Making architecture relevant to the times

(Coffeebreak, December 17, 2015)

Over the centuries, architecture has pushed the concept of building design to the hilt, bringing about innovation and creativeness in integrating aesthetics with efficiency in building space utilization. It has also introduced the use of materials made lighter and cheaper by technology that enabled architects to challenge traditional concepts in design, some of which defy the forces of physics.

But these advances in architecture, however, have largely neglected fundamental needs of people, especially the poor. Most, if not all, of the highly-acclaimed breakthroughs in architectural design appeal to the wealthy. Office skyscrapers, hotels, stadiums, homes big and small and monuments dominate the conversation about architecture. Few, if at all, involve design innovations that benefit the poor.

An Ilonggo architect is about to change that perspective in the field of architecture.

Just recently, Architect Guillermo “Gimo” Hisancha has embarked on a novel project to thrust the profession to the forefront of disaster response and promotion of maternal health care.

As Head for Public Health Work Programme of the Union of International Architects (UIA) for Region VI, Hisancha has launched a national design competition for multi-use emergency and maternal/birthing facilities among Filipino architects to help governments deal with large-scale problems confronting their constituency.

“The idea has been met with enthusiasm and support from national architects organizations in the whole of Asia and Australia when I presented this before a regional conference two months ago in Thailand,” Hisancha said.

In his position as Head for Public Health Work Programme of the UIA, Hisancha, who had served a total of 18 years in public service, first as municipal councilor, and then as municipal vice mayor, of the Pavia LGU, is one of only two Filipinos who are incumbent officers of the worldwide organization of architects.

It is a recognition of his outstanding contributions to his profession, particularly with his involvement in legacy projects in the city and province of Iloilo, that have made his name a symbol of excellence.

Casa Real

CASA REAL: A legacy architectural work by Architect Guillermo Hisancha

Perhaps his best-known project is the restoration of the Casa Real, the official name of the old Iloilo Provincial Capitol, to its original design more than a century ago. No less than President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III led national and local officials in the inauguration of this heritage structure as part of the Independence Day celebrations on June 12, 2015.

That single project will permanently etch Hisancha’s name as part of the official history of the province.

Hisancha on Casa Real staircase

Architect Guillermo Hisancha on the staircase of the restored old Iloilo Provincial Capitol, now known as the Casa Real.

Apparently impressed with his restoration project, the Iloilo provincial government, along with the National Historical Commission, then commissioned him to prepare the architectural design for the conversion of the old Iloilo Provincial Jail in the Capitol complex into a regional museum.

The construction work for the regional museum is now ongoing.

Not so well known, but no less significant, are his designs for a multi-purpose disaster shelter for a barangay in Pavia in cooperation with a U.S. based NGO and an orphanage for girls in Iloilo City.

With his new position of international influence, Hisancha wants to leave a lasting imprint on the lives of millions of people, not only in the Philippines, but also in other parts of Asia.

As he searched deep into his experience and knowledge, he realized there are problems that remain unaddressed even as nations are confronted by worsening natural calamities such as typhoons.

In addition, a research project undertaken by his daughter, Raiza, while she was studying at the University of the Philippines-Visayas, opened his eyes to an area where architecture can make an impact on maternal health care.

This is how he came to conceive the project for the design, and ultimately for the fabrication, of multi-use emergency disaster and maternal/birthing facilities for far-flung barangays.

His colleagues in the Asian/Australian region expressed full support for the project and urged him to build the prototypes in the Philippines. “Other UIA country member organizations want to adopt our designs once we pick the winners,” Hisancha said.

Basically, the facilities he intends to build will be mobile and could be deployed at short notice to areas hit by natural calamities and require emergency facilities to provide relief to affected individuals.

For the maternal health and birthing facilities, Hisancha said he wants to address the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) of the United Nations for zero maternal and child-birth deaths on account of inadequate health facilities.

He was aghast upon knowing that tens of thousands of mothers die, often along with their babies, because they live too far away in the mountains from the nearest hospital or birthing facility.

“Most of the mothers don’t get to reach the medical facility alive,” he noted with sadness.

This is the reason Hisancha is excited with this project that the United Architects of the Philippines, which adopted his proposal, will take a lead role in using the expertise and creativeness of its members to soften the impact of disasters on their lives and help mothers survive with their babies.

Hisancha has shown a rare passion on how to use his profession to help people. His reputation is more than enough for him to just focus on big-ticket projects and reap material rewards that are due him as a talented and creative architect.

But more than the accolades, Hisancha is more interested in exploring new and innovative ways on how to make architecture relevant to the needs of the times. He possesses superb leadership that can enhance the respect and admiration of the general public for architects.

Without fear of contradiction, I am sure Hisancha will soar to greater heights. From a “probinsiyano”, he will be catapulted to national and international prominence. This early, I can carve that into the face of a granite stone.


Questions for COA (Part 1)

It’s hard to get information from the Commission on Audit. Almost everything that it handles is shrouded in a veil of secrecy. But it doesn’t mean we will just resign to this sense of helplessness. We have to bring the case to the general public. If it doesn’t fulfill its constitutional mandate, then we could demand accountability through media. We need to keep the people informed.

With this in mind, I will list several questions for COA pertaining to the scandalous Iloilo City Hall project. The contractor has cleared the temporary fence in front of the project to get it ready for the formal turn-over to the city government. Now the facade of the building is fully visible to passers-by, and constituents can get a close-up look at what could be the most expensive City Hall in the country.

Let me mention that City Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog must really be pissed off that the project wasn’t ready for inauguration last weekend. I know he had wanted to show off the building and deodorize the stink by inviting President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas. It’s a good thing they avoided legitimizing the anomalies by gracing the inauguration.

First, I would like to ask COA what it has done about the anomalous major revision of the project’s building plans and specifications about two weeks before the dropping of bids. When a project is advertised for bidding, its specifications are as complete as possible, with the approved budget for the contract (ABC) indicated. In this case, the original solicitation of bids called for a complete building, ready for occupancy, with all the amenities included. The estimated cost was P455 million.

Republic Act No. 9184 allows the agency undertaking the project to issue bid bulletins for “modifications” to clarify ambiguities or supply more detail to the plans to help the contractors make a responsive bid offer. There is no room for misunderstanding here. “Modification” means minor changes in the specifications, or tightening up the specs to avoid any miscalculation. It doesn’t change the essence of the project. It was supposed to be a complete building, RFO (acronym for ready for occupancy).

But the administration of then City Mayor Jerry P. Trenas introduced a gigantic anomaly when it revised the plans and specifications. It removed major components of the projects and left only the structural shell. In an instant, the project was changed from a complete City Hall to just its skeletal structure with outer walls. No elevators. No electrical and data wiring. No firefighting system. No elevated parking. No partitions and furniture. No airconditioning. And more.

By simply issuing a bid bulletin under the guise of a “modification”, the Trenas administration carved out nearly one-half of the original project. There was no justification. And it was done in treachery. Nobody outside the mayor’s office knew that the city government was putting up a half-finished City Hall.

Normally, such drastic changes in the project specifications, in which major parts or components are removed from the scopes of work, would require a reduction of the estimated costs. That’s only logical, because the removal of major scopes of work meant less costs for materials, labor and overhead.

Here lies the first big anomaly — the Trenas administration kept the ABC at P455 million. In effect, it was going to pay an amount equal to the whole for just half of the project. It is a giant swindle pulled off by the local chief executive.

It wasn’t surprising that the winning bidder submitted an offer for P368 million. Trenas was jubilant in announcing the award of the contract to F. F. Cruz and Co./Freyssinet Filipinas joint venture. It represented a savings of P87 million, he boasted. Indeed, such a drop in the winning bid should be cause for rejoicing for an agency that wants to implement a project with economy.

It was a false boast, however. With the revision of the project specs, the real cost estimate for the project should have been 50% lower, or P270 million. At P368 million, the contractor was still going to reap an overprice of P98 million, a huge bonanza that is clearly bound to be divided among top officials of the city.

The Bids and Awards Committee, apparently acting upon orders of Trenas, distorted the meaning of the word “modification” and dismembered the building to pave the way for a huge windfall. It smacks of dishonesty, fraud and simple corruption! I feel like puking at the calm demeanor of Trenas in claiming to have saved P87 million!

Will the COA pretend not to have seen anything or heard anything about this? Will it cover-up the glaring irregularity which makes a mockery of the law? Sadly, its actions don’t seem to point to safeguarding the public interest. It doesn’t seem inclined to stop the irregularity based on this unlawful “modification”. That transaction took place two years ago yet.

This is a clear case of graft and corruption that will haul Trenas and other officials of the city government before the Sandiganbayan. It’s not really too late for COA to prove it’s made of tougher stuff. It can expose this anomaly and file charges before the Ombudsman.