The Emerson Coseteng House by National Artist Leandro Locsin
A paradigm of the Philippine Neo-Vernacular style by Locsin is refreshed by Eduardo Calma
February 15, 2018
Written by Reuben Ramas Cañete, PhD
Photographed by Peter Cons
The Philippine Neo-Vernacular style was first developed in the late 1950s for advocates to foster a kind of “Filipino identity” in modern architecture. Its chief precedent was Japanese post-war architecture, spearheaded by Sutemi Horiguchi, Kenzo Tange and Kazuo Shinohara, who were debating how modern architecture should translate traditional or “vernacular” aesthetics (such as sukiya) to make the results “truly Japanese” in character.
In Manila during the late 50s, the works of National Artists Juan Nakpil and Leandro Locsin would echo this debate, to be joined by Francisco Mañosa in the 60s. It was Locsin’s Modernist adaptation of various Asian sources as well as indigenous and colonial Philippine influences, however, which were best tested in villa design that allowed single-storey house construction to spread out into the landscape. This followed the precepts of the aristocratic “court house” design such as those found in Ming Dynasty Beijing, but using materials like reinforced concrete and steel frames. These were also updated for modern life, such as the addition of concrete driveways and garages.
The Emerson & Alice Marquez-Lim Coseteng House, located on a rise within tree-shaded subdivision in Quezon City, is a classic example of this stylistic hybridity between tradition and modernity. Constructed between 1963-1964 at the grand sum of two hundred thousand pesos, it is also the house where former Senator Ana Dominique “Nikki” Coseteng grew up in.
“When the house was just finished in 1965, our parents held a victory party for the newly-elected President Ferdinand Marcos,” Nikki relates. “During the party, Imelda Marcos asked my mother: ‘who is the designer of your house? It is very beautiful!’ My mother (the late UP professor, art critic and ambassador to Mexico Alicia Coseteng) replied: ‘Leandro Locsin.’ ‘Oh,’ Imelda replied, ‘I will approach him to design a cultural center that I am planning.’ A few months later, they broke ground on the CCP by the bay. And all that happened because of the unique design of this house.”
The front of the house is oriented to the west, on a downward slope. The original landscape design of the main entrance had a circular hillock garden in the middle of the driveway, with the path taking visitors around and up to the main level entrance with a port cochere and a short cantilevered concrete staircase facing the doorway. This path goes down again on the other side, where the basement level garage used to be. “No matter what time it was, the public rooms and bedrooms never got harsh, direct sunlight because of the angle of the house, the ample eaves of the roof, and the trees in the hillock and gardens,” Nikki muses.
Some years back, heeding the advice of a fung shui master, Nikki had the west entrance landscaping remodeled by Eduardo Calma while she was living in a condo unit near the Senate. The driveway, hillock, and pond were removed, and in its place, a courtyard faced in Indian Kota brownstone was installed. Calma’s concept of a modern stone courtyard harked to a more organic environment that was intuited from Nikki’s environmentalist advocacy, with running water gushing from low fountains going in straight courses and planted with lotus and reed plants as the contrast to the geometric formality of the stonework.
The staircase for the main entrance, remodeled using a more traditional profile with flanking paired stereobates, now leads directly from the courtyard level to the antique double doorway. The entrance looks like a grand Chinese manor guarded by bronze lantaka cannons, and completing the manorial look is the concrete entrance canopy retained for this purpose.
The house has two storeys—a basement level and an elevated main floor—which follows a north-south orientation common in Chinese vernacular architecture. The bedrooms are situated on the north wing and the service facilities on the south wing, forming a U-shape in which both wings connect to a main section via the entrance hallway, living room, and dining room. Underneath this main section is a den and basement-level dining room. Guest rooms with sliding doors facing north east are found in this section as well, bordered by the house’s perimeter pathway as it winds up and down the central rise where the house is constructed in.
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Just beyond the living room, on the opposite side of the lot, is the sloping, lower-level rear garden where a peanut-shaped swimming pool was originally located. Today, it serves as the house’s rainwater catch-basin used for the garden plants. The main lanai at the northeast side gives one a good idea of the original intent of the landscaping, with its piedra china stepping stones, lush tropical planting, and Modernist contrasts like the garden furniture designed by Lor Calma and Budji Layug. Tessie Luz, wife of National Artist Arturo Luz, did the original interior decoration of the house.
Aside from the heritage nature of the structure itself, the Emerson Coseteng House boasts of an unrivaled modern and ethnographic art collection spanning two generations of enthusiastic Filipino patrons: the mother-and-daughter combination of Alice and Nikki Coseteng. Alice’s collection focuses primarily on the generation of Filipino Modern Expressionists that she championed in the 60s and 70s, like Antonio Austria, Danilo Dalena, and especially National Artist Ang Kiukok. One can also see her interest in Spanish Colonial antique santos and Mexican folk art, owing to her stint as Ambassador to Mexico.
In contrast, Nikki’s collection is wide-ranging and comprises a generally encyclopedic range of Filipino ethnographic objects, primarily textiles (because of her feminist advocacy), followed by Cordillera bulul statues, ancestral house wooden parts, and various contemporary native bric-a-brac. Her passion for collecting art was informed by her long management of Galerie Dominique in Greenhills back in the 70s and 80s, and from this experience her eye was honed towards contemporary folk art. The Marquez-Lim’s ancestral collection of colonial furniture, dating from their old home in Iloilo City, are also found in this house, making the Emerson Coseteng House the repository of three generations of Filipino art.
These objects constitute the chief décor found in the long, gallery-like corridors bordered with curtain glass walls in the house, especially along the corridor leading to the north wing’s bedrooms, which result in a museum-like procession of fascinating cabinet curios and paintings. The other chief repository is the entrance hall and living room, where a Chinese opium bed shares space with upholstered bamboo low couches, Murano glass sculptures, and Indian silk saris used as decorative curtains.
“Taking care of a house like this is a major chore,” Nikki reminds us as we prepare to leave. “It takes a special commitment and love to put up with all the preparations and hassles of maintaining it. That’s why I have added environmental features to the house to make it more economical, like using stored rainwater for the plants, because I do not want to pay Maynilad Water for the same amount for watering my plants as we would to bathe and drink.”