In order to accommodate the video screens on either end of the auditorium, the logo was moved to the ceiling. It echoes the shape of the hall and provides a focal point for the room

A look at the WHO Manila headquarters auditorium renovation in 2011

Arlen de Guzman and Paulo Alcazaren breathe new life into Alfredo J. Luz's iconic design of the World Health Organization Manila Headquarters

  • April 3, 2020

  • Written by Yael Buencamino

  • Photographed by Paulo Alcazaren

The World Health Organization building on UN Avenue is a gem of Philippine Modernist architecture. Once the formidable gates are opened and you enter the WHO grounds, you are struck by the tranquility and sense of order that welcome you. The sprawling front lawn provides the space necessary to see at once the shape of the entire structure, the clean vertical lines of the rather low office building and the graceful curves of the auditorium structure. Built in 1959 by Alfredo J. Luz, brother of National Artist Arturo Luz and one of the leading proponents of the International Style of architecture in the Philippines, the WHO building is a classic example of its type, with concrete brise soleil, popularized by Le Corbusier and used by Philippine architects of the time, and the thin concrete shell parabolic roof similar to Concio’s Protestant church in the University of the Philippines Diliman campus.

Over the years, additions to the compound, such as a building on one side that was not entirely respectful of the existing structures and parking sheds to accommodate the increased personnel of the institution, had diminished the gracefulness of the original design. The completed renovation of the WHO Manila headquarters auditorium building by Arlen de Guzman and the landscape architecture by Paulo Alcazaren has done much to restore the WHO to its former postcard-worthy glory.

BluPrint Architecture WHO Manila headquarters
The verdant surroundings provide softness to the stark geometry of the WHO Manila headquarters buildings. In tandem with the water features, they not only enhance the aesthetic experience of the compound, but also serve as natural cooling mechanisms.

A major renovation wasn’t originally in the plans, but when Typhoon Ondoy hit the Philippines in September 2009, submerging the WHO compound under about two meters of water, destroying the carpeting and original wood flooring, and bringing to light issues of inadequate drainage and obsolete sewage systems, it had to be done. Jeffrey Kobza, Director for Administration and Finance of the WHO Western Pacific office, says, “We have a very visionary
regional director who saw it as an opportunity to fix the problems, upgrade the structure and increase the functionality” of the WHO Manila headquarters.

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They looked at the project as a whole, rather than piecemeal. This allowed them to address all the needs at one time, producing a cohesive plan and look. Kobza explains that since the building was constructed more than 50 years ago, the kinds of spaces that the institution needed had changed. There was now a greater need for breakout meeting areas and more informal exchanges over coffee. Since a lot of the work done by the WHO is problem-solving and networking, people needed spaces conducive to the formulation of solutions and new ideas. This led to the addition of a second story in the auditorium building with a lounge and a coffee room where people could continue discussions in smaller groups outside the main conference hall.

BluPrint Architecture WHO Manila headquarters
This postcard from 1960 shows how faithful to the original design intent the renovation has been. Plants and trees have been added, but the overall serene and uncluttered state remains

A glass elevator overlooking the pond and yard was added to the side of the WHO Manila headquarters auditorium building to make the second floor handicap accessible. Provisions for the disabled were not standard in the 1950s, so these had to be installed as well.

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All the changes made were done with a vision to facilitate greater connection among individuals from different institutions, countries and cultures; and toward celebrating the member states of the WHO, giving everyone a place of importance within the physical structure. To accomplish the latter, the outer hallways encircling the conference room were opened up and redesigned to function as galleries in which artworks from the different member states could be displayed.

The overhaul of the drainage system and installation of a new septic tank left the front lawn torn up for many months, but it gave the WHO the chance to rethink the landscaping and to bring back more open space.

BluPrint Architecture World Health Organization Manila headquarters
When the trenches for drainage were being dug in the lawn, a number of incendiary devices from WWII were found, necessitating the help of the local police’s bomb squad

The parking shed that had expanded and taken over quite a bit of the grounds was removed and a parking structure was built behind the building on the side of Taft Avenue, making use of previously idle space, and allowing for the expansion for the front garden by a third of its original area. In the larger garden, more plantings and ponds all contribute to the markedly improved appearance of the WHO Manila headquarters compound and also help to naturally cool the area.

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Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this renovation story—in the history of recent Philippine architecture at least—was the decision to keep the existing structure rather than tear it down and start anew, as is sadly often the practice in this country. When asked about the decision to work with what they had rather than demolish and rebuild from scratch, Western Pacific Regional Director Dr. Shin Young-Soo, who was the moving spirit behind the project said, “Tearing down, I never thought about that… we knew that this was an architectural monument. I know this is something very important, very beautiful unique structure.”

BluPrint Architecture World Health Organization Manila headquarters
Formerly closed off utility areas, the corridors encircling the auditorium have been opened to allow for the flow of people, and are envisioned to function as galleries where artworks given by member countries can be displayed
BluPrint Architecture WHO Philippines
The use of light colored wood and water features in the lounge areas contribute to the friendly, relaxed atmosphere that the WHO administrators sought to create

The Regional Director requested meeting with experts, architects and design people to get their ideas of what to do with the place, and one of the people brought in reminisced about how as an architecture student, one of their assignments was to go there and draw the buildings. So it became obvious quite early on that it would be a shame if they tore down the auditorium. “We take it seriously that the Philippines is hosting WHO here in a big way, so we wanted as much as possible to keep the architectural spirit of the place,” says Kobza.

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The project is a testimony to the excellence of architects—AJ Luz for the 50-year old design that is as relevant and powerful today as it was when it was first drawn, and Arlen de Guzman and Paulo Alcazaren who updated the facilities while recreating the original International Style look and feel appropriate for an arm of the United Nations. It is indeed a gift to the Philippines that the WHO building of AJ Luz still stands today. It is an important part of our architectural heritage and history. It is testament to a time when the Philippines believed that it was a great country ready to take its place on the international stage. It was a period when we could compete with China to host an important United Nations office and win. Philippine Modernist, International Style architecture harks back to a hopeful, forward-looking period filled with optimism. Reminders like these are much needed by our people today.B ender

BluPrint Architecture WHO Philippines
The Arturo Luz murals in the lobby were a rediscovery of the renovation. With no signature on the artworks or plaque identifying them, it was the keen eye of Paulo Alcazaren that spotted them and confirmed that they were indeed early works by the National Artist. The six panels depict medical activities such as childcare, vaccination, surgery and education.
This article first appeared in BluPrint Volume 4 2011. Edits were made for BluPrint online.
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