“The year 2021 is the 500th anniversary of the circumnavigation of the world,” says Marian Pastor Roces, curator of the Philippines pavilion at Dubai Expo.
“It is a moment for us to reassess the meaning of the arrival of Europe in the Philippines in 1521. But the idea for the pavilion was not to even think about that." It was to reset how the country imagines itself, she says.
Pastor Roces is working with architect Royal Pineda to orient the pavilion around the concept of “Bangkota”, the Tagalog word for “coral reef”. They will bring back the idea of a deep connection with nature, what they see as the roots of life in the Philippines.
It also has a political dimension. “With Bangkota, I am talking about going beyond the 500 years of the Spaniards colonising us, because our history goes back farther,” Pineda explains. “Our real inspiration as people is not just the influence of the Europeans, or the Americans or the Japanese, but nature: the beautiful and ancient rivers, waters, mountains and the trees of the Philippine forests.”
Pineda is co-founder and lead architect of Budji+Royal Architecture+Design, a growing practice in Manila. He entered the Philippines Department of Trade and Industry's open competition to design the Expo 2020 Dubai pavilion, and won with Bangkota. The concept was passed on to Pastor Roces, a highly regarded curator and art critic in the Philippines who has curated the country's past three Expo pavilions.
“Immediately I loved his idea,” she says. “The genius of the architecture allows space for a larger imagination of who we are, especially because Dubai is home to so much of the Filipino diaspora.”
Pastor Roces and Pineda describe their collaboration as exceptionally fruitful; Pineda provided the concept, and Pastor Roces brought the facts and scientific research that backed up Pineda's intuition.
Pastor Roces points out that in human pre-history, there are a handful of migrations that are considered epic: from Africa, across the Siberian peninsula to North America, and then across the Indo-Pacific 50,000 years ago. This was the first time humans travelled long distances by sea, and the Philippines was one of the starting points.
The Australasian languages that developed from the maritime interrelation in the Indo-Pacific are some of the most diverse on Earth, as, Pastor Roces says, there are 1,200 distinct languages spoken, and more than 170 in the Philippines.
“Most Filipinos do not know this history,” she says. “I always point out that, to this day, right now, one out of every four seafarers on Earth is a Filipino. We are still the seafarers of the world. And it's not about to diminish. So the Australasian movement from the Philippines has not stopped. It is absolutely an ongoing story.”
Pineda’s design nods to the sea in a series of separate buildings that are inspired by the footprint of a coral reef. They are each surrounded by undulating black mesh, which blocks out the sun while allowing air to circulate. Platforms within the structure offer viewing areas and spaces for greenery, and indoor areas hold the exhibition and performance venues that will feature examples of Filipino culture, food and music.
"From the beginning, I said I will not bring the Nipa hut to Dubai, nor the old Spanish architecture," says Pineda. "It gave me an opportunity to innovate.
"This is my eagerness to present the modern minds of the Filipinos, because modernity is not specifically about time, it's about betterment. That's why I call it a modern Philippines now, because we are creating a better Philippines. And my dream of a better Philippines is something that is sure of its roots."
Pastor Roces says she looked for artists who could carry both their own subject and the larger idea of Bangkota. She has included work by Scott "Gutsy" Tuazon, Patrick Cabral, Dan Raralio and Riel Jaramillo Hilario, to name a few, as well as a score by composer Teresa Barroso, and a dance by choreographer Denisa Reyes. The role of Overseas Filipino Workers will also be recognised, for example in a mural painted by graffiti artist Dex Fernandez.
That more than half a million Filipinos live in the UAE makes the Philippines Pavilion a particularly important one for Expo 2020 Dubai.
“There are Filipinos all over the world, and they are still very connected,” says Pineda. “Because of our culture of family and our strong bonds.”
The economic circumstances in the country that have forced so many Filipinos to work abroad are glimpsed in the pavilion design, too, whether in the nod to OFWs or the budget that Pineda worked within. Pineda says he chose to work with lower-cost materials, such as the wire mesh – which he calls “practical luxury" – to reflect this. There is also an ecological element to the design, which will be in the Sustainability area of Expo, as the building is modular and collapsible, and was made with material sourced in the UAE.
The decision worked out well for the country. When other pavilions were delayed after imports were held up because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Philippines' kept to schedule.
After the event, like most of the pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai, the Philippines Pavilion will stay in the Jebel Ali area temporarily before moving to the Philippines. There, it will be installed in New Clark City, the planned community about 100 kilometres north of Manila, where it will serve a new purpose and act as a testament to Filipino identity.
What exactly is that identity? "Filipinos always collaborate," says Pineda. "This is what we call bayanihan, which means not being a hero, but helping each other in times of need. We always help our brothers and our fellow Filipinos."