Archt. Felino Palafox Jr. Thomasian urban (planning) legend

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By Juanito Alipio A. de la Rosa

UNLIKE alchemists, cooks, and certain Ayala Avenue business wizards, architects are rather easy on sharing the secrets of their trade. Maybe because they believe talent is inherent but skills can be learned; maybe because they deem imparting knowledge is the ethical thing to do. Either way, for Felino Palafox Jr., principal architect and urban planner of Palafox Associates (PA), it is about the attitude, the passion, and the mission that makes architecture remarkable.
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“Architecture is more than the physical aspects of the building,” Palafox told the Varsitarian. “It is also about the social and environmental facets—how it fits in the bigger picture and how the beneficiaries will use and appreciate it.”
PA is not the typical design firm. For Palafox, architectural projects must be unique, memorable, and identifiable. They should also be pleasing aesthetically and viable technically and economically, hence fitting in the urban fabric.
“It is not about the financial income,” Palafox said. “It is about the contentment of being able to help others.”
About 20 percent of PA’s work goes to charity such as the environmental church, school and livelihood center in Smokey Mountain, and Gawad Kalinga projects. PA also erected eight public schools and an emergency dispatch center in the earthquake-devastated Bam in Iran, which earned the architect an Ambassador of Peace Award in New York, USA.
“We should continue planning progress and developing opportunities not just for ourselves but for others in the generations to come,” Palafox said. “By then we would have paid for the air that we breathed, the spaces that we consumed, and the areas we polluted while we were here.”
Palafox believes that the days of ivory-tower architects are gone . Architecture has a social function and should consider whether it enhances or disturbs the society and environment. Although influenced by Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright, Palafox does not impose his own style.
“I impose what is appropriate for a particular project,” explained Palafox. “The project speaks for itself.”
As if his acumen on the craft were not enough, Palafox upholds that learning is a continuous process. Thirty years after college, he went back to school in 2003 after being invited to participate in the Advanced Management Development Program for Real Estate at the Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Humble beginnings

Like most success stories, Palafox’s emerged from simple aspirations. Growing up in Ilocos Norte, Palafox’s lifestyle revolved around the beach and the church.
Along the beach, he used to build not just sand castles but also townships. On the other hand, his frequent visits to the church across his house established his deep-rooted faith in God at an early age. This influenced his decision to enter the Divine Word Mission Seminary in Quezon City. Later, he realized that the priesthood was not his vocation.
“My other choices then were medicine, just like my late father, civil engineering just like my uncle, or architecture,” he recalled.
But after consulting people and rekindling memories of sandcastles and school artwork feats, he decided to let his creative juices flow by taking up Architecture in UST. He was among the first batch to take Architecture as a five-year course.
In 1972, Palafox graduated without honors but he still managed to equal, if not exceed, his batch mates. In 1973, he topped the competitive exam of the United Nations Development Program, which earned him a scholarship grant to take up Master in Environmental Planning at the University of the Philippines.
Palafox worked for several companies before standing on his own feet. For four years, he worked as an architect-urban planner for a multinational company in Dubai, UAE. He also worked as an urban planning consultant for Henry Sy of Shoemart. Then he worked for six and a half years, also as an architect-urban planner, with Ayala Corporation. Palafox’s major project developments included Ayala Alabang, Ayala Heights, Ayala Center, Laguna Technopark, Madrigal Business Park, and Cebu Business Park.
After 17 years of “learning the ropes,” as Palafox puts it, he decided to start his own firm. The first few years of PA saw numerous coup attempts and nationwide blackouts, not to mention the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Now on its 18th year, PA has grown rapidly from a staff of three to more than a hundred full-time staff and professional consultants in its fold, bringing together a wealth of experience gained from more than 30 countries.
“Jun”, as Palafox is fondly called in his close circle, is married with three children. His wife, Wilma, is also a Thomasian and a Ms. Arts and Letters title holder in her college days. His eldest daughter, Chin, is a graduate of the UST Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. His second child, Karmi, has two master’s degrees: one in Industrial Economics from the University of Asia and the Pacific, and another in Urban Planning from Oxford Brookes University in England. She currently works with her father as the planning and urban design consultant of PA. His youngest and only son, Phil, studied at Boston University and is majoring in Math at Silliman University.

Up the ladder
Since its foundation on July 1, 1989, the Makati-based PA has made a name in urban planning and architectural designs of islands, golf-course communities, malls, and residential estates.
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“The Palafox Associates has already master-planned more than 10 billion square meters of land and has been involved in the architectural design of more than seven million square meters in 27 countries,” Palafox said.
PA is the first and only design firm in the Philippines that has been certified by Technischer Überwachung-Verein—a technical monitoring association of Germany that aims to protect humans and the environment against hazards from factories and machines. The certification was based on accreditations by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for Quality Management (ISO 9001) and Environmental Management (ISO 14001).
Likewise, PA ranked 94th in the World’s Top 200 Architectural Firms in 2006 according to the London-based World Architecture Magazine. The list, dominated by architectural firms from the USA, Japan, UK, and other European countries, singled out PA as the only Southeast Asian architectural firm among the 200. The firm debuted on the list in 1999 when it ranked 220th in the Top 500 architectural firms of the world.
“The competition has been really tough,” Palafox said. “It is just unfortunate that developers in our country look down on Filipinos. They get foreign architects even if they are not licensed to practice here.”
PA boasts of unparalleled grand projects. In the Philippines, PA’s major architectural/planning projects include mixed-used developments such as the Rockwell Center; commercial centers such as seven SM malls and four Robinsons malls; hotels and serviced residences such as the Forbes Tower and Boracay Regency; residential estates such as Hacienda Sta. Elena and Haciendas de Naga; golf course communities such as Camp John Hay and Manila Southwoods; environmental parks such as La Mesa Watershed and Ecological Center; and institutions such as the Supreme Court Centennial Building and the soon-to-rise UST Sta. Rosa, Laguna. PA also did the interiors of the Asian Eye Institute in Makati, Metro Market! Market! in Taguig, and Museum of War in Intramuros.
Surprisingly, PA acquires some of the juiciest projects even if the firm does not have any glitzy marketing strategy. PA gets its clients by word of mouth and through the Internet. “Our best marketing tool is our previous projects,” Palafox said.
At present, PA is developing a two-kilometer coastline in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia into a 38-kilometer waterfront development. Palafox is also negotiating colossal projects in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) that might include construction of more than 3,000 high-rise buildings.
“Many Filipinos have this colonial mentality that the West is best and imported is better,” Palafox continued. “But with our firm, we will try to change that.”
One of the visions our firm advocates is elevating the Filipino professional in his global standing.  And PA did just that.
With the kilometric number of awards Palafox has received, not to mention the current stature of his firm, he surprisingly prefers to be low-key.
Now, after etching the Philippines on the map of world architecture, Palafox is one of the most sought-after lecturers in the field. His ultimate secret formula is that despite all his sterling achievements, he acknowledges his limited part in the Grand Design.
“The chief architect is still the guy up there,” Palafox said. “We are just instruments in making life better in this world.”

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