U.S. Embassy Office Building Chancery, Manila, Philippines
The need for expansion of services and the embassy facilities was the impetus to construct this office building. The congressional investigators heard about complaints when they toured foreign posts in 1953 but they dismissed them and criticized those who complained that they lacked “sincerity” and/or “patriotism.” (Loeffler 128) Soon, Washington newspaper reported about the dilapidated American facilities in Manila, Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad since ambassadors complained the conditions abroad. (Loeffler 128) “In Manila, one paper reported, Americans were still living in Quonset huts erected as emergency housing after the war.” (Loeffler 128) This probably prompted the State Department to carry out the expansion of facilities in Manila as well as many other U.S. government’s properties around the world. The existing embassy building was to be complemented with a new building built adjacent to be used as supplementary office building, housing the Consulate General Office, U.S. Information Services, Veterans Administration and Citizenship Services.
Alfred Aydelott’s design took inspiration from the picturesque Intramuros, the walls built in 16th Century in Manila under the rule of the Spanish. The one-story base of the building was of the same native volcanic stone, used in the same rugged fashion of the old walls. (Three Buildings for the FBO 112) This one-story quadrangle with two interior courts housed U.S. Information Services, Veterans Administration, Consulate General Office, Citizenship Services and Motion Pictures facility for cultural film screening.
The five-story block, which footprint was one-third of the base, rose from this one-story quadrangle. In the quadrangle courtyards were pools and gardens. It contained the U.S. Treasure, general offices and a penthouse cafeteria on the top floor. The structure of the five-story block was reinforced concrete and it was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glazed wall with aluminum frames, both fixed and sliding panels, set back from the slab line. The glass facades were screened with precast concrete grilles to shield the building from the sub-tropical heat and glare. The grilles were inspired by laced bamboo screens or blinds that were characteristic of the local huts. This added sculptural character to the building. The grilles were composed of one-floor-high panels hung around the building. The rising of the five-story modern structure from the one-story rugged “old wall” was metaphorically described as “the modern rise of the young Republic” referring to the Philippines. (Three Buildings for the FBO 112)
The interior of the building also carried the same design language of this iconic grille by diamond and hexagon patterns in terrazzo. Several mosaic tile panels, wrought aluminum screens and railings throughout the building inside the building also reflected this theme. (Three Buildings for the FBO 112)
The Architectural Advisory Committee was doubtful of many architects using the screens to protect the glass facades and they questioned the architects in details how the screens were to be put together and hung. (Loeffler 175) Aydelott was advised by the members to refine his screen design so that the grilles would be more effective and more likely to serve its intended purpose. (Loeffler 175) Ralph Walker, one of the advisory members, was particularly concerned with the cleaning of the covered glass and he advised architects that enough space should be given to permit window washing. (Loeffler 175) The final grilles were offset a significant amount from the windows to allow access for cleaning.
The Manila United States Embassy was located at 1201 Roxas Blvd, Manila 1000, Philippines. Aydelott-designed Office Building Chancery was adjacent to the north side of the original Federal Modern style Chancery designed by Jaun M. de Guzman. (The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property 20) The site of the embassy is a reclaimed land by the Manila bay and is a gift from the Philippines Government to the United States Government. (The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property 20)
The precast concrete fabrication was perhaps the most notable feature of the building. By using precast concrete, Aydelott was allowed to create the forms that relate to the local sunscreen made of laced bamboo that people used in huts, bringing the ascent of vernacular architecture to the modern architecture with modern material.
When the Spanish-American War was ended by the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines islands to the United States with the payment of twenty million dollars by the United States. (Treaty of Paris 1898) In January 1899, President McKinley appointed the First Philippine Commission (or Schurman Commission), which institutionalized and amplified consultations between Filipinos and Americans, “to adjust amicably the growing differences between Americans and Filipinos and to gather and collate information on the islands and their peoples.” (Stanley 55) The Second Philippine Commission (or Taft Commission), led by William Howard Taft, was created in March 1900 by President McKinley to form a limited government under the United States government “for the happiness, peace, and prosperity of the people of the Philippine Islands”. (Stanley 61) During this time, Governor-General Taft invited Daniel Burnham to design a master plan for Manila. The current embassy site is located south of the main axis of Burnham’s plan but it is a “reclaimed land” at the Manila bay, given by the Philippine Government in a later decades. (The Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property 20) Although the acquisition of the Philippines from Spain was “great aberration” for many Americans who were deeply devoted to the traditions of the Republic, United States enjoyed the benefits of having a doorway to Asia both militarily and economically through the possession of the Philippines. (Battistini 321) Philippines gained full independence from the United States in 1946 and the two countries continued to have close diplomatic relationships.
After WWII, the U.S. recognized the need to control both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to build itself a global hegemony and also to prevent Soviet from doing so. (Loeffler 38) Diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler pointed out a significant American strategic initiative designed to add to military capability. (Loeffler 39) Such initiative was planned around key cities along the route that ran from Casablanca through Algiers and Tripoli to Cairo, east to Dhahran, on to Karachi, across India to New Delhi and Calcutta, then Southeast to Rangoon, and across Southeast Asia to Bangkok, Saigon, and ending in Manila, “to secure air transit and landing rights for American aircraft”. (Loeffler 39) These cities were strategically important to the United States and such plan probably was taken into account by the FBO building program since many of the earlier embassy buildings planned were in these cities. (Loeffler 39) Manila held a geographic importance at the end of this axis in the Pacific Ocean to serve the military interest and national security interest. Under President Harry S. Truman and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cold War drew Philippine closer to the United States and both maintained close cooperation. (Battistini 318) The new Manila Embassy Office Building was perhaps instrumental in forging this relationship in the 1950s.
In 1954, The United States Foreign Buildings Operations (FBO) under the State Department had created an Architectural Advisory Committee (AAC) to recommend architects for designing embassies abroad. In 1956 when architect Alfred L. Aydelott was commissioned for the embassy office building in Manila, the AAC members were Pietro Belluschi, Henry Shepley, and Ralph Walker (until March 1956, replaced with Richard M. Bennett) with Col. Harry McBride as the chairman of the committee. McBride retired that year and was replaced with Raymond Hare who served for a brief period until Ambassador Joseph C. Satterthwaite was assigned the position a year later. The director of FBO was William P. Hughes during the period of 1954 to 1961. The building in Manila was categorized as “Embassy Office Building Chancery (OBC)” and by March 1956, Aydelott had presented the preliminaries of the design of the OBC in Manila to the FBO. (Haskell) He visited Manila on a month-long tour which includes Hong Kong and Japan, with the task of designing the “Chancellery Office Building” in Manila which he mentioned in the postcard he sent to Douglas Haskell, the editor of Architectural Forum, in January 25 1956 from Honolulu on the way back to the United States. (Haskell) The building in Manila was one of the strings of embassy buildings under review by the AAC in 1956. Simultaneously reviewed with the OBC in Manila were nine other embassies: Accra, Saigon, London, Ciudad Trujillo, Athens, Rabat, Lima, Helsinki, and Hague. The committee met twelve times in 1956 to review the plans for a total of fifteen projects. (Loeffler 165)
“The American embassy and its building had been part of Manila’s modern history. Countless rallies were held in front of the Aydelott-designed building over the last few decades. The building’s famous entrance and seal had been the target of demonstrators for the last half-century. Probably hundreds of thousands had queued up in front of its adobe-clad lower walls. The face of America for 50 years was gone. Post-9/11, US embassies worldwide had to be “hardened.” Suicide bomb attacks and other forms of terrorism had to be factored in for the facility to continue its functions.” (Alcazaren) Filipino recognized this building as an icon of the United States that whether it is for protest or for immigration purposes, the building represented as their first visual icon of the United States. Aydelott was educated at the University of Illinois. He practiced as an architect in Memphis, Tennessee. His designs, although limited to Memphis, were very prominent modern structures in the city. Notable examples were the City Hall, the Downtown federal building and Immaculate Conception High School. His foreign experience was also limited. The only other foreign building he designed was a hospital in Peru. U.S. Embassy in Manila was cited as a design achievement by Douglas Haskell in his nomination of Aydelott as the Fellow of American Institute of Architects. (Haskell) The design of the Embassy in Manila was very modern and fit in the language of international style. By marrying the old building material of volcanic stones and new modern material of concrete and glass, Aydelott created an aesthetic that was unique architecturally and made a symbolic relationship between the building and the host country.
Aydelott-designed Office Building, demolished in 2010, was once praised as a modern structure by a Philippines newspaper that it is “a combined monument to the Philippines’ historic past and a tribute to her development as a modern nation.” (Three Buildings for the FBO 111)
Aydelott’s design fits very well in the architecture of the Modern Movement. It was designed in the language of international style. In the 1950s, architects were designing glass curtain-wall towers and they were perhaps the precedents to the Aydelott’s design of this U.S. Embassy in Manila. For instance, United Nations Secretariat building by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and Lever House by SOM, resembled Aydelott’s design language used in the embassy although they have very different scale. Nonetheless, they all have the horizontal element with a vertical tower and the U.S. Embassy in Manila was built in a smaller scale with these modern design principles. Moreover, Aydelott followed the design guidelines set forth by the Architectural Advisory Committee as summarized by Pietro Belluschi: “To the sensitive and imaginative designer, it will be an invitation to give serious study to local conditions of climate and site, to understand and sympathize with local customs and people, and grasp the historical meaning of the particular environment in which the new building must be set.” His design was, without doubt, part of the Modern Movement but was imbued with local history and architecture through the uses of volcanic stones for the base referring to the Intramuros and precast concrete panels which resembled laced bamboo screen for the tower. He successfully designed the building with modern aesthetic without losing the characters of the host country. It was a fitting and diplomatic design to honor the Philippines’ past while maintaining the stature of the sovereign compound of the United States Embassy.
Alcazaren, Paulo. "The Grill Is Gone." The Philippines Star 7 Jan. 2012. 1 Feb. 2013. .
Battistini, Lawrence H. The United States and Asia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1955.
Haskell, Douglas Putnam. Douglas Putnam Haskell papers, Series I: Pending correspondence, 1949-1964
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