After discovering how National Artist Leandro “Lindy” Locsin and his overachiever son Andy came to become architects, one can’t help but think twice about whether there is such a thing as fate. The father stumbled upon architecture after valiantly letting go of his dreams, and the son avoided it like the plague due to repeated warnings of difficulty from his own father—one of the best architects in Philippine history. There is not just a touch of Lindy in Andy’s incredible talent, wisdom and fortitude. But most important of all, he inherited his father’s strong sense of ethics; whether they end up pursuing architecture or an entirely different profession altogether, one is sure their moral compass would have remained steadfast. Here, Andy Locsin talks about his father’s design legacy and his resolve to establish a meritocratic as opposed to nepotistic tradition at Leandro V. Locsin Partners (LVLP).
Why did you take up Architecture?
I remember that my dad warned me, almost discouragingly, against pursuing Architecture because it’s not the easiest of professions. He knew I’d have to deal with having some pretty big shoes to fill. And he didn’t want me to feel that I had to do it. He used to say that you can be the most visionary, talented, hardest working and most well-meaning person, but you could literally end up a pauper if you don’t happen to live at a time when your own society appreciates your vision or work. It’s very chancy—a lot of success is luck. Much of it is whether your contemporaries see the value in what you’re doing. History is littered with the bodies of incredibly talented designers and architects who ended up really struggling because society never recognized the value of their work until years after they were dead.
So, when I was in college overseas, I tried practically everything else but architecture. In my junior year, I decided to take a studio course just to try it out, and I quickly discovered that I was actually really good at it—not just from my point of view—as professors and classmates would tell me, “You really have something there.” I realized then that I loved it.
When I came back to Manila, I was put in a curious position. I thought I was going to do architecture full-time, but a whole host of other circumstances intervened. It’s one of my big frustrations. I had only been back around three or four years. The old rule was that you needed at least three years of apprenticeships under your belt before taking the exam.
I was four to six months away from taking the exam, but my father died suddenly from a stroke. I’m not so sure that my dad knew he would pass away so early—we thought that we would have many working years together. He died pretty young at 65 or so. We had a short time together—just four years—but a lot of time to talk. We talked about some of these issues of succession, but I don’t think he was ever really able to plan for it within the firm. The assumption was that we would go on for a while, then figure it out.
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To this day I’m not a registered architect, which is why I’m delimited as a design consultant and administrator to the firm. From a legal and ethical standpoint, I must draw the line regarding how far I can go. My job within the firm is to help the architects become as good as they can be, and to sort of tweak and strengthen design thinking. But they’re really doing the “architecting” and I’m critiquing, interpreting and discussing the theory —all of which is part of a collaborative practice. You know, much of this is timing. A lot of how life turns out lies in the circumstances that present themselves, and one reacts and makes the best call possible—you just move forward.
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[one_half_last]How did your father know that he wanted to take up Architecture?
I think both of us were accidental characters, in a way. He was even more so. His biggest dream was actually to become a concert pianist—and he was an incredibly good pianist. He first enrolled at UST Conservatory of Music where he ran into someone who became one of his best friends, a fellow named Ben Tupas. Ben was a child prodigy, a certified musical genius. So they started talking about music and playing together.
Somewhere along the line, my father realized that he wasn’t gifted with the chops that his friend had. In his own assessment, that’s what it took to be the best at what one does—to get where you want to go at the top of one’s field. While he was pretty good technically and completely passionate about it, he just didn’t have ”The Gift” of a true virtuoso. Some people thought he did, but as a deeply knowledgeable musician, he knew better—he could hear and feel the difference.
So in his second or third year, he was completely honest with himself and he accepted that it wasn’t going to work in the long run. Every day on the path to the Conservatory, he would pass through the Art and Architecture building. As he was walking through the Architecture department one day, he thought, “Maybe I’ll try one of these courses!” So he signed up for an Architecture course. The same darned thing happened—well, it obviously happened to him first before it happened to me! The moment he became involvedin architecture, he discovered that he was unbelievably good at it. People thought he was the Ben Tupas of Architecture! [Laughs]
Somehow, because of his own exposure in life and his wide interests in art and music, he was able to translate those passions into architecture, and that really set him apart from his classmates. I think in his third or fourth year, he switched over to Architecture—quite late, but he graduated as one of the stars of his class. Ayala Corporation first hired him that summer, and he became fast friends with the painter Fernando Zobel, out of a shared passion for art and Philippine culture. He consequently became buddies with all the artists of that generation— the golden age of Philippine Modernists. His real toyo was art and music—that’s what he was obsessed about.
Again, just when you think you’ve planned out your life, other things present themselves and change its course.
How did you start out?
I completed a four-year Liberal Arts degree at Wesleyan University in the US where I double majored. One of the majors was Architecture. I then earned a Masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and returned here shortly after. Usually, as graduate school comes to an end in the US, a lot of the major firms will come around recruiting. At the time, I was in discussions with folks from IM Pei, Moshe Safdie, and some of the Boston-based firms. They recruited heavily at Harvard.
While figuring out what to do, my dad said, “It’s been slow, but things are about to take off in Manila (this was in ’89)—you might consider coming back and getting in at the ground level.” So I said, sige, I’ll do just that. Forget the IM Peis or whatever. [Laughs] I’ll contribute to what’s going on in the Philippines and see what happens. As I’d already committed to coming back, I backed off from the other firms.
Well, ’89 turned out to be a disaster—kasi nagka-coup! Nothing happened as everything froze—as in zero! Totally flat. So those first few years were really tough, 1990 to 1992. But eventually things really picked up in Manila.
Are you planning to take the board exam in the future?
I think I’m getting —too old! It may take too much effort and time away from other critical responsibilities. The folks in the office have been telling me for years, “Just take the exam, because you’re going pass it. You know more than any of us!” If you threw me back into that game to do the technicals and the math—my God—I’ve forgotten half that stuff! [Laughs] I just simply have to do the right thing and delimit myself along with my role. I don’t know—maybe one day—it’s not a bad thing though, I enjoy what I do. It’s not a big deal if my name is not on the documents. But in the Philippines, architecture is a personality-based business.
Many firms overseas are much more collaborative. A firm would have a mixture of architects, graphic artists, industrial designers, ad people, media types, computer geeks, all integrated into the process of actually creating buildings. I try to bring my background in anthropology, art history, theory, education, music, business, foundation work, and sport to bear on the firm’s practice. This is the way I think architecture should go—it makes for a better, well-thought out built environment.
I think, in the end, [my dad] was actually really happy that I ended up involved in some aspects of architecture, mostly because he saw that I really loved doing it. He was never pushy about a particular aesthetic, but for the most part he tried to instill in me a backbone to do what is ethically right. -Andy Locsin
How does that relate to the concept of succession?
Many Filipinos still look for the whole idea of the master architect, the personality himself. They want to be able to say that this particular building, ginawa yan ni so-and-so. He’s my architect. Usually, when the principal architect passes away, the firm just falls apart, and you don’t have a continuity of the design legacy. But the truth is, in many cases, even if the principal passes away, all that knowledge is actually not lost. It’s embodied in the people who have worked with that person. All the technical information, design sensibility, even artistic bent—the whole philosophy of the practice, does not disappear into thin air.
That was actually the challenge in this firm. When my father died, I sat down with all the partners and asked them, “Do you guys want to continue practicing together, or go the way of how every firm does it?” And every single one of them said: “You know, this whole enterprise has been a really good thing for all of us. We all want to hang together, if it’s possible.” So I said, well, there is a way: that is, to institutionalize the life of the firm. You look at firms like SOM or KPF in the US, what we call the “letter firms.” In many cases, their principals are long gone. There is no more Mr. Skidmore, there is no more Owings! But the institution continues to practice under the name, because there’s content, skill, and a design legacy in the name.
So we did that. We elected a managing partner and invited the first female partner in the firm’s history on-board. Before that, I told them this, which I thought was very important: if you really want to institutionalize, we should end this whole Philippine practice of nepotism. It shouldn’t be automatic na ako na, just because I have the name. You have all put in decades of your life doing this, so you should have a go at it. You should know that at some point, you actually own this firm and you’re running the firm. That’s the only way to change the culture of how a firm should be continued.
I said, first things first: I’m not going to become a partner. So I’m not taking the exam because if I do and I pass it, you will all vote me in as managing partner. My not being a partner will necessitate one of you guys stepping up to be the head of the firm. That has to be the rule from now on—that some of you have the chance to run the firm, not in just the name, but in reality, bearing the legal, ethical, design responsibility for what comes out of here, so that in your own lifetimes, in your sunset years, there’s no regret and there’s no asking, “What if?” You can honestly say you ran that firm, you owned that firm. You really have a chance if you deserve it, and it’s based on a meritocracy—it’s not nepotistic.
Actually, that was the primary reason I did not take the exam. That’s also why we changed the name of the firm. At the time it was Leandro V. Locsin and Partners—we took out the “and.” So now it’s Leandro V. Locsin Partners, because that’s exactly what we are. I told the Partners that I’d just be the talking head if they trusted me. My strengths are explaining, interpreting, and articulating things . I can participate early in the conceptual design process, but I can’t be involved in the technical, legally consequential phases of the design process. I don’t even go near working drawings. Not just to avoid trouble—it’s just the right thing to do.
So far, we’ve had two senior partners run the firm since my dad’s passing. Ruben Protacio, who had worked with my father the longest, has already retired. The second Managing Partner is our current head—Ed Ledesma. He’s really had a renaissance. Ed used to be a guy who would prefer na magtatago lang sya sa likod. All that he enjoyed and was important to him was to do the work and to design. He didn’t want to face clients—he’s a very shy guy. But I think he discovered in his older age na yun pala, he’s very good at it. I don’t think he or Ruben would have any regrets in terms of what their careers looked like and what they’ve done—that’s really what the firm should be: a meritocracy.
You know, this name business… [Shakes head] Ako, I’ve always been very suspicious about it. I used to tell my dad this. Too much stuff happens in this country because of names. All too often it’s not by merit—it’s by birthright. What kind of message do you send to the folks on the staff? Parang hanggang dito lang kayo? Hindi pwede yun!
Did your father mentor you?
For the four brief years that we worked together, yes. A lot of discussions and design work actually took place around this table. In architectural terms that’s a very short time, but to me it was very valuable. A lot of what I and my dad’s partners learned from him still shows. What I personally try to do is hold the ethical and philosophical line, because I knew him in a way that his partners did not.
Did your father have any mentors before?
In many ways he was a self-driven architect, but there were people that he admired. One of the guys that I know he had a high regard for was Carlos Arguelles. Actually, two of our most senior partners, Ed Ledesma and Raul Locsin, came from Carling’s office. At the time, in the 50s and 60s, he really was one of the leading architects here. He did a lot of really good solid work.
How would you compare your design approach with your father’s?
There are some things that are shared, but we actually argued about some aspects of design approach. Back then, there was this whole idea about a signature style. It was not uncommon that people would come up to you and say, “I saw this house or building, and I want exactly that.” That almost never happens these days.
I think people now are more individualistic. We actually began to move away from this whole approach of delivering a formulaic Locsin style to every client. We used to have these arguments about what’s more meaningful, and my argument was that if you are in the business and the service of delivering bespoke buildings, it’s important to produce something that’s tailored to your clients’ needs, wants and ambitions. Not every single person, notwithstanding what they say, wants exactly the same thing. You have to understand your client in a more—I used to joke about it—“anthropological” way. If not, you’ll just be an architectural cookie factory [makes gestures as if cutting cookies aggressively with a cookie cutter]. Huwag namang ganun. You’ll never grow in a meaningful way.
My father—and this is also reflected by his partners—had this concept about how space is sequenced. They had this theory that when you come into a building, you’re presented with a space that’s compressed to some degree. You move through a portion that either continues that compression or perhaps just eases up a little bit. And then you end up in a main space that explodes—enter, and you’re released. We see that in the PICC, CCP, and some of the older works of the firm. We still employ this idea to create an order of sequence and a cadence—there’s drama, and it’s a conscious manipulation of people’s senses as they move through the space, and it creates a rhythmic order. So some design approaches continue, others branch out in different directions.
What’s your design philosophy?
If there’s any way to express what we do in a simple line: we try to distill the essentials of the building program and the client’s ambition, and then, listening to the forces that site, human behavior, and environment bring to bear on the project, we operate on these variables to extract the essence and express it in a concrete, authentic form that is meaningful on many levels. For example, there’s this whole issue of whether my dad’s architecture was Filipino architecture. When you look at the CCP, a lot of people will agree that somehow, that building works. Whether you like it or not, you’re struck by it, it makes you react to it in some way, on many levels.
People ask, “what is it?” Is it Pinoy architecture, or is it just the straight Brutalism of the 60s and 70s? For us and for my father, who was then trying to reflect the essence of Filipino architecture, it really comes down to the kubo with all the implications of our culture, context, climate, and purpose. What is kubo but a mass raised on stilts? For him, that was the essence of the CCP. It’s an abstracted essence of a floating mass that’s thrown up into the air, but feels magaan.
We don’t always succeed, mind you. We won’t be so arrogant as to say that we always succeed. But for us, great art or architecture should operate on many levels —appealing to many people because there are many ways to interpret it. It’s not a one-liner—hindi mababaw—it’s not a cartoon. In the case of the CCP, people can see it as a kubo, a floating volume, a concrete reference that repeats the horizon, a theater stage, or a piece of habitable sculpture. And yet, it has become so recognizably iconic in the context of Philippine architecture.
Has it been tough for you to prove yourself? What kind of challenges did you have to face?
The usual thing is they tell me, you’re Lindy Locsin’s son. Do you fill the shoes? My dad used to say,“Are you sure you want to do this? People are going to come to you, measure you up, and say all sorts of things.” As I told him, the bottom line for me is whether you enjoy it or not. Does design get your juices flowing, or does it not? Do you get turned on, or do you not? And in my particular case, I clearly get turned on by it—I love doing what I do! If the general public recognizes the firm’s work and thinks we do a good job, then that’s a great affirmation for us.
I guess I consciously tried not to let the pressure bother me. The points really are, did you make a meaningful contribution? Did you do something worthwhile? By doing what you do, do you leave the place in a better state than the way you found it? To me, that’s the simple substance that matters. Not all the other glitzy stuff.
What characterizes your personal and professional relationship with your father?
In my book, he had no equal as a father and role model. My brother and I were so fortunate to be on the receiving end of his kindness, generosity of spirit, integrity, and life experiences arising from two curious minds and the interests he shared with my mother. I think, in the end, he was actually really happy that I ended up involved in some aspects of architecture, mostly because he saw that I really loved doing it. He was never pushy about a particular aesthetic, but for the most part he tried to instill in me a backbone to do what is ethically right. Not being a registered architect, for example, means drawing a line and accepting limitations. I think that sense of ethics is very deep and was passed on to us personally.
He also demanded a lot of honesty about what the firm could or could not do as professionals, so we’re not the type of firm that would tell you anything’s possible. If we think that something being asked of us is a little off-kilter or not doable, we’d be totally honest. We feel that part of our mandate is also to educate. So we occasionally turn down some client requests if we don’t believe in doing it that way. Some of our clients will tell you that sometimes we’re too brutally honest. [Laughs] Actually, that’s my value to the firm, because you know how we Pinoys don’t very much like
I end up doing the difficult bit of talking when this is required. [Laughs] It’s the hardest thing, you know—it’s part diplomacy, and part just trying to be articulate and honest about the message.
How did your father react to being awarded National Artist in 1990?
I think he was really, really tickled—for lack of a better way to put it. [Laughs] He didn’t consciously initiate or pursue this sort of accolade. Society somehow saw value in what he did. The funny thing is, one would argue that he’s best known for some of the works that he did during the Marcos era, but the administration that gave him the award was Cory Aquino’s. I think that was, for him, a huge affirmation. At the end of the day, it was about being a consummate professional—an artist who wasn’t compromised and who acted with integrity. He had a moral and ethical rudder that people recognized, and a talent that was evident regardless of where you fell within the political or social spectrum.
I think that recognition really made him incredibly happy. He was so absolutely honored—I remember him saying that he felt so small… in a good way.
Not long after he was proclaimed National Artist, he was also given the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 1992. For Asia, that’s the cultural equivalent of a Nobel Prize of sorts. We in his family were just so gratified that he was recognized not just in the Philippines, but also beyond the borders of the country—the first Filipino to be so honored. And the great thing was that it had nothing to do with him running after recognition. He was old school in that way. Concentrate on creating and doing great work: if people recognize it, then great!
What do you admire most about your father?
In simple terms: that he was a really good man. I think that most people who knew him did not only define him by his work—they also appreciated him for being a genuinely generous person. He didn’t have unkind things to say about people. A great sense of humor. Dad was a good person who insisted on doing the right thing. He lived a life of tremendous integrity. He wasn’t compromised by doing “funny stuff”—didn’t step on people’s toes—at least, he attempted not to.
I think the most admirable thing from a public point of view was that he was incredibly talented. He really had “The Gift.” He also happened to live at the right time within the right context. Generally, people around him appreciated what he did, notwithstanding politics or whatever. His architecture resonated with people. In many ways, his real success was that he left the world in a better state than he found it. He set high standards and put his country on the map.