Art Deco in the Philippines

Filipino architects, responding to the tropical environment, softened the severe Western architectural style. Thin concrete slabs broke flat facades, protruding from unadorned wall surfaces to protect door and window openings from torrential monsoon rain and hot sun.

For increased air circulation in the hot and humid Philippine tropics, windows were enlarged, and geometric hand-wrought iron grilles covered openings cut into the exterior walls for ventilation.

The wall of translucent glass blocks so typical of 1930s Art Deco architecture has a tropical twist at Far Eastern University. Instead of the expected solid wall of square glass blocks, it is a checkerboard of open and closed glass block squares that allow airflow.
The deep greens of tropical foliage in gardens with full-grown hardwood trees shading buildings from the sun further soften the tight architectural lines.
Adaptation of Filipino elements in Art Deco detailing—stylized flora, fauna, folk art patterns and even mythological figures—infuse a distinctly Filipino handcrafted dimension to the otherwise foreign style.

The wealth of detail surviving in Manila’s Metropolitan Theater (by architect Juan Arellano) is testimony to the creativity and cultural grounding of the Filipino artist despite his working in a western idiom.

At first appearance, Art Deco in the Philippines follows the dictates of the international style. Upon closer inspection, the Filipino overlay to the style is obvious. The Filipino, master of adaptation that he is, has created a national version to the international Art Deco.
Architecture in Art Deco style appeared all over the Philippines. It once was the embodiment of being abreast with the times and with the latest technology.
Art Deco civic buildings were built in many Philippine cities. Appropriately, homes of the affluent were in that style. Movie theaters, the new palaces of pleasure, were Art Deco fantasies.

Art Deco pervaded all levels. Not only was architecture and furniture in the Deco style, so were lighting fixtures, and home accessories from vases to ashtrays. Airplanes, cars, even toasters were designed in Deco.

Fashion was totally Deco. Think Dior’s “New Look” and Chanel who liberated women from confining clothing. Think Hollywood glamour. Think Art Deco as a lifestyle.
The Art Deco style took the world by storm as it did the Philippines. It was the perfect vocabulary for the country to showcase the Commonwealth era’s thrust to fall in step with the world and with the 20th century. Those were heady, adolescent days for the Philippines, now a forgotten era whose golden memory this book hopes to revive.

“Art Deco in the Philippines,” edited by Lourdes Reyes Montinola, and with contributing authors Gerard Rey Lico, Manuel Maximo Lopez del Castillo-Noche, John Silva, and Augusto Villalón, is published by ArtPost Asia.