For a house situated up north in San Fernando, La Union, adjacent to a stretch of field, a half hour drive away from the surf spots of San Juan, Balay Ni Atong isn’t a place where you can simply kick your shoes off and take a weekend retreat. “They’re not supposed to feel at home, because if they want to feel at home, then [they should] go home!” Al Valenciano, the master of the house says, laughing heartily.
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True enough, Al’s haven is more stimulating rather than cozy. From a study center that houses Northern Luzon’s native Inabel textiles to his “systematically arranged bodega” of quaint pieces that were picked up from his various travels, this residence is best appreciated by taking a longer, more intimate look at its heart and heritage.
An ever-evolving home
Standing next door to the the Pindangan Ruins, Balay Ni Atong, just by its location, already boasts of history. But unlike the remains of the mid-1700s settlement, Al’s home has constantly adapted to the requisites of his work and life through the years. “Everything developed as the need arose,” the art connoisseur says.
The lot, originally owned by the nuns in the neighboring monastery, was where the then-high school student and his family built a humble home far from the city life. The property started significantly evolving when Al, after graduating with a degree in accountancy, came back to his true calling—the arts. “I was a struggling artist, and I decided to put up a studio at home. I had a shed in one corner of the house which was around 10x5m–the ‘mababang paaralan’ type,” Al fondly recalls.
The property still has ongoing construction, apparent proof of its ever-evolving character. Balay Ni Atong’s signature red wooden gate with a blue paneled frame isn’t in use at the moment, as the development of the Inabel museum is in progress at the front portion of the premises. The temporary entrance is through the left side of the property, which leads to the receiving area and the newly constructed four-storey building where the kitchen, workshop, study center, and his office are located. Past the receiving area is a pond inhabited by koi fishes and turtles, an ample portion of fauna, and the pool. To the right of the garden is the chapel dedicated to Al’s late mother, and to the left is the main house.
“I change everything. Things move,” he reiterates. But when asked which spot has withstood the test of time, Al thoughtfully responds, “That’s a good question,” as he looks around his well lived-in space. His eyes land on a shed by the pool. “The pump room,” he finally points out, “because you cannot move the well!”
Box of memories
As you step into Al’s residence, what easily strikes your attention is his quirky collection of myriad bits and pieces—like we're in a mini museum of sorts. Al describes the house as “a big bodega that is systematically arranged to look better than a bodega.”
In the living area are separate shelves for his collection of clay teapots, medical glass jars, porcelain ware, and religious figures. A selection of artworks and framed artifacts hang on the walls. The master bedroom, which is located right next to the living room, is, in itself, a whole gallery of paintings, some of which are Al’s own, including the series of batik paintings showcased above the headboard, which served as his thesis back in Florence.
“You can call this house a box of memories,” Al relates. “They are things acquired because there’s a story behind them–from the paa of a santo that I picked up at the back of a church to artworks that I liked because they’re funny.” What he treasures is the story that comes with the object more than its aesthetic value, exactly how the mind of a museum worker like himself ticks.
All around the house, Inabel textiles are in full display, showcasing their practical use as pillow cases, table runners, blankets, bed sheets, and the like. The two guest rooms on the second floor of the main house have become “a showroom of everything hand-woven.”
A tradition that dates back to the 1500s, Inabel is a weaving custom unique to Ilocano natives. Balay Ni Atong aims to preserve this culture, not only by producing textiles and sustaining the livelihood of weaving communities, but also by documenting the whole process as well as the antique patterns and designs in a study center.
“For us to be able to have the same quality we had before, we really have to study each design, document it, and start owning it,” says Al. Thus, The Study Center for Traditional Hand Woven Textiles of the Northern Philippines came to be, which, in the meantime, can be found in the second and third floors of the building next to the main house.
Currently, Al is working on the construction of a museum to ensure that the Inabel tradition—from setting up the looms to creating the patterns—will be future-proof. “There may come a time when people would no longer want to weave,” Al admits. “But in case someone wants to revisit [this tradition,] they can come to the study center and look at our ‘recipe book’ and see the formula on how to make a certain weave.” Through this, the tradition will be kept alive, or at least be treasured and appreciated, for more generations to come.
Serving as a refuge
From interlinking the weaving communities in the North and selling his products in the international market, to taking on architectural projects in high-end resorts in the Philippines and keeping up with his network in Manila, Al lives a life as vibrant as the threads he weaves. But at home, you’ll find him in a more relaxed state while continuously churning his creative juices out. “My typical day starts as early as five in the morning. I plan the whole day and answer all the e-mails at 5, hear mass at 6:30, have breakfast, wait for everybody to come in, delegate the work, and by 9:30 or 10, I’m free!” he happily confides. He either spends his time in his studio, binges on Netflix, or takes a siesta in the al fresco lounge by the receiving area.
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A guest room on the second floor.
A captivating lounge area.
A space for prayer.
Sculptures of various materials abound in the property.
Quirky craft projects are in every corner.
"It's a refuge of my creativity," Al says of his home.
An outdoor sitting area.
An ottoman with inabel covered balls.
“There may come a time when people would no longer want to weave,” Al admits. “But in case someone wants to revisit [this tradition,] they can come to the study center
A traditional inabel pattern.
Samples of inabel weaves.
If there's still any doubt this is a proudly Filipino home.
“It’s the refuge of the weaves of Ilocos," says Al of Balay ni Atong.
Chairs upholstered in inabel.
Aptly so, Al describes this house as a refuge–a gleaming shelter for tradition and his artistic core. “It’s the refuge of the weaves of Ilocos. It’s the refuge of my creativity. It’s the refuge of the memories I have.” Balay Ni Atong, in effect, is an assemblage of Al’s takeaways from the world–his art and artifact collection–and his offering to the world–the preservation of Inabel. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Photographs by Daniel Soriano. This story first appeared in Metro Home & Entertaining Vol. 16 No. 1