By Arch. Francisco Nakpil and Karen Nakpil Tañada in commemoration of the 111th anniversary of Arch. Juan Nakpil’s birth.

A Legacy of Architecture

In March 2006, there was a flurry of protest, mainly by conservationists, journalists and bloggers, upon the impending demolition of the Avenue Theatre to make way for a parking lot. The building’s end happened quickly, leaving them to mourn another loss of heritage, the work of a National Artist, Juan F. Nakpil.

The Avenue theatre was described as “a grand Art Deco structure that provided entertainment to generations of Manilans… a landmark building that helped define Manila’s downtown – Avenida Rizal… Nakpil had designed it as a cutting-edge cinema before the war and he renovated it after the war to cater to new technologies of air-conditioning, Technicolor, and wide screens.” (Villalon, PDI)

Many of the agitated bloggers were not old enough to have watched movies at the Avenue, but knew the value of the few surviving pre-war structures to our cityscape and culture. Other online writers were more familiar with another lost Nakpil structure, the Rizal Theater in Makati which was the iconic setting for memories of the 1960’s to 1980’s. This outstanding structure featured not only movies but live performances seeking Nakpil’s care for acoustics in design.

And how would generations recall the University of the Philippines, without seeing the sweep of the Administration Building behind the Oblation statue, or the Carillon Tower of silent bells? Fortunately these and many of Nakpil’s buildings still stand while others remain in the mind’s eye, part of remembered history of place.

Revolution and Art in the Family

Juan Felipe Nakpil was born on May 26, 1899, the eldest child of Julio Nakpil and Gregoria De Jesus. Julio Nakpil was a musician and composer who fought in the Philippine Revolution against Spain and had been designated by Andres Bonifacio as secretary of the command in the north of Manila. He later married Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria, who was also a courageous leader of the Katipunan.

Juan Nakpil and His Siblings
left to right: Josefina Nakpil Tapales, Julia Nakpil Casas, Juan Nakpil, Francisca Nakpil de Lange, Mercedes Nakpil Zialcita, Caridad Nakpil Santos-Viola

While he also trained to play the piano, Juan’s inclination to the visual arts must have been boosted when as a child in 1907, he won the silver medal in a Rizal Day drawing competition. He further trained in freehand drawing with Fabian de la Rosa and Fernando Amorsolo, then already distinguished artists, and would have been inspired by his aunt Petrona Nakpil-Bautista, who excelled in painting. The Nakpil family was also known for the Plateria Nakpil, where fine jewelry was designed and crafted.

Beyond Borders in Architecture

When Juan Nakpil was on the second year of his course in civil engineering at the University of the Philippines, he took the bold decision to go the United States for his studies despite the disapproval of his family. He left what must have been a favored life as an only son with five sisters, by pawning his watch to buy a steerage ticket to America.

Nakpil studied civil engineering at the University of Kansas, supporting himself by working as a pianist with the Filipino Strong Orchestra, and later as a partial scholar of the Philippine government and with assistance from his uncle, the nationalist and philanthropist, Dr. Ariston Bautista-Lin. There he obtained his degree in civil engineering in 1922. However, he was not content, and with his uncle’s encouragement, he decided to pursue his true passion, travelling to France to study architecture at the Fountainebleau School of Fine Arts. Nakpil studied with the noted architects Carlu and Lalouz and was listed among the top ten in his class of forty, easily gaining the Diplome d’ Architecture. He returned to the United States with a Joseph Evelyth fellowship to Harvard University where he got his master’s degree in architecture in 1926.

During this period, Nakpil was exposed to the best architecture internationally, closely observing the French Beaux Art and the emerging styles of the period and also trained under the noted architect Jean Jacques Haffner, holder of Gran Prix de Rome. He tested his mettle as he entered several architectural contests open to Harvard University students of architecture, the Boston Institute of Technology and the Architects Club of Boston. He won one contest for the design of a bank for a city of 500,000 inhabitants.

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4 Responses

  1. It’s sad to hear about the lost of Avenue Theatre.

    I noticed that in Toronto some old buildings were retained by preserving their facades, built office towers around them and added a historical marker. This should have been done with the Rizal Theatre. I wish that old Manila landmarks would be preserved this way, and not level them to the ground.

    History should not be confined in books but in preservation of artworks, landmarks and mementos from the past.

  2. Hello, just saw this posting. I remember the Rizal Theater pretty well – went there several times when I was going to college. And yes, it should have been preserved – it was a beautiful building.

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