A country at home: A look inside Francisco Mañosa’s home
National Artist for Architecture Francisco 'Bobby' Mañosa's home is a serenade to the Philippines
November 6, 2020
Written by Judith Torres
Photographed by Paola Aseron
179 Saranggani Street is a well-known house in Ayala Alabang. The guards are accustomed to journalists, government officials, celebrities, and tourists coming to see it. It is seven in the morning and the gate whirrs open a few seconds after we ring the doorbell. We are expected.
We walk in with our gear and my photographer’s eyes widen with appreciation as she takes in the long porte cochère of etched glass sheltering the double-paneled front doors. I go up the flight of steps towards the doors and notice immediately their rich detail, their surface studded with one-inch pyramids of wood, smooth to touch and darkened with age. Francisco Mañosa would later explain to me that he had 4000 pieces of coconut shell cut in triangles and these were glued into place by the household help—his way of making them feel invested in the house when it was being constructed in 1981.
Stepping into the foyer, I felt an immediate sense of recognition—of shapes, patterns, textures, and even light-values I had seen before. Yes, this place is Mañosa, I felt. Not that I had been to other houses that he had built or the Floirendo’s famed Pearl Farm, much less the legendary Aman Pulo resort. The only place of Francisco Mañosa’s that I had visited, like hundreds of school children before and thousands after me, was the iconic Coconut Palace.
The house does not have the grand scale of the Coconut Palace, but the sumptuousness of its interiors. A mural mosaic in Philippine jade, black stone, and mother-of-pearl shimmers in the foyer, depicting broad leaves of the anahaw fanning in the foreground and partially obscuring a fat, full moon sitting low on the horizon. The ceiling is high and its exposed rafters form a series of triangles. The anahaw motif in the mural is picked up in the carved wooden panel along the ceiling delineating the foyer from the formal living room. It is hard to know where to begin—Francisco Mañosa’s home is almost Baroque in sensibility with obvious love for embellishment, especially in details such as cornices, moldings, and inlays. Inlays of coconut shell, or of black pen alternating with mother-of-pearl, are a recurring touch of opulence on stair banisters, railings, and walls, where they are laid in thin horizontal bands running across from end to end.
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But I am getting ahead of myself. The house is composed of two structures, a large square, and a smaller hexagon, interconnected by the foyer. A discreet, almost hidden door leads to the smaller structure, the hexagon, which houses the family’s private spaces—bedrooms, library, and a playroom. The large square houses the family’s public spaces—the living, dining, and kitchen areas. It is the part of the house that Francisco Mañosa loves to call his bahay kubo that combines elements from the bahay-na-bato. It has the steep pitched double roof of the humble Filipino hut and is on stone pillars, lifted off the ground for coolness. The space underneath the main floor is the zaguán, similar to the silong of the bahay-na-bato.
From the foyer, one can take five steps down to the zaguán or five steps up to the living room. Mrs. Mañosa decides for us by asking us to take breakfast upstairs with them on the veranda.
We take the steps up to the central living area. It is a large square space that feels contemporary—large white lamps, a large white sofa, and chairs arranged around a large glass coffee table that sits squarely in the center of the room. Right above it hangs a large chandelier, which draws our eyes upward to the exposed apex of the double roof, where the four main structural members meet. Hot air rises and escapes through narrow vents around the wrap-around capiz clerestory windows. The capiz is cut and framed into the familiar shapes of banana and anahaw leaves; tints of color on the capiz add a touch of whimsy. The living space is anchored by a black baby grand piano, and the solidity and substance of the piano are echoed in turn by a rich, dark tapestry on the wall across.
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What makes this large square space remarkable is what it doesn’t have—two adjacent walls. Large sliding panels have been retracted and the generous opening leads to a wide, L-shaped balconaje or veranda, which begins with a TV room on one end and culminates in the other with a bar whose ceiling and bar stools gleam golden with coconut shell laminates. In between, all around the L, several conversation areas are comfortably arranged, leading one to notice another remarkable absence—that of a formal dining area. Tables arranged in small groupings can be pulled together and cleverly interlocked to make a long, formal dinner table for 16, or into a large square seating 12. One could also sit anywhere along the long, wide wooden planks that serve as railing encircling the balconaje.
Mrs. Mañosa—Denise—sits us down at a round table made of coconut, near the TV room. A jolly voice greets everyone good morning—it is Mr. Mañosa come to join us. He immediately memorizes our names and proceeds to regale us with stories about the house, of historical figures, his passion for vernacular building traditions, and indigenous materials. “Gawang Pinoy, ipagmalaki natin!” is his lifelong cheer, for that is what he is—an indefatigable champion and cheerleader of designing Filipino. As he talks, we take in more of the balconaje—it is the heart of the home, really, and everyone’s favorite place to be. It affords unobstructed views of the garden below, which is modest in size but feels endless because it connects directly with the greens of a neighboring golf course.
It is in the balconaje that the house’s massive pitched roof with its wide, overhanging eaves can be best enjoyed, and its provenance from the unassuming bahay kubo, best appreciated. The roof’s pitch makes the space light and airy, and it extends low enough to be aligned with the horizon, perfectly eliminating glare, no matter the time of day. The roof extension rests on diagonal struts that bring to mind the window props or tukod of the bahay kubo. So generous is the roof extension that it keeps the balconjaje dry even in stormy weather; it is only when a typhoon hits the house directly that the furniture pieces are pushed toward the center of the living area.
After breakfast, Francisco Mañosa himself takes us around the house. As we shoot downstairs in the zaguán, he plies us with more information about Philippine materials and the technologies that can make these readily available materials more “suitable” for construction. He can hardly wait to take us to the other side of the house; he knows we are here to take photos of the master bedroom and the fishpond right outside it. “I am an Aquarian,” he declares. “I love water, I love to have it everywhere.”
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We cross the foyer into their private space—the hexagon—where all the bedrooms, including the help’s, are. Since all the Mañosa children are grown up and have moved out of the house, their bedrooms have not been lived in. But the playroom where they once romped, accessed by a secret door hidden behind rows of shelves in the library, is very much in use by the Mañosa grandchildren. The playroom is a magical place, with a colorful jeepney for children to trundle in and go on fantastic trips, rope ladders and a fireman’s pole, and lots of miniature furniture and toys that Mañosa himself designed.
We descend to the master bedroom and are not disappointed. A dramatic glass etching by Ramon Orlina serves as divider and headboard for the king-size bed that dominates the room. The bed is placed at an angle so that it directly faces the corner of the room that opens out to the pond—only, as in the living room, the adjacent walls that should make up the corner are open, so that the floor of the bedroom seems to jut out into the water. The pond is stocked with fish (tilapia or pla-pla, depending on the time of year), which Francisco Mañosa eagerly informs us he catches with rod and reel with his grandkids on weekends. Another pond, near the zaguán, is stocked with catfish and is where a dear family friend comes every so often to contemplate and catch dinner.
We are delighted with the stepping-stones that allow us to cross the pond to the other side and explore the landscape. It is all very Filipino and very provincial—no expensive ornamentals here. At the foot of MacArthur palms are kangkong, cassava, and squash. Side by side with selloum, diffenbachia, and red caladium are the native citrus calamansi and the potent chili pepper, siling labuyo. The sound of flowing water is refreshing and the lazy, fat fish make occasional ripples when they surface. The sunlight dances merrily on the water and casts mercurial reflections of light on the bedroom’s ceiling and eaves.
The fishpond reflects Francisco Mañosa’s philosophy that “a Filipino landscape is an edible one.” He proceeds to tell us about the other different edible plants in his garden: fruit trees balimbing, avocado, santol, macopa, papaya, guava, and rimas. Along the fence separating his lot from the golf course is a border of deliciosa pineapple. Trellises of patola and ampalaya provide steady produce, with peanuts, tomatoes, and garlic thriving underneath. His children grew up appreciating the mysteries of the dark earth and the magic of sun and water, of seeds and sprouts, and life and death, of growth and rest and seasons. His grandchildren are beginning to learn these lessons too.
The house and landscape make perfect sense. It feels right and harmonious. “When you see my home, you see my country,” Mañosa says. It is a most beautiful country indeed, and one that we wish we could see in more homes.