The unadorned geometry of Lopez buildings and how it embodied post-war hope 2
Ortigas area back in the day. The locale was revitalized by the architecture that carried the Lopez name.
Culture

The unadorned geometry of Lopez buildings and how it embodied post-war hope

As Benpres prepares to be taken down to give way to a new Lopez edifice, Gerard Lico reflects on the structures that bear the family's name—and the architectural daring evoked by each building 
Dr. Gerard Lico | Mar 25 2019

In 1959 the Lopez family acquired seventeen hectares for its estate. At the time the family was best known as the owner of a major newspaper (The Manila Chronicle) and broadcast network (ABS-CBN); two years later, it would take over the largest power utility company, Meralco, from its American owners. At the helm of the family’s expanding and dynamic business conglomerate was the patriarch, Eugenio H. Lopez, Sr. The Lopezes also set up one of the first private museums in the country—the Lopez Memorial Museum—and have been a chief supporter of the region’s leading graduate school in business, the Asian Institute of Management.

The unadorned geometry of Lopez buildings and how it embodied post-war hope 3
The Benpres Building  (formerly the Chronicle Building) partially obscured by the "Chronicle Garden," which was designed by National Artst Ildefonso Santos Jr. 

Developing the Lopez estate required huge capital and high expertise in infrastructural development—clearing, filling, and grading of the land, roadway construction, setting up water-supply and drainage systems. It needed, most of all, architects who could put the Lopez vision into physical form. This urban transformation started in early 1963.

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The Lopez family began to build new homes for Meralco and the Manila Chronicle in the same area. This initiative triggered a surge of energy for a new business and financial district, a phenomenon that approximated the fabled growth of the Ayala district in Makati.

 

Form follows function

When the brutal and destructive World War II just ended, the virtue of austerity naturally inspired reconstruction. “Form follows function” was the design refrain among Filipino architects of the mid-1950s; they rejected the established architectural language of historicism and ornaments of neoclassical lineage. They were inspired to create no-nonsense architectures, to make a virtue of unembellished beauty.

For this generation of architects, modernism was not only about abandoning colonial influence and breaking with historical precedents, but also about embracing new architecture concepts for rebuilding a “brave new world.” It was a time for pure and unadorned geometry, a time for architecture that represented renewal and offered tangible progress to a hopeful people.

The Lopez family was perfect kindred spirit. It espoused modernist architecture for corporate identity in a cultural milieu preoccupied with national reconstruction. The geometry and straightforward functionalism of modernist architecture matched the progressive thrust of the Lopez Group: utilization of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass; predominance of cubic forms, geometric shapes, and Cartesian grids; and most of all, absence of decoration and ornamental details. All this took form in the Lopez buildings: Meralco, Lopez Museum, ABS-CBN, Benpres.

The unadorned geometry of Lopez buildings and how it embodied post-war hope 4
The Lopez Building (aka the Meralco Building) employs Brise Soleil which was used to modulate tropical heat and glare in the building. 

The Lopez family relied on a generation of Filipino architects: Angel Nakpil (Lopez Museum), Carlos Arguelles (CBN and ABS-CBN) Jose Ma. Zaragoza (Meralco), Gabriel Formoso (Benpres). They launched themselves into a quest to unite space and time without ornamentation, to strip building designs of pretensions and bare instead their natural functions so that simplicity itself might reveal beauty. They believed that buildings should be appreciated for its usefulness, by experience. Form should be functional, yet it should flow naturally toward elegance.

 

Lopez Memorial Museum

The Lopez Memorial Museum was founded by Eugenio Lopez Sr. on February 13, 1960, in honor of his parents, Benito Lopez and Presentacion Hofileña. It was originally in Lancaster Street, Pasay. Angel Nakpil was picked to design an institutional edifice to keep Lopez Sr.'s personal collection of rare Filipiniana – books, manuscripts, maps, archeological artifacts, and art objects – at the same time offering public access to them.

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The Lopez Museum offered a "stunning view of Manila Bay and stood out with its modernism," says UNESCO Commissioner Felice Sta. Maria

The Lopez Memorial Museum was a four-story building with a triangular plan featuring upper floors carried on cantilevers projecting from a center and from the ground up. The reinforced-concrete structure, though massive, evoked a sense of lightness and visual buoyancy because of the cantilevering. The upper floors had small windows with banded shades and maximum wall surface to display art works. The shades minimized ambient glare from the outside.

The triangular plan adapted to the limitations of the site. The unobtrusive base of the building permitted an uninterrupted vista of the lush and verdant exterior landscape. A reflecting pool that followed the triangular design gave the whole place a serene dignity.

The Lopez Memorial Museum transferred to Benpres Building on April 19, 1986, and eventually its old home in Pasay was demolished. The museum now occupies the ground floor on Benpres’ right wing, originally intended for the Chronicle’s production department, including its huge printing press.

 

The Lopez Building

Out of the rural landscape of Pasig, then yet a part of Rizal province, would rise one of the Lopezes’ architectural triumphs–Meralco Building. It served as the headquarters of the power company after it relocated from a large, but crowded compound along San Marcelino Street, in Manila. Its cornerstone was laid on April 22, 1966.

The unadorned geometry of Lopez buildings and how it embodied post-war hope 6
The old ABS Building on Roxas Boulevard, 1961.

The Lopez Building was designed by National Artist Jose Ma. Zaragoza along the tropical permutations of modernism, a trailblazing idea of his. His ingenious application of brise soleil, or sun-breakers, to his commercial and office building projects in the 1950s and 1960s allowed glazed facade and glass boxes in a climate characterized by heat, humidity, and rain. It would result in a greater understanding and appreciation and wider harnessing of solar radiation for passive cooling. Indeed, it would alter the art and science of Philippine construction.

 

The Chronicle Building

The construction of a new Chronicle building evolved out of the desire by the Lopez family to reinvigorate its newspaper, The Manila Chronicle. Its editorial content and look were modernized and its production and distribution retooled, a process that ran from 1966 to 1971.

As part of a new marketing strategy, the newspaper acquired a full-color press and adopted an advanced typesetting process. And a new home was built for it in Pasig, a mere 500 meters away from Meralco Building. The old home was a four-story, Mission Revival type near the ruins of Intramuros, in Manila.

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The Manila Chronicle Building on Aduana, Manila

Construction started in 1969, along Escarpment Road, whose name derived from its unique position: it sloped down toward a natural creek. It was later renamed Exchange Road, for the stock bourse sited along it.

With a well-defined and neat layout, minimalist graphic design, and Scandinavian-inspired typography, the new Chronicle was launched on January 6, 1971. And on April 2, 1971, Fernando Lopez, brother of Eugenio and Vice President of the Philippines, led in the formal dedication of the building, which had a total floor area of 18,539 square meters.

 

Simple geometry

The building fits in with the achromatic qualities of newspapers and the hard-nosed virtues demanded of the profession. Architect Gabriel Formoso (1915-1996) manipulated black and white forms to allow a play of light and shade on flat surfaces. He arranged geometric shapes in ways that reflect a sense of discipline, rather than indulgence, a sense of quiet dignity rather than artifice. He shunned ornament, believing it only interfered with the functional efficiency and charm of the building.

Three rectangular solids form a sprawling structure set in asymmetrical balance. Two white concrete volumes dominate the principal elevation leading into the lobby. A third features a cantilevered porte cochere—a roofed entrance large enough for cars to deliver and collect passengers; it protrudes, in seeming weightlessness, over the elevated steps for protection from the elements.

For compositional tension, the third volume is distinctly made the tallest of the three and of a different color—a coal-black finish—but it still serves the purpose of consolidating the asymmetry of the two other volumes as left and right wings. It is further differentiated by its grooved, rough finish—akin to the tufting of corduroy fabric. Thin planes of glass set in aluminum framing and flushed to the wall bisect it lengthwise.  

Providing a counterpoint are the alternating surfaces of vertical planes of receding glass fenestrations and protruding concrete brise soleil with rubbed and un-plastered finish. This facade has glass windows edged with concrete bevels and flanked by lines of vertical precast concrete louvers. The top level has horizontal windows to break the regularity of narrow verticals of the beveled ones.

What remains of the landscape design, by National Artist Ildefonso Santos Jr., can be found in the central island that forms the driveway, but it’s still a reminder of the architect’s kind modernism: a masterful manipulation of soft and hard by an alternating blend of grass and pavement in triangular form.   

Benpres Building demonstrates Formoso’s genius with austere configuration, simplicity, authenticity, and functionalism. He described his work as the embodiment of “honesty of conception and the principled concern for human requirements transcending the irrelevancies of prejudice and instinct.”

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"Batas ni Kalantiaw" detail, hardwood door by Napoloen Abueva

As a modernist master, Formoso is further recognized in such other 20th-century structures as Valley Golf and Country Club (1960); Doña Narcisa de Leon (1967); Asian Institute of Management (1970); Club Filipino (1970); Central Bank of the Philippines (1972); the University of the Philippines Faculty Center (1969) and School of Economics (1975). In October 1996, the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) conferred on him the highest peer distinction, the Likha Award. 

 

Advent of Benpres

The Manila Chronicle moved into the building in February 1971, but stayed for only twenty months: it was shut down by the martial-law dictatorship, the building itself subsequently sequestered. After the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in 1986, an attempt was made to revive the paper, to no avail.

Meanwhile, the Lopez Memorial Museum moved in, and not long afterward the building was rechristened Benpres to house Benpres Holdings, the flagship company of the Lopez Group of Companies. In the 1990s Ortigas Center began to fill and rise. In 2003 the Lopez-owned First Philippine Realty Corporation took over the management of the property and undertook some retrofitting and renovating, mainly to suit the curatorial requirements of the Lopez Museum and Library.

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Aerial photo of Edsa cor Ortigas Ave

Today, the Benpres building functions as the hub of the Lopez business conglomerate, home to its nineteen companies, including Lopez Holdings and First Holdings. Though nearly half a century old, the building has kept its charm in a postmodern urban landscape. A marker installed by the National Historical Commission honors Don Eugenio H. Lopez and greets visitors at the entrance, a tribute to the creative spirit, trailblazing zeal, and modernist propensity of the Lopez family as well as to the daring sensitivities of the architects who expressed those qualities within their own concrete disciplines.

 

From the book Benpres: Stories Around a Landmark. Printed by ABS-CBN Publishing Inc. Printed with permission.

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