2021 Venice Biennale’s Philippine Pavilion explores Bayanihan

Rethinking the Architect’s role in  building structures and spaces.

Ysh Cabana

in Toronto

Titled Structures of Mutual Support, the Philippine pavilion is co-curated by architects Sudarshan V. Khadka, Jr. and Alexander Eriksson Furunes with the members of Brgy. Encanto, Angat, province of Bulacan. Together, they form Framework Collaborative  to rethink the role of the architect in the process of building structures and spaces.

The exhibition aims to exemplify how the concept of mutual support, or what Filipinos know as bayanihan, remains significant and can be applied in various aspects of life including the built environment. “It’s a very human tradition that comes out as a natural response to do something as a collective,” said Khadka Jr. in a recorded video showing a sneak peek of the Philippine pavilion.

“There are traditions of mutual support existing in most countries around the world,” said Furunes . “Where I come from, in Norway, it’s called dugnad.”

In 2019, the co-curators embarked on a collaboration to conceive, design and build a structure for the community, by the community.

“The way we understand it, we refer to bayanihan as mutual work. It is the willingness to help others without expecting anything in return,” said Ben Bilinan, a resident of Brgy. Encanto. “Inequality is a reality of life. There’s the rich and the poor.”

Discussing the problems the locals experience, a series of workshops were organized to determine what kind of program an architectural intervention would contain and how it would function.

This became the intent for building a library and a tambayan, or a hangout space, developed from a grid, which was used to work in different scales and to budget its size. And the concept of maaliwalas, which roughly translates to a space that is comfortable, bright and ventilated, guided the qualitative design decisions of the space, its orientation and openness.

Framework Collaborative worked hand-in-hand to identify locally available materials and construction techniques as well as to locate them on a site-plan. “We decided as a group to build on an area that is close to the community,” said community member Aliza Mae Antonio.

“One day, when we look at the structure, we’ll remember how  we took part in building that,” she added.

This, according to Furunes, is part of the process they call ‘Learning-Questioning-Concept-Design-Build’ for the community “emphasizing the need for a shared sense of ownership and a stronger sense of belonging.”

For Bilinan, the whole experience isn’t just about the Biennale project but “the personalities in our community were also given a chance to shine.”

Brenda Noquera, a fellow resident of Brgy. Encanto, said through the project they were able to experience how it is like working as architects. “We were the pioneers of this place, we didn’t know where this place was. We didn’t have electricity. There was no running water. So we agreed to help each other through bayanihan to make things happen.”

“We gained new ideas and learnings,” she added.

‘Buildings are not just buildings’

In Structures of Mutual Support, collective work and mutual support are proposed as alternative methods of building that challenge dominant discourses that shape architectural practice.

Environmental historian Dr. Greg Bankoff noted that mutual support is not a charity or a selfless acts of generosity but as a necessity.

An essay, part of the exhibit catalogue read: “Aid in whatever form required, however, is rendered on the expectation that it will be returned in kind at the appropriate time. Need or lot often determines the order in which a person or family receives this help; the notion of succession is suggested by the now nearly obsolete term for this practice, turnuhan, derived from the Spanish word turno meaning “one’s turn”.

“Moreover, there is a real need to believe in something like bayanihan in an archipelago as dangerous as the Philippines and where the state, despite its best intentions, is seldom capable of ensuring the safety and security of its citizens.”

For Furunes, “Buildings are not just buildings.They are a process.” That structures, and the way they are created “all need to be flexible enough to transform and live with the community.”

As Khadka Jr. explains “The power of the collective is greater than individuals alone. There’s a natural synergy which happens when people come together and create something, which none of them can do on their own.”

Now mounted in Italy, the ‘Library’ which is part of the Philippine pavilion is scheduled to be on display at the Arsenale, one of the two main venues for the 17th Venice Biennale of Architecture.

“How will we live together?” This question, set by the lead curator and director Hashim Sarkis, called upon architects “to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together”.

Postponed last year due to the pandemic, this edition is set to opened to the public on May 22 for a six-month run under strict virus protocols.

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