UP’s Cultural Landscapes

| Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

Lush, green, beautiful, serene, grand, open, free, wild and, perhaps to outsiders, a little bit odd. These are the words that are often used to describe many of UP’s 17 campuses. These are also, in a way, qualities expected of UP faculty, student, staff and alumni: the capacity to think independently and creatively, a beauty of character shaped by the values of honor and excellence, the ability to adapt to the twists and turns of life, an open heart and, much like the stately Oblation common to all UP campuses, a willingness, even eagerness, to offer all to the people we serve.

Diversity in art and infrastructure

However, UP is not a homogenous system, and each campus is not quite like the others. Each one has its unique strengths, its unique natural environment and appearance, unique infrastructure, and unique personality. This uniqueness is influenced by a wide range of factors, from the history of the campus and its surroundings, to its geographic location and natural environment, to the cultural and ethnolinguistic communities within and around it, and especially to the constituent unit’s niche and field of specialty.

For instance, UP Baguio, whose niche is in Indigenous/Cordillera and Northern Luzon Studies, has the Museo Kordilyera embodying its role in and contribution to Philippine development. The Museo, which formally opened in January, is an ethnographic museum that serves as a repository of the tangible and intangible culture of the Cordillera, and features the output of research undertaken by the UP Baguio faculty in the aspects of material culture, visual culture, language and literature, and anthropology. UP Baguio also has the Cordillera Studies Center, also a repository of research outputs by faculty and research affiliates, which also disseminates research through its publications.

Museo Kordilyera, UP Baguio. Photo by UP MPRO

As another example, UP Visayas, as the country’s premier authority in marine science, fisheries and aquaculture, has the Regional Research Center, inaugurated on August 23, 2016, which aims to be the premier R&D and innovation facility in the region, and to support UP Visayas’ vision as a world-class university especially in the field of fisheries and aquatic sciences. Fittingly enough, it is located on top of a hill overlooking the Guimaras Strait, and its glass and steel façade is fashioned to resemble the silhouette of a school of fish moving bi-directionally.

Each campus’ uniqueness can be more keenly appreciated through the artistic, architectural and cultural artifacts that are scattered throughout like hidden and not-so-hidden treasures. UP Visayas, for instance, has among others the Diwata ng Dagat, a 16-foot sculpture by National Artist Napoleon V. Abueva depicting a strong woman standing upon fishes while pulling a fishnet, symbolizing UP Visayas’ commitment to its role as national center of excellence in marine science, fisheries and aquaculture. UPV Iloilo City also has the neoclassic Main Building designed by National Artist Juan Arellano, with its façade by Francesco Riccardo Monti of two bronze statues representing Law and Order.

Diwata ng Dagat, UP Visayas

UP Baguio has Inang Laya, a statue of a woman with open arms, also by National Artist Abueva, and the Four Pillars, four posts that stand for the four pillars of knowledge that UP Baguio started with—Social Sciences, the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the Humanities and Sports, Physical Education and Recreation. UP Mindanao has buildings that are designed to reflect each ethnolinguistic group in Mindanao, and the sculptures of Mindanao-based artist Kublai Millan in Kanluran.

Inang Laya, UP Baguio

The UP Open University has its Oblation, cast by former UPOU Chancellor Dr. Grace J. Alfonso, and rendered distinct among the others, thanks to the ribbon-like flag swirling around its pedestal, giving the effect of lifting the Oblation to greater heights and granting it boundless reach as befits UPOU’s distance and open education mission. And these are just a few examples from some of the campuses.

The Oblation, UP Open University

Shaping UP communities

In short, there is no better profile for each UP campus than its cultural landscape. The Planning Department of San Francisco City defines a cultural landscape as “a place with many layers of history that evolves through design and use over time. A cultural landscape embodies the associations and uses that evoke a sense of history for a specific place.” Cultural landscapes include physical features such as trees, buildings, site furnishings, pathways and water bodies, and intangible elements such as land uses and associations of people that influenced the development of a landscape.

Simply put, human activity in a natural environment, done over an extended period of time, creates a cultural environment. While it is easy to see how humans alter and influence the natural environment, it is slightly less easy to see how the environment alters and influences humans.

“The environment and the people in the environment actually have a two-way interaction,” says multi-awarded, pioneering installation artist Luis “Junyee” Yee Jr. “The environment first influences the people—the way they move, the way they interact. Then through the years, it is the people who influence the environment, because now they have the power and resources to change the environment.” Indeed, humans change the environment so much that they render it unrecognizable, especially in highly urbanized places.

Luis “Junyee” Yee Jr.

Still, in the beginning it is the environment that shapes its growing human population. “Environment is the one that creates all kinds of culture—Asian culture, African culture, Middle Eastern, Chinese, American. For instance, here we have plenty of bamboo, so we have many objects made of bamboo. Even our houses are made of bamboo. Can the Americans do that? No, not because they cannot do it, but because they do not have the resources—the bamboo,” says Junyee, who is known for articulating the intimate connection between art and the natural world through the use of natural, indigenous and biodegradable materials in his art.

“Ang Tao” in UPLB

Spirit of place

There is a kind of power in the environment, which can be enhanced by the cultural landscape that emerges from it. There is a concept in architecture and urban design called “spirit of place”, which is the translation of the Latin phrase “genius loci”, something artists, philosophers and storytellers are familiar with. In ancient times, it was believed that certain parts of the world are inhabited by gods or guardian spirits whom humans must appease. Fast forward through the centuries to Wikipedia’s definition of spirit of place as “the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place…it is as much in the invisible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs, histories, etc.) as it is the tangible physical aspects of a place (monuments, boundaries, rivers, woods, architectural style, rural crafts styles, pathways, views, etc.) or its interpersonal aspects (the presence of relatives, friends and kindred spirits, etc.).”

Each UP campus possesses a unique spirit of place, whether it is a campus built on a mountain plateau, near the coast on an island, in a woodsy area at the quiet fringes of an urban center, or in the heart of a dense, bustling metropolis with a history going back centuries. Every person inhabiting these campuses can feel this spirit of place, from the logical scientists to the students trying to survive Hell Week to the vendors selling cigarettes. They move through this spirit everyday, but are often unable to put it into words. “They are unaware of it intellectually, but emotionally, they are. It’s just that they don’t have the time to express it. Put them in a different place, and they will feel lost. You absorb the environment around you without vocalizing it. But it’s there,” Junyee says.

Kublai Millan’s sculpture in Kanluran, UP Mindanao

Most of the time, this is because our minds are too busy with day-to-day concerns to allow us to be conscious of and actively engage with our environment. But some people are able to be aware, and to translate this sublime awareness in ways we can understand, as Junyee points out: “As an artist, I have an active interaction with the world around me.”

The UPLB campus, which he has called home for 40 years, is a good example of campus with a potent spirit of place. And why not, with Mount Makiling practically embracing it? “This mountain is not just a mere mountain. Before people settled and studied here, the original inhabitants knew that Makiling was a legendary mountain. It’s a magical mountain.” It even has a goddess, Mariang Makiling, a literal example of a genius loci. “So if you come here, you feel different. You become part of her. You become proud of her. And then you have the lake, Laguna de Bae, the second biggest lake in Southeast Asia.” Junyee adds with a smile: “This is a beautiful place, and we have the most beautiful campus in the country. We are complete here.”

Despite having been massively expanded and modernized through the years, UPLB retains the spirit of its origins: the College of Agriculture. Its agricultural school roots are also part of what gives UPLB its unique spirit. Junyee, as an alumnus of the College of Fine Arts and a regular contributor to the cultural landscape of the Diliman campus, clearly senses the differences between the two large campuses. For one thing, UP Diliman admittedly has more in the way of public art, due to the presence of the CFA, a bigger budget for art projects and a “cosmopolitan kind of mindset”.

But the UPLB campus, while also free-thinking and just as if not even more internationally-oriented than other UP constituent universities, still retains its “provincial” atmosphere. “We’re very modern here, but the mindset is different,” says Junyee. “Even if there are more students now in UPLB who can afford cars, it’s still different. Why? It’s because of the environment, because of the campus’ birth. Ours is agricultural. And it’s the surroundings,” which do not include shopping districts, major highways, train stations, towering buildings, large, overcrowded housing sprawls, and the other trappings of urban life.

And if Junyee was to pick, among all the famous cultural artifacts gracing the UPLB campus, which one would best capture the UPLB campus’ spirit of place, it would be “Ang Tao,” the sculpture of a farmer with a plow and his faithful carabao beside him, flanked by two towers showing carabao heads. Down to earth, close to the natural environment, steadfast, hardworking, nurturing and most of all, absolutely essential to our country’s future.

Historic designed landscapes

Cultural landscapes are generally classified into four types: historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes. Campuses are considered historic designed landscapes, that is, going by Charles Birnbaum’s definition, “a landscape that was consciously designed or laid out by a master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles…recognized style or tradition.”

The spirit of place of the UP Diliman campus stems as much from its history as it does from its natural environment. To cope with a growing student population, it was decided that UP had to expand. A 493-hectare property in Diliman was acquired in 1939, and construction began in that same year. The first buildings to rise were Benitez Hall and Malcolm Hall, housing the College of Education and the College of Law respectively, before development of the campus was overtaken by World War II.

After the war, thanks to a P13-million grant, the first two buildings were repaired and construction restarted in earnest, with more structures rising within the next decades—Gonzalez Hall or the Main Library, Quezon Hall, Palma Hall, and Melchor Hall, followed by a series of other buildings reflecting UP Diliman’s expanding role as the country’s premier higher education and research institution in science and technology, social sciences, humanities, and policy and governance.

When asked what aspect of UP Diliman’s campus best captures UP Diliman’s spirit of place, UP Diliman Office of the Campus Architect Director Enrico B. Tabafunda replies: “Actually, it’s the diversity of architectural styles within the campus. These architectural styles are indicative of the different stages in the history of UP Diliman. If you look at the oldest buildings, they reflect the early years of UP Diliman, and so here is where our history is rooted.”

UP Diliman Office of the Campus Architect Director Enrico B. Tabafunda

The buildings built from the 1960s to the 1970s also reflect another period in Philippine contemporary history, as do the buildings built in later years. Still, Tabafunda returns to the first six buildings, with their neoclassical style, their formal north-south, east-west axis, and their mirroring of each other on opposite sides of the Academic Oval.

Tabafunda also notes another aspect of the UP Diliman campus that captures its spirit of place: the entire campus itself, with its well-designed Academic Oval, its acacia trees arranged to form majestic arcs over the street, its structures and landmarks, its parks, forests and fields—even the street lights that were chosen not just to provide energy efficient illumination, but to enhance the campus’ romantic atmosphere. Each element is a product of planning and landscape designing geared toward what would best serve the UP System’s vision of the University as an outstanding regional and global higher education institution, with the UP Diliman Chancellor’s vision of a campus that inspires pride of place, and is secure, sustainable, connected and nurturing of the spirit of people.

“The landscape is equally important,” Tafabunda says. “It is what gives cohesion to the campus plan.” The landscape acts as a gigantic canvas showcasing the myriad colors, shapes, lines and textures of UP Diliman’s physical structures. “You can have buildings that look different from one another, but it is the campus landscape that brings them together as a whole.”

The Regional Research Center, UP Visayas

Diliman’s heritage trees

Tabafunda knows how much of the details of the Diliman campus’ features are planned, all the way down to the kinds of trees that must be planted, and where and how. Yes, even the species of trees matter, thanks to a directive dating from the time of UP President Emerlinda Roman that states that only indigenous trees must be planted on the campus. This means we will be seeing more banaba trees with their violet blossoms and narra trees with their yellow sprays, but no more caballero trees, butterfly trees, and acacia trees except for what we already have.

Speaking of acacia trees, for Tabafunda, it is the acacia trees that give the campus some of its character; one landscape architecture professor has even proposed declaring the acacia tree UP Diliman’s heritage tree. The trees also help prove one of his points. The Ateneo de Manila University campus also has rows of acacia trees arching over its streets, but the overall impressions one gets of the campuses of the AdMU and UP Diliman could not be more different, thanks to their respective landscape designs.

“For me, it’s the landscape architect who provides the image of the campus—the planning, the functions and the visual image and landscape of the campus. That’s why landscape architects are so important.” Each campus will have its own image.

Of course, efforts are made to standardize the images of the UP campuses, to a certain extent. “Sometimes though, you will only have common elements, but you cannot achieve the same standard image throughout. They will all have their own images, because their environments are different, and the period when their campus and landscape planning was made are different. There are many factors involved.” Tabafunda is even more aware of this now that they are currently developing the site for the upcoming UP campus in Clark Green City. While UP Clark will technically be under UP Diliman, it is impossible to create a miniature Diliman campus there. UP Clark will be UP Clark.

A mixed bag

As a whole, the impression the UP Diliman campus presents is…mixed. We have a beautiful academic core, yet we also have blighted sectors. We have buildings whose varied architectural designs span an entire course in modern Philippine history. We have mini-forests, pockets of dense undergrowth, construction sites, old structures on the verge of collapse, paths cut through landscaped gardens, traffic rules and pedestrian lanes that are treated as suggestions at best, graffiti and street art side by side with the works of National Artists—a definite mixed bag.

And therein lies UP Diliman’s spirit of place.

“Our campus is very heterogeneous, in my opinion, which means it’s not easy to manage,” says Tabafunda. “Maybe this reflects our desire for freedom. The campus is very diverse, and besides, we dislike being restricted by too many rules. That is why, when you look at our environment, it seems somewhat relaxed. It’s beautiful, but some people might find it dirty or disorganized. But this is our style.” Indeed, if one were to transform the campus into a human being, it would likely be a person who is brilliant, expressive, freedom-loving, diversity-welcoming, rule-challenging, open-minded, comfortable going to class in PE shorts and slippers yet equally comfortable dominating in an international competition—in short, a typical UPD student.

Tabafunda, when asked which cultural structures he believes could best represent the spirit of UP Diliman, offers the two buildings, Palma Hall and Melchor Hall. “Maybe because of their architectural style—modern, but still old and formal. Not too organized; they are a little bit messy. I think [the buildings] have character, which is reflected in our campus as a whole.”

The School of Management, UP Mindanao

Keeping the UP spirit alive

The work of the campus landscape architect and planner is the same in every UP campus. It is a balancing act among contradicting demands—the need to give space for both the natural and man-made environment; the need for forests, buildings and infrastructure, and open spaces; the impetus toward development and modernization, and the need to protect and conserve the environment; the need to keep the campus’ inhabitants safe and secure, and the service the campus renders by opening up to the public; the need to preserve the past and to expand into the future; the need to design the campus to serve the overall vision and mission of the University, while enhancing the unique values, qualities and aspirations of the campus, and so on.

But one thing Tabafunda would like to do is to make sure that the campus and all its buildings and physical features, whether new or old, are attractive and, more importantly, functional. “We want the people to have pride in the place because it has aesthetic value, but of course we also want them to love the place because it fits their needs. What good is a building that is pretty if nobody uses it because it is not what people need?”

No matter what it is—a campus, a building, a house—a place only gains spirit through the memories of the people who use it. This is why UP alumni can wax nostalgic about a particular hall, a concrete walkway, a tambayan, or even a single tree. These places feature prominently in their memories of UP, and these memories hold a certain power. Generations of human memories imbue these places with spirit. And through their connection to these places, people who might otherwise have very little in common find a sense of identity, of belonging, and of community.

Freedom of mind

There is, however, another way we can help enhance a spirit of place, and that is to simply be mindful of it. And to be mindful as well of the consequences of our actions upon it. “People tend to be absorbed in their own daily tasks that they forget their other obligation as a member of the community,” says Junyee. “We all have a responsibility not just to maintain our place and community but to enhance it.”

How do we enhance a place? “For me, enhancement is more about freedom of mind, because without freedom of mind, you cannot create beautiful things, you cannot invent things that will benefit the community,” Junyee replies. This is wonderful advice for artists and innovators, but even ordinary people have a duty to enhance the place we live in simply by doing what we do to the best of our ability, all the time, seeking to add to the beauty around us through deliberate, conscious and compassionate action. And why is this?

Junyee’s answer is simple: “Because it might be the last thing you will do in your life.”

And therein lies the spirit of a person—a perfect reflection of the spirit of our beloved UP campus.


Email the author at upforum@up.edu.ph.