Royal Pineda, the principal architect of the Athletics Stadium and Aquatics Center in New Clark City, says that they wanted to rediscover what being Filipino is about. Photograph by Jack Alindahao
Culture Spotlight

Royal Pineda on New Clark City’s design, the Filipino soul, and that cauldron: ‘It’s not just a torch’

For the architect Royal Pineda, designing New Clark City was an opportunity to rediscover a Filipino identity for the greater public, and celebrate the Filipino spirit. But the controversies surrounding the SEA Games and its edifices has him defending what, at least for him, began with good intentions.
Audrey Carpio | Nov 29 2019

With the SEA Games officially upon us, the conversation has shifted from Phisgoc-shaming to drumming up support for our athletes and looking for pockets of pride where we can. This is the first time the country is hosting the SEA Games in the age of social media; minor complaints and glitches have gotten more traction than they should have. We haven’t heard anything negative coming out of Tarlac—yet. Can New Clark City, with all the hype surrounding its brand new facilities, redeem the hosting? The sports complex within its territory has been touted as “ready” since August this year, and while the development has been given its share of scrutiny, we will wait until after the games for the reckoning.

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Pineda says that the Aquatics Center was kept open to the air because they already have the perfect pool temperature and it affords great views of the mountains.

Controversies notwithstanding, it’s also a good time to acknowledge the noble intentions and hard work that goes into designing a new city from the ground up. It was an idea conceived in the previous administration but brought to life in this one, so blame or credit who you want. During our last visit to New Clark City one week before the SEA Games opening, the sports complex was in all respects finished, with the most critical edifices already in use. Things that were still being hurried along were the temporary structures, the landscaping, and the pathways to the much-ballyhooed cauldron.

This time, we had Royal Pineda tour us around the area. As the principal architect of the Athletics Stadium and the Aquatics Center, both of which stand out in their simplicity, his firm Budji+Royal had a big hand in determining the aesthetics of the entire New Clark City. It was an unprecedented challenge for the 45-year-old. “At first, it was envisioned to be green, to be sustainable, but we felt it was a major opportunity to pronounce the identity of the country,” Pineda says. “There are better green cities in the world, there are cities with more sustainable programs. What we envisioned was a desire to discover, or rediscover what “Filipino” is all about. We call it the Modern Filipino city.”

The angular trusses of the roof of the Aquatics Center takes its shape from fishing nets and its patterns from Pampanga's capiz lanterns.

You may be already familiar with the angular trusses of the Aquatics Center’s roof, which takes its shape from fishing nets and its patterns from the capiz lanterns of Pampanga. The graphite roof of the Athletics Stadium was modeled after the rim of a volcano, a nod to the nearby Mt. Pinatubo. Pineda pointed out the many thoughtful details that went into the design, explaining how they were more functional and practical than decorative, and how they were integrated into the overall architecture.


Embrace what you have 

The unpolished, industrial look of the concrete surfaces, for instance, was intentional. Made with lahar, the gray walls, floors, and ceilings of the buildings epitomize sustainability, as lahar is a natural—and indigenous—material found in abundance in the lowlands of Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales. “You don’t need to order the most beautiful marble and granite to make good architecture,” he says. “Embrace what you have. It’s how you put it together.” He calls this “practical luxury,” the design philosophy that runs through the Modern Filipino sensibilities of New Clark City.

Bea Valdes  transformed metal grids into flowing organic shapes, such as dancing sprites emerging from the river.

The most important element Pineda draws inspiration from is the natural environment. The Aquatics Center was kept open to the air not only because we already have the perfect pool temperature, but for the invigorating views of the mountains. “And you don’t smell the chlorine,” Pineda adds. Across town, the rolling curves of the new terminal of the Clark International Airport, also designed by Budji+Royal, echo the outline of the nearby Zambales mountain range. Inside the terminal, the high ceilings provide expansive views of Mt. Arayat. “We don’t have a sense of this in Manila, the expanse, the luxury of space.”


In the form of the land

It’s a dream for any planner and designer to start with a blank slate, but Capas, Tarlac wasn’t simply an empty site. The architecture was planned around the contours of the land, the bend of the river, the placement of the trees, and you can see this at work at the 4.5-hectare River Park with a 1.4-km walkway along the riverbank. The park, while manicured, features many of the trees that were already growing there. As we strolled down the path, we spotted workers having their lunch inside a grove of bamboo trees, Aeta families picnicking on the slopes, and the occasional guy snoozing in a hammock—scenes which delighted Pineda, who emphasized that this was exactly what the park was made for. “Nature will host you. I always say, put me under a tree and I’ll be happy. I think you can find that in the spirit of every human.”

Kenneth Cobonpue’s red rattan viewing pods gives you shade while offering views.

Further down are the installations from several artists who were commissioned to create interactive, site-specific work: Bea Valdes’ five-piece sculptures transform metal grids into flowing organic shapes, like dancing sprites emerging from the river; Bernardo Pacquing’s playground domes, made out of reclaimed wood from old houses and other recycled parts; Kenneth Cobonpue’s red rattan viewing pods, resting on the highest point of the park. Not part of the park, but at the rotunda by the Aquatics Center stands a sculpture by Jude Teotico that pays tribute to Filipino swimmers.


The 50 million peso question 

The fifth sculpture to complete the collection stands in front of the stadium, and this, of course, is the PHP 50 million cauldron designed by the late Francisco Mañosa (commissioned by Phisgoc; the other artists were commissioned by the BCDA). The irregularities concerning this project have been discussed everywhere, from its exorbitant price to doubts whether the design was an original or a miniaturized rip off of Mañosa’s own 1996 Centennial Tower proposal that was never built.

“If you understand the whole scope of it, then you’ll know the extent of how the budget was used,” Pineda says. According to a cost breakdown, the mechanism used to keep the flame lit for 264 hours, which includes a 300-meter underground gas pipe, is already billed at PHP18 million, while the fuel cost for 11 days is PHP5 million (my unsolicited proposal for next time: holographic flame).

Pineda calls the design philosophy that they worked with these facilities as “practical luxury.”

“It’s not just a torch, but an emblem of the celebrations. And being designed by our National Artist, it needs to be justified and done well. I believe we have to assert ourselves as a nation, to also inspire our country men. We want to celebrate the spirit of being together, the spirit of humanity. That’s important in architecture—architecture is an expression of sheltering, and creating venues for celebration.”

Everyone has an opinion on the cauldron, and objectively P50 million is not unreasonable to spend on a monument of importance. In light of everything else, however, particularly the jarring contrast of how our athletes have to beg for financial support, the cost seems misplaced. The public will only be reassured when government officials prove that the money that went to the cauldron, and to the funding of New Clark City, and to the larger program of Build Build Build, was not created by slashing the budgets of education and health, or by taxing the poor. Time will tell if the cauldron will be remembered as a symbol of greed and corruption, or the commemoration of sportsmanship it was intended to be. The artist Toym Imao wrote in a Facebook post, “Neither the commissioning agency nor the artist can impose or dictate the interpretation, relevance, and meaning of a public artwork once it is ‘installed’ in the public domain.”


The trauma over NAIA 

In 2017, the BCDA held a competition for the design of an iconic building which would house the agency’s new corporate offices in BGC. Pineda was invited by BCDA chief Vince Dizon to be one of the judges. They started talking, and Pineda shared his firm’s approach to design, something he and partner Budji Layug have been practicing for the past 17 years. Dizon told him about the new city he was going to build, and how the Malaysian firm MTD had submitted an unsolicited proposal, but that he was worried it would not have a Filipino identity. Dizon suggested to Pineda, maybe we can work together.

“We want to celebrate the spirit of being together, the spirit of humanity. That’s important in architecture—architecture is an expression of sheltering, and creating venues for celebration.”

“We were coming from the trauma of working with the government on NAIA 1,” Pineda recalls. Talking to Dizon, at that point, was triggering. “But when I saw his shoes, his socks—he looked artsy, he was the same age as me. I could only see the vision happening with a person who was open and has that drive to do something modern.”

The graphite roof of the Athletics Stadium was based on the rim of a volcano, a reference to Mt. Pinatubo.

To recap: Budji+Royal, along with Kenneth Cobonpue, were tapped to redesign NAIA 1 around the same time it was voted as the worst airport in the world. The group submitted their plans, which they had worked on for eight months pro-bono and which were widely applauded by the public for its modern Filipino sensibilities. In 2011, the government inexplicably dropped the trio from the rehabilitation project, only to bring them on board again when the airport needed a facelift in time for the 2015 APEC.

Despite the hitches, NAIA 1 opened a very big door for Budji+Royal. “One of our frustrations was that we were always working on hotels, resorts, and high-end private homes. We were defining modern Filipino architecture and design, but it was never for the public.” Today, they get to create an identity for major gateways, from the Mactan-Cebu International Airport to the new terminal in Clark, as well as the new National Government Administrative Center, the whole point of which is to decongest Manila by having government agencies move their offices north. The new Central Bank of the Philippines mint and the Supreme Court’s First Judiciary Regional Center are set to rise in New Clark City by 2022.

The unpolished, industrial look of the concrete surfaces was intentional, and made with lahar a natural and indigenous material found in abundance in the lowlands of Pampanga, Tarlac, and Zambales. 

Pineda’s vision for the city extends beyond his own role in designing it. While several international firms are involved in the masterplanning and development of New Clark City, Budji+Royal brings to the table what only a Filipino firm can—the Filipino soul. “We challenge everyone, we’re not just going to take a pill you tell us to take because it works for you. We have to think twice, is this something that will work us?” At the Clark airport, a plaza will be built specifically for well-wishers, an offshoot from their original NAIA 1 design. Bringing one’s extended family to the airport to see an OFW depart or arrive is a distinctly Filipino thing, so instead of trying to follow international airports where passengers are picked up and dropped off without fanfare, Budji+Royal folded the well-wishers into its design, celebrating this aspect of our culture.

With the help of Singaporean firm Surbana Jurong, the planners developed urban design guidelines—a bible for the city—for future developers to use as a reference, so that construction doesn’t end up as a hodgepodge of different styles. At New Clark City, for example, pedestrians are prioritized by lifting the buildings up to provide sheltered passageways. “There is no such thing as a perfect plan,” says Pineda. “Even the plans we already made can evolve, but it’s important to pronounce exactly what these philosophies are. The interpretation can be very different, but the purpose of it should be the same, to celebrate what is Filipino.”


Living in a strange land 

In a podcast conversation with Randy David, urban planner and landscape architect Paolo Alcazaren noted that “we are starting to live in places that are not of us, that are aspirations of people who want to escape the Philippines and our real culture.” He is referring to the profusion of indistinguishable malls in Metro Manila, the gated communities with names like Versailles and Tuscany, and the endless parade of high-rise condos with aspirations of New York city living—features of what we call modern Manila.

Pineda and company are trying, from scratch, to not make the Manila mistake. “The real roots of our culture and identity, for me, is nature. The inspiration for all these things is nature,” he says. “The process led us to authenticity, and that’s what I’m sharing through architecture and design. This is something we can be proud of. Let’s not make an excuse that we’ve been colonized, that we’re confused as a nation—we’re done with that.”

Budji + Royal are happy that they finally get to work with spaces that are meant for the public, including major gateways like the Mactan International Airport.r

“The real roots of our culture and identity, for me, is nature. The inspiration for all these things is nature”

Does Pineda fear that his beautiful structures will turn into white elephants? “I agree with the white elephant argument,” he says, “if we were a country with a lot of sports facilities. You can see all those that are being refurbished up to now. Simply, the skeleton or the bones are not up to date. It’s about time for a new sports complex.” After the games, the complex will be maintained by the private sector, and will also be used as training grounds for the future Philippine High School for Sports.

One more issue that has raised concerns around New Clark City is the displacement of the Aetas, a people who have been continually uprooted by development aggression and natural calamities like the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Capas, as mentioned, was not an empty site—it used to have rice fields. It is also supposed to be the ancestral domain of hundreds of Aeta families, although this is disputed by the Tarlac government, which commissioned land and biodiversity studies during the former BCDA chief’s time. According to a counter-mapping study conducted by the UP Department of Geography, thousands of farmers and IPs have been displaced, their livelihoods and way of life destroyed by the construction of New Clark City.

While development has been rapid, Pineda says that sustainability is always on their minds. "It's all about the people."

The BCDA, on its part, states that IP groups were consulted, no ancestral lands have been infringed upon, and that individuals who are affected by the project will be relocated within the area and compensated P300,000 per hectare. I spoke with one NGO worker who says that without the data from the counter-mapping study, she can’t confirm how many have been displaced, but the Aetas she surveyed have found jobs at New Clark City or have no issues with the project. Capas Mayor Reynaldo Catacutan has said that only 12 Aetas have been affected. What’s apparent from these conflicting reports is that there are Aetas who are happy, and there are Aetas who aren’t.

New Clark City will be a truly inclusive city only if those who have lived in the area all their lives also benefit from its development. BCDA has already hired 300 Aeta workers, and educational programs will be put in place for the communities. The seeds of sustainability must be planted now, sown into the very foundations of the city.

Pineda is aware of the contradictions involved in the government’s impetus for rapid development, and tries to mitigate what he can through responsible design. “We’re trying to look at the bigger picture. The idea here is sustainability, sustainability, sustainability,” he says. “If they’re thinking BBB, it has to be SSS, or it’s not going to work.”

“Bottom line—it’s all about the people.”


Photographs by Jack Alindahao