Monday, January 17, 2011

Art Deco in the Philippines

Art Deco in the Philippines*

Philippine Daily Inquirer


FINALLY COMES a book on “Art Deco in the Philippines,” a lavishly illustrated publication tracing the heady Commonwealth years (1935-46) through the forgotten and vanishing architecture produced when the Philippines was at last looking outward, away from its island shell.

The country was falling in step with the world, having moved out of the Spanish sphere and into the American orbit.

At that time, the American-established educational system produced its first graduates. Filipinos no longer wobbled when speaking English.

Scholars sent to study different disciplines in the United States through the Pensionado program were back, now working on government projects. American-educated architects were busy changing the footprint of rapidly expanding Manila.

Fueled mostly by agriculture, the economy boomed as the world shrank. Air travel to the United States was introduced.

These were the Quezon and Osmeña years. America promised independence for the Commonwealth. A new government system was being set up and turned over to Filipinos. There was much to do, much more to look forward to.

A 1925 exhibition launching the Art Deco style in Paris took the world by storm, exhibiting design so revolutionary that it appeared to be the antidote people were looking for to ease their post-World War I trauma.

Art Deco became the hallmark of the relatively short period of peace and prosperity between World Wars I and II, a period that brought about the Jazz Age, airplanes, ocean liners and fast cars.

Drawing inspiration from sinuous flowery Art Noveau forms, Egyptian art, native American art, leading in later years, to the development of Cubism, the Bauhaus, and even Russian ballet.

Art Deco was the style of the future, of the new Machine Age that allowed products, from cars to teacups, to be run off by the hundreds in long production lines.

Linear, hard-edge and angular composition with geometrically stylized decoration characterize the machine-crisp style gave way to “Streamline Moderne,” a later stylistic variation of Art Deco.

Everything had to be streamlined to keep up with the fast speed the world was moving forward with. Look at the Boeing Stratocruiser, Studebaker, and even refrigerators of the time.

Streamlining developed into the shape expressing that fascination with speed best, so architecture, furniture, interior and product design from kitchen appliances to radios followed suit and became streamlined.

It was the age of technological breakthroughs, of dawning consumerism, when machines and mass-production brought sophisticated design within everyone’s reach.

The 1930s machine-age ethic demanded simple, direct lines. Architecturally, wall surfaces, whether straight or curved, were stretched drumskin-taut like bows of ocean liners, pierced by porthole-round windows to complete the image.

Reinforced concrete, milled lumber, corrugated galvanized-iron roofing, steel sash windows and glass were introduced. Standardized building elements allowed achieving the machine precision so prized in Art Deco architecture that was fluid juxtaposed with rigid geometric of volumes, planes and straight lines.

The Art Deco style encompassed more than just architecture. In its total package were the decorative arts, fashion, and jewelry and everything else that expressed the vibrant energy of that era that broke old barriers and created new horizons.

Filipino adaptation

Filipino architects, responding to the tropical environment, softened the severe Western architectural style. Thin concrete slabs broke flat facades, protruding from unadorned wall surfaces to protect door and window openings from torrential monsoon rain and hot sun.

For increased air circulation in the hot and humid Philippine tropics, windows were enlarged, and geometric hand-wrought iron grilles covered openings cut into the exterior walls for ventilation.

The wall of translucent glass blocks so typical of 1930s Art Deco architecture has a tropical twist at Far Eastern University. Instead of the expected solid wall of square glass blocks, it is a checkerboard of open and closed glass block squares that allow airflow.

The deep greens of tropical foliage in gardens with full-grown hardwood trees shading buildings from the sun further soften the tight architectural lines.

Adaptation of Filipino elements in Art Deco detailing—stylized flora, fauna, folk art patterns and even mythological figures—infuse a distinctly Filipino hand-crafted dimension to the otherwise foreign style.

The wealth of detail surviving in Manila’s Metropolitan Theater (by architect Juan Arellano) is testimony to the creativity and cultural grounding of the Filipino artist despite his working in a western idiom.

At first appearance, Art Deco in the Philippines follows the dictates of the international style. Upon closer inspection, the Filipino overlay to the style is obvious. The Filipino, master of adaptation that he is, has created a national version to the international Art Deco.

Architecture in Art Deco style appeared all over the Philippines. It once was the embodiment of being abreast with the times and with the latest technology.

Art Deco civic buildings were built in many Philippine cities. Appropriately, homes of the affluent were in that style. Movie theaters, the new palaces of pleasure, were Art Deco fantasies.

Art Deco pervaded all levels. Not only was architecture and furniture in the Deco style, so were lighting fixtures, and home accessories from vases to ashtrays. Airplanes, cars, even toasters were designed in Deco.

Fashion was totally Deco. Think Dior’s “New Look” and Chanel who liberated women from confining clothing. Think Hollywood glamour. Think Art Deco as a lifestyle.

The Art Deco style took the world by storm as it did the Philippines. It was the perfect vocabulary for the country to showcase the Commonwealth era’s thrust to fall in step with the world and with the 20th century. Those were heady, adolescent days for the Philippines, now a forgotten era whose golden memory this book hopes to revive.

“Art Deco in the Philippines,” edited by Lourdes Reyes Montinola, and with contributing authors Gerard Rey Lico, Manuel Maximo Lopez del Castillo-Noche, John Silva, and Augusto Villalón, is published by ArtPost Asia.

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