7 Architecture Highlights of Metro Manila


Metro Manila is more than the hustle and bustle of its city life. Rather, it is a city filled with unique architectural gems. 

These iconic structures serve as a bridge to the past and hold a rich history. Through the architecture of the city, you are able to see its colonial past, find a mix of modern architecture and local motifs, and a shift towards more contemporary designs that decorate the skyline.

Check out these seven architectural highlights that are distinctly Metro Manila to appreciate the beauty of the architecture and history behind it.

1. Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex (CCP)

Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex Entrance

Photo source: Google Arts & Culture

The Cultural Center of the Philippines is the country’s first world-class institution for the arts. It is an iconic landmark that serves as the cornerstone for promoting Philippine art to local and international audiences. 

Founded in 1969, it was part of the former Marcos Administration’s efforts to develop and promote arts and culture in the Philippines. Since then, it has become a symbol of Filipino talent and ingenuity, as well the place where all Filipino artists hope to one day perform.

Designed by Leando Locsin, the National Artist for Architecture, CCP followed the International style, a simplistic architectural style that was popular during the postwar era. It is defined by its robust exterior, use of rectilinear forms, rigid plane surfaces, and minimalist approach that showcases the structural design of the building over applied ornamentation.

The CCP embodies Locsin’s signature style – showcasing mastery of space and scale. The National Commission of Culture and Arts deems his style as one expressing “themes of floating volume, the duality of light and heavy, buoyant and massive structures”

In its entirety, the complex is made of four main structures: National Theater, Coconut Palace, the Philippine International Convention Center, and the Film Center. The most iconic of which are the first two.

Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex interiors

Photo source: Patrick Kasingsing 

Photo source: Brutmaps 

Its main building, the Tanghalang Pambansa (National Theater), houses performing arts venues, a theatre, galleries, a museum, and the center’s library and archives. Its interiors comprise large, open areas on the ground and upper floors, emphasizing the grandiose chandeliers and the fluid space.

Since the building is made of concrete, the interiors look very heavy, even fortress-like. Massive spiral staircases are a distinct and eye-catching feature of the building. From this architecture style, it evidently creates the impression of strength and power that the Marcos Administration wanted to showcase.

Coconut Palace in Metro Manila

Photo source: Take off with Natarajan

Coconut Palace in Metro Manila

Photo source: The Urban Roamer

Contrary to the National Theater, the “Coconut Palace”, a unique work of architecture made with local materials derived from a coconut tree: lumber, shells, and husks. Other materials used, like the hardwoods and marble, are also indigenous from the Philippines. 

Interestingly, the Coconut Palace follows the contours of its fruit namesake. Keeping with the theme, its interior design and ornamentation are inspired by the different parts of the coconut – the bark, root, sheel, and flowers.

The residence also houses seven suites, each one representing a different region of the Philippines. In the rooms and hallways, you can also see local, handcrafted artworks and Filipino motifs to add to the overall aesthetic. 

2. Makati Stock Exchange

Makati Stock Exchange in Metro Manila

Photo source: Ayala Land Offices

The Makati Stock Exchange Center is one of the first few buildings erected in the Makati Central Business District. It is an architectural landmark that has been preserved and updated through the years to maintain its facade and status as a premier commercial office.

Like the CCP, this was designed by Leandro Locsin and an extension to his signature style of using light and massive floating space. Consequently, it mirrors the box-like international style and makes use of repeating simplified geometric forms influenced by the modern art of abstraction.

Makati Stock Exchange in Metro Manila Brutalist exterior

Photo source: Patrick Kasingsing

For this project, Locsin uses a Brutalist approach, an architectural style that grew out of the early-20th century modernist movement. Brutalist buildings are unique for its large-scale, monolithic, blocky appearance, and repetitive geometric patterns. 

The design for the Makati Stock Exchange also blends the modern architectural style with a domestic motif. Inspired by the ‘floating’ composition of the nipa hut or Bahay Kubo, Locsin reconstructed this traditional motif of a mass on stilts into a modern concrete and glass recreation.

3. The Metropolitan Theatre

The Metropolitan Theater exterior

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Metropolitan Theatre, or simply the MET, is the country’s first National Theatre. 

Since its grand opening in 1931, the structure hosted numerous operas, ballets, orchestral music, theatre, film, and plays. During its prime, this architectural gem was home to the Manila Symphony and the center of a thriving hub for entertainment in Manila.

Designed in the Art Deco style that was prevalent during the mid-1920s, it was revered as the ‘Grand Dame’ of Manila’s theatres for its ornate and lavish architecture. Art deco architecture originated in the Paris Exposition of 1925 and is characterized by its repetitive use of linear and geometric shapes, as well as its affinity to highly stylized and rich embellished designs.

Additionally, the art deco aesthetic is one that showcases refinement and wealth by incorporating exotic materials in visual art forms like paintings, carvings, and sculptures. As such, the MET showcases colorful ornamental elements in the form of beautiful stained glass tiles.

Photo source: National Commission for Culture & Arts and Inquirer Business

The theater was designed by Juan M. Arellano who gave it an artful Filipino touch. He used nativist iconography featuring Philippine vegetation, sculptures, carved wall textures, and vibrant tile ornamentations. 

All around, the MET is adorned with a variety of details picturing Filipino rural life using local fruit, flora, and basket patterns on its ceiling. Its exterior is also decorated with sculptures and intricate embellishments inspired by Philippine flora, fauna, and indigenous designs.

Through the years, the theater has undergone partial restorations. It survived the Battle of Liberation of Manila in 1945 and was later restored in 1978. However, this was short-lived as the MET was later abandoned and closed down in 1996. In 2010, it was declared a National Culture Treasure and was opened to the public once again after excessive renovations.

Today, the Metropolitan Theatre still hasn’t been revived to its former glory and is currently being renovated. It is set to reopen its doors to the public once again by December 2021.

4. Basilica Menor de San Sebastian

Basilica Menor de San Sebastian exterior

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian is one of the grand structures dating all the way back to the early 16th century. One of the most iconic structures in Manila, it symbolizes the long religious history of the Filipinos as well as their artistry. 

Considered one of the country’s most important architectural treasures, the Basilica Menor de San Sebastian became the first church in the Philippines to be elevated as a minor basilica. Subsequently, it was declared as a National Historical Landmark in 1973 and a National Cultural Treasure in 2011.

Completed in 1891, the basilica represents Gothic revival architecture. This style was largely inspired by the famed Gothic Burgos Cathedral in Spain and is also influenced by Neo-Gothic and Baroque styles.

The light blue-green basilica stands out as a towering structure in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city. Its massive structure consisting of two open towers with pyramidal spires make it a totally unique and iconic architectural highlight. 

From the outside, it exudes beauty and inspires awe from its on-lookers. Stepping into the church, it’s easy to feel transported back to the Spanish era of centuries past.

Basilica Menor de San Sebastian ceiling

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Basilica Menor de San Sebastian Neo-gothic design

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The basilica’s magnificent interior is adorned with neo-gothic designs such as pointed arches, steep gables, large stained-glass windows, dramatic groined vaults, and faux finishes. It also has spiral staircases on the side of the church’s main entrances. 

Inside, the church is warmly lit with crystal chandeliers that create a grand appearance. Its walls are adorned with trompe l’oeil paintings of saints and religious figures by college students from the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, the country’s first art school.

The San Sebastian Basilica is also known as the first and only all-metal structure in the Philippines. This makes it incredibly sturdy and earthquake-proof.

5. National Museum of Fine Arts

National Museum of Fine Arts Exterior

Photo source: Debb Bautista, SunStar

The National Museum of Fine Arts showcases the country’s famous paintings and sculptures by classical Filipino artists. Many of the works exhibited are by national artists like Juan Luna, Felix Resurrección Hidalgo, and Guillermo Tolentino.

Originally designed by architects Ralph Harrington Doane and Antonio Toledo in 1918, it was set to be the future National Library intended for the Burnham development plan for Manila. However, in 1926, it was eventually inaugurated as the Legislative Building. Therefore, its interiors were redesigned by Juan Arellano, the same renowned Filipino architect who conceptualized the Manila Metropolitan Theatre and the Post Office Building.

The National Museum of Fine Arts uses Neoclassical architecture through its dramatic corinthian columns, massive build, geometric forms, and Greek detailing. This architectural style also exemplifies grandiosity through the use of neoclassical motifs such as angels, garlands, flowers, and unfurling leaves.

National Museum of Fine Arts

Photo source: National Museum of the Philippines

National Museum of Fine Arts

Photo source: Wikiwand

The ornate interiors make use of local motifs and showcase sculptures by Isobel Tampico, a celebrated sculptor of the time, as a way to “Filipinize” the neoclassical style. Similarly, the structure’s decorative sculptures also feature indigenous produce and local ornaments.

The structure housed several different offices over the years before it became the National Museum of Fine Arts. In 2010, the museum was declared a National Historical Landmark and began restoration efforts of the Session Hall, returning it to its pre-war grandeur. The hall’s restoration was completed in 2012.

6. Intramuros

View of Intramuros from the top

Photo source: Intramuros Administration

Intramuros is one of the oldest districts in Manila. Built in the early 16th century, during the Spanish colonial period, it served as the center of the Spanish occupation. Intramuros was originally built to be the residences of the Spanish elites and mestizos (individuals who were born from intermarriages between Spaniards and Filipinos).

Intramuros, which literally translates to “within the walls”, is a fortified city designed to keep the area in a tight, protected grid. To guard itself against foreign invaders, defensive features were built around the city such as moats, cannons, javelins, and bulwarks.

Fort Santiago

Photo source: HiSoUR

Fort Santiago Dungeon

Photo source: Intramuros Administration

One of the most famous landmarks in Intramuros is Fort Santiago which served as the Spaniards’ main defense lines and as a dungeon for Filipino resistance fighters and political prisoners. It was also used as a prison during the Japanese occupation and was the site where the first raising of the American flag took place. 

Based on its previous purpose, it has become a symbol of hard won freedom in the face of challenging times and still stands as a great source of history. Today, Fort Santiago is a National Historical Landmark which houses the Rizal Shrine, a museum to celebrate the life of the country’s national hero.

In many ways, the walled city of Intramuros represents the colonial history of the Philippines – a structure that has stood the test of time, against invaders, natural disasters and witnessed changes over the centuries. It’s been a cornerstone of the country’s history and continues to stay relevant as a reminder of the past that Filipinos should not forget.

7. Zuellig Building

Exterior of the Zuellig Building in Metro Manila

Photo source: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM)

Veering away from historical architectural landmarks, the Zuellig Building is a 155 meter-tall modern skyscraper located right at the center of the business hub of Metro Manila. 

Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with WV Coscolluela and Associate and the first LEED Platinum-certified building in the Philippines and in Asia, the Zuellig is certainly notable for its environmentally conscious design and innovative land use.

Photo source: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM)

As a world-class green building, Zuellig is designed for energy efficiency and integrates some biophilic features to support the well-being, health, and productivity of its occupants. 

It incorporates numerous eco-friendly systems. Zuellig’s glass facade allows 90% of natural light to enter, is a double-glazed low-emission curtain wall that minimizes heat gain and energy loss and equipped with daylight dimming sensors. It has a central HVAC system and CO2 sensors to regulate the flow of fresh air. Plus, there is a dedicated area to store segregated materials for recycling and waste management. 

In a place where towering skyscrapers dominate the skyline, the Zuellig stands out due to its distinctive, and almost invisible glass facade. Creating a uniquely Asian look, the building design uses ceramic frit patterns rendered in the likeness of flowing water and bamboo.

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