Avant-garde, daring, an iconoclast, and one who in the words of Rodrigo D. Perez III (2018), “aimed for boldness and vigor”, Pablo Severo Antonio, Sr. pioneered modern Philippine Architecture and was the foremost Modernist during his time. His architecture adapted Art Deco, which at its introduction was considered radical in contrast to Neoclassicism and Revivalist movements that prevailed under the earlier years of the American regime.
Antonio embraced the simplicity of surfaces, bold shapes and forms, and sleek lines of the streamlined motif. His works merged inside and outside space – creating a singularity between built environment and nature. Notable traits in Antonio’s portfolio are the presence of indoor gardens and ponds, slanted panoramic windows, and sunscreens to achieve functions of natural lighting and ventilation.
With a career spanning four decades, Antonio designed numerous structures across Metro Manila and the regions. From the campus buildings and emboldened facade of the Nicanor Reyes Hall in Far Eastern University Manila to the lavish movie theaters and railways reaching Baguio and Bicol region, Antonio provided many Filipinos an experience of adaptive modernity and the appreciation of the country’s flora – of which a number still stand today.
His architectural legacy is a reflection of the life Antonio desired and endured in his yesteryears. Antonio’s story is one of courage, perseverance, and triumph: beginning with a childhood of hardship, then reaching artistic stardom, and to being remembered as a National Artist and family man.
Antonio was born on January 25, 1901 in Binondo, Manila to Apolonio Antonio, at 60, a maestro de obras (master-builder), painter, and sculptor, and Maria Severo, at only 16 years of age. He was the youngest child and only son of the couple, and had three older siblings: 2 half-sisters from his father’s two previous widowed-marriages, and a full sister named Trinidad.
At the age of 3, the young Antonio lost his mother who died in childbirth. After being in the care of his father for nine years, Apolonio died at 72. Antonio at the age of 12 was orphaned together with his siblings and struggled to complete his education while working during the day.
A Turning Point to Europe
Antonio wore bakya slippers to school and used any materials he could find to sketch his surroundings.
He continued to work in the daytime and attend school at night. He worked as a draftsman for the Bureau of Public Works. With his earnings, he studied architecture and structural engineering at the Mapua Institute of Technology. Antonio, however, dropped out of school due to financial difficulties.
Antonio left the Bureau of Public Works and worked as a draftsman for the Santa Clara Lumber and Construction Company, the first Filipino architectural firm accredited by the American government that oversaw the construction of exemplary neoclassical structures like the Old Legislative Building (now the National Museum of Fine Arts) and Post Office Building.
In 1927, Don Ramon Arevalo, engineer and founder of Santa Clara Lumber and Construction Company, funded Antonio’s scholarship at the University of London. Antonio graduated in 1930 with a degree in architecture upon completing a five-year course in just three years.
1930s : The Mark of an Iconoclast
The 1930s was the decade Antonio claimed his mark as an iconoclast of design and artistic vision. Moreover, the growth of his clientele and publicity of his works led him to spearhead bigger projects and eventually start a family.
Drawing on his observations and studies of the architectural landscapes in Europe, Antonio returned to the Philippines along with his contemporaries Juan F. Nakpil, Andres Luna de San Pedro, and Fernando Ocampo, who are classified today as “Second Generation Architects.” He experimented with Art Deco motifs on pre-war residences in Pasay City and New Manila.
In 1932, Antonio was registered Philippine Architect Number 36 after passing the licensure examination. The following year, Antonio completed his first major work: the Ideal Theater, which stood at Rizal Avenue of the Santa Cruz district in Manila. This started his lifelong portfolio in designing cinemas for the public at a golden era of film.
Pablo S. Antonio was one of the first, few sensible architects who exploited the wonder material of the time (concrete and steel) to their fullest capacities.Rodrigo D. Perez III,
By the latter part of the decade, Antonio’s recognition as the country’s most sought-after architect paved the way for the realization of two of his major works: Far Eastern University commissioned by Nicanor Reyes Sr., and the White Cross Preventorium. He served as a member of the Board of Examiners for Architects with Andres Luna de San Pedro and Carlos Barretto from 1936 to 1937. He also taught at the University of Santo Tomas College of Architecture from 1938 to 1940.
Antonio then met and married Marina del Rosario Reyes in Shanghai, 1938, who was introduced by Jose Yulo and Cecilia Araneta Yulo – clients of the Architect and his wife. The couple had six children: Malu, Pablo Jr., Antonio Victor, Luis, Ramon, and Francis.
Latter Works and Awards
Antonio continued to design buildings for FEU, residences, theaters, and more branches of PNB – to which he worked as in-house architect during the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1944. After the liberation of Manila and the end of the second World War, he focused on rehabilitation projects.
In 1949, he built his family home in Zamora Street, Pasay, which subsequently became the model for the Manila Polo Club and the Residence of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Manning, the first house in Forbes Park, Makati in the same year. By this time, Antonio’s interpretation of Art Deco merged with Mid-Century and Prairie styles – the rawness of concrete and stone masonry inspired by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.
With an acclaimed career, Antonio became a catalyst in guiding younger generations of architects and moving the field forward. He served as President of the Philippine Architect Society from 1942 to 1946, as a member of the Board of Examiners for Architects from 1945 to 1946, as a member together with Juan Nakpil on the Board of the Philippine Institute of Architects in 1949 to 1950, and Vice-Chairman of the Philippine Council of Architects which was sponsored by the UNESCO Commission of the Philippines from 1956 to 1957.
Antonio received numerous awards. In 1952, he was named Architect of the Year by the Philippine Institute of Architects (PIA). He was also the recipient of the first National Award of Merit for Architecture, an eight-year award from 1946 to 1954 granted by the Philippine Government.
Lasting Impact on Philippine Architecture
On June 15, 1974, Antonio passed away at the age of 72 to a heart attack. Two years afterwards, he was posthumously bestowed the Order of the National Artist for Architecture at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
His widow, Marina Reyes-Antonio, joined his fellow awardees Napoleon V. Abueva, Lamberto V. Avellana, Leonor O. Goquingco, Nick Joaquin, and Jovita Fuentes to receive the medal.
The 1976 Order of the National Artist for Architecture for Pablo S. Antonio cites:
“Pablo S. Antonio is in the judgement of his peers one of the true creative forces in the development of Philippine architecture.
In the field of residential architecture, he had few rivals. In public architecture, he was the “architect’s architect.” In both, he put strong impress of a powerful personality, distinguished by elegance, meticulous craftsmanship, utility, and functional design.
All parts of his design fell into place—neatly and firmly. No part obtruded, no part diverted our vision to the neglect of other parts. He viewed architecture as a unity, an integral creation the sum of whose parts was true not only of Pablo S. Antonio himself or of his individual works but, on reflection, of his entire life work. There is no single masterpiece in his impressive works, they are all of a uniform and consistent excellence.
Like most dedicated artists, Pablo Antonio was a zealot in defense of his artistic theories and practice. Time has proven his worth: his works shall outlast many a rhyme, durable as stone, permanent as the spirit of art itself. Pablo S. Antonio’s creations are unique and distinct contributions to Philippine architecture and to the developing culture of the nation.
In these achievements, the country takes pride.”
On to the Future : Built-Legacies and Family
In 2007, four of his works: Far Eastern University, the Manila Polo Club, the White Cross Orphanage-Quezon Preventorium, and his Pasay Residence, received National Artist Architectural Markers by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the Philippine Institute of Architects (PIA).
Built between 1938 and 1950, the Far Eastern University (FEU) campus is flanked by Quezon Boulevard (formerly Colgante Avenue) in the north and Lerma in the south. The buildings in the complex, characterized by geometric lines and forms, are considered to be one of the largest ensembles of Art Deco architecture in the country.Cultural Center of the Philippines (Marker)
Far Eastern University Manila in particular epitomizes Filipino Deco. The campus is the largest complex for Art Deco in the country, and has been recognized in 2005 with the Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Award from UNESCO. The late Architect Augusto F. Villalon states that it is “Manila’s outstanding urban Art Deco ensemble.” It also was described as the ‘most futuristic’ academic institution for its then-new building technology of concrete and steel blended with the tropical environment.
Pablo S. Antonio’s contribution to Philippine architecture marked the beginning of a pivotal movement in the country’s aesthetic history and social milieu – a statement pushing for Filipino independence by claiming its own modernity past American governance. By taking in style references from around the world and adding a local touch for the people, he successfully brought a new perspective in creating the modern Filipino home and living: a place that is interconnected yet private, lighthearted, festive and equally respectful to natural surroundings.
In light of climate change, Antonio’s design philosophy constituting local materials and motifs, natural cross-ventilation and lighting, and the grandeur in simplicity is relevant in today’s search for organic living space. His works prove that man and industry can co-exist beautifully with nature – creating an ecosystem where both spheres flourish without the need of one taking over the other.
On His Life, Creativity and Family
Antonio did not only leave his mark on built marvels, but also left an intimate impact onto younger generations. He, along with his wife Marina, were lovers of the arts and encouraged the exploration of creativity. Many among their lineage of descendants – from children to grandchildren and beyond – have pursued careers in the arts and design. Malu, their only daughter, followed her mother’s footsteps and became a well-known fashion designer. In carrying their father’s legacy, Pablo Jr., Luis, and Ramon became well-known architects. Francis, the youngest, pursued his practice in painting and sculpture. And the late Antonio Victor, was an accomplished engineer who passed away in 1999. From there, their grandchildren became architects, interior designers, fashion designers, and artists alike.
Antonio was a superstar in building fancy and extraordinary palaces for entertainment – the cinemas. Yet, in contrast to his persona, he was a shy, quiet, gentle, and humble man. The White Cross Preventorium was a building close to his heart because of his childhood as an orphan.
As a father and grandfather, his family recalls that he loved desserts and listening to his favorite composers like Frederic Chopin and Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky. His influences from his time in London have become defining traits in his family – the love for marmalade, scones, biscuits, and high tea.
Even in decades after his passing, Pablo S. Antonio’s spirit lives as long as the fragments of his built-legacies – his remaining structures – continue to stand proudly today for the Filipino people.
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