It's no surprise when well-conceived architecture weathers the passage of time and through the course becomes weaved with the history of a place. Such is the case of the Peninsula Manila or as the locals fondly refer to as the Manila Pen.
On a recent trip to the Philippines, our Singapore BD Manager, Kai Seah, and I had an opportunity to visit the hotel and pay homage to the very first hotel project that WATG designed in the country.
I've only been to the hotel once before, long before I joined WATG. I only know this hotel from the stories of the man who designed it--Don Fairweather, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of WATG's notable partners until he retired several years ago. As a young designer, I had the privilege to work and traveled with Don to far-flung places; it was those occasions when Don told and retold his fascinating experience and adventures in the Philippines in the 1970s during the design and construction of the Manila Pen.
After 36 years since its opening, the Pen's grand and spacious lobby hasn't failed to impress its guests. It epitomizes classic hotel lobby design--formal, elegant and exact; an impressive and large living room that is a prelude to the social and function spaces the hotel has to offer.
Throughout its history, the hotel has been host to exclusive, famous public and private social events. As recent as six years ago, it also unceremoniously became the setting for a military uprising; its grand lobby sacrilegiously turned into an armored tank parking lot. Such is the case of a hotel that has become an icon in the business center of the Philippines.
The exterior architecture, unfortunately, has seen better days. Its bush-hammered and exposed concrete aggregate façade have not been spared from the dirty metropolis air. But interestingly enough, an architect like me can easily squint his eyes and see the strong bones of a modernist architecture--clean, bold vertical elements contrasted with horizontal bands at the top floors. A sensitive and thorough re-façade may just be what it takes to bring this landmark building to the present.
Walking around the Pen, I find it fascinating and noteworthy that WATG has had a presence in the Philippines for quite a long time. And within those nearly 40 years, we have had wonderful built projects, great client relations, and the privilege and satisfaction of designing memorable places that lift the human spirit.
It’s 1:15 AM in Cairo, Egypt and I’m about to leave the city in 1-1/2 hours. Completely exhausted from a two-day charette, I am ready to go back home to California. Yet, instead of taking a quick nap or turning on the TV, I decide to hang out on my hotel room’s balcony in an attempt to etch the city in my mind one last time.
From the eigth floor of the hotel, I look down at the great Nile River that shimmers quietly in the dark. This great body of water has always been the bloodline of Egypt since ancient times. I can smell the air, too. There is a hypnotic scent billowing across the city; it reminds me of lotus oil. Across the river is the lotus-inspired Cairo Tower, a monumental icon meant to impress the modern world. Its blinking red light at its pinnacle suggests the steady heartbeat of the country. In the far distance, bright lights cast a silhouette of the city’s skyline. I gaze at the surrounding web of roads and bridges that are bustling with nocturnal travelers; there is the relentless hum of traffic near and far. It’s a symphony of sound that surges and climbs to a crescendo, punctuated by automobile horns of all sorts of pitch and melody.
Even at the wee hours of the morning, the ancient and modern city of Cairo is alive. A spectacular city that breathes, huffs, snarls and growls. Indeed, all of these sensory overloads make me feel very much alive myself! Even at 1:15 in the morning.
For the second year, I have been co-leading a co-op program in which architecture students from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo spend a ten-week internship at the WATG-Irvine office. The program offers students valuable work experience and, at the same time, an opportunity to complete a design studio project that was developed for the internship. At the end of the program, the students return to Cal Poly and present their project to their peers, professors and WATG mentors. Subsequently, they are graded and credited for their work just like any of their design studio courses.
The students arrive at WATG filled with enthusiasm. For them, it's an adventure away from architecture school. They are very appreciative of the opportunity to test the waters and learn about WATG, its projects, its people and culture, and architecture in general. Interestingly, their time in the office is not just an abridged glimpse of their future careers, but it’s also an opportunity to learn a little bit about them selves—their disposition, character and passion as future architects.
It is within this premise that, perhaps, in the process of mentoring the students, I have hoped to also learn something along the way. Indeed, I discovered lessons about mentoring.
I have learned that teaching, in many ways, is like telling a story. A good storyline requires an engaging start that identifies the necessary and fundamental components. It needs to evolve in a clear direction, with opportunities to divulge what lies ahead and opportunities to tie new ideas with those discussed in the past.
Quite often, lessons from years of experience can be too overwhelming to young minds. When crammed in bursts of discourse, there's a tendency to muddle the basic ingredients of a particular lesson. As such, I have found that it is important to listen to myself now and then and place myself in their shoes. There is a finite amount of knowledge that can be covered in a short amount of time; yet, at the same time, I found that I always need to allow provisions for the times when their exploratory minds challenge my customary expectations.
Young and inexperienced as they are, the students are free from the so-called "architectural baggage," allowing them freedom to explore from what may be, at times, obvious and time-tested design solutions. It is always invigorating to look at a design problem in fresh new ways. For the students, this process allows for growth, self-learning, discovery and experimentation, with time and schedule as the only limitations. For me, it’s the continued search beyond the obvious: it is an opportunity to reintroduce and rediscover architectural thoughts and ideas along familiarized paths, while maintaining enthusiasm, momentum and the unrelenting passion for architecture.
I have found that the students constantly challenge and put to test the teaching methods I have built from the previous group. Simply put, different students have different needs. Although this appears to make the mentoring process more taxing, it actually unravels opportunities in improving the teaching method and raising the standards that exceed their predecessors.
I have found that the internship program can become a perfect venue to understand, identify and test a structured means of disseminating WATG's vast library and wealth of knowledge and experience to its young staff. Through the process of carefully developing lesson plans, comprehensive week-by-week schedules, milestones and mini-deadlines for the students, it provided me an idea of what it would take to train young designers in the office.
Mentoring students and teaching them about hotel design, architecture and the creative process is no doubt a very rewarding and invigorating endeavor. The opportunity to mentor students is also an opportunity to appreciate the exemplary and creative environment at WATG. Sometimes, it is through expounding on such things that I am reminded, once more, the many things that make WATG a very exciting and cool place to work.
Once a month a group of designers from Irvine spend a lunch hour sketching in the sun. This is the entry to the Ford Premier Automotive Group Headquarters.
Sketch by Roger Gaspar
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