was indelible. In Brazil, Zaragoza discovered and understood how to work the plasticity of concrete that allowed the possibility of molding the material into distinct shapes. His architecture turned sculptural, lyrical, with a Latin exuberance that set him apart from his contemporaries.

His post-Brazil work, notably the façades of the Meralco Center on Ortigas Avenue and Philbanking Building in Port Area (both built in 1965) and the Commercial Bank and Trust Company Building in Escolta, Manila (1969) insinuate the subtle flowing Latino lines of Brazilian architecture. Evoking Niemeyer’s cathedral in Brasilia, Zaragoza topped Union Church in Makati (built 1975, now demolished) with a crown of folded concrete plates.

Continuing his exploraration of the plastic qualities of concrete allowed him to construct flowing, daring sculptural designs as seen in Virra Mall in Greenhills (built 1975, demolished January 2005), Saint John Bosco Parish Church in Makati (1977), and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Sucat, Parañaque (1979). The elegant Meralco Center in Ortigas (1965) is his strongest, most sophisticatedly subtle expression of lyricism in concrete.

His catalogue of projects, whether completed or conceptual, illustrates his strongly individualistic architectural philosophy that continued to develop into full maturity through the years together with the progression of his practice. Within the timeline that charts the development of Philippine architecture, the contributions by Zaragoza are mostly unrecorded. The monograph, “José María Zaragoza, Architecture for God, for Man” takes an excellent step at documenting his architectural contributions and to make architects, educators, historians, and the public aware of José María V. Zaragoza and his highly esteemed place in that forgotten period of Philippine history.

The National Artist conferment assures Zaragoza’s place in Philippine architectural history at last, and just as importantly, establishes his work as truly Filipino.


José María Zaragoza, Architecture for God and for Man,” Ruben Defeo and Ma. Lourdes Zaragoza Banson, authors. Published by ArtPostAsia, Makati. Tel. (632) 811-5867.