Leaving an Imprint

People Asia: Dec. 2010 issue
By: Fatima Parel

Architect Felino "Jun" Palafox Jr. is recognized all around the world as a great visionary, the man who can turn an idea into reality. But beyond the plaudits and awards is a man with an unshakeable conviction to fight corruption and be known for integrity.

Being thought of as "unusual" or worse, "crazy" is nothing new to Architect Jun Palafox. After all, didn't he give up a million dollars in architect's fee just to save 366 trees?

Because that's exactly what he did when he found out that the Korean firm that wanted to get his services was planning to clear hundreds of trees to make way for its casino and hotel project.

"And what did I get? A P50-million libel case and death threats, in return for protecting the forest of Subic," shares Palafox, shaking his head.

Refusing to post bail, the embattled architect volunteered instead to go to jail in Olongapo City in the province of Zambales, where the case was filed. "Why should I post bail for a crime I never committed?" he questions. "And you know what? My friends from the media including CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and the local media, they were willing to go to prison with me and many of my friends planned to collect 'piso-piso' to bail me out."

Thankfully, justice prevailed and Palafox even relayed the good news – during this interview – that the libel case against him has been dismissed by the courts, for the second time.

Through the years, Palafox has been earning not only global awards for his awe-inspiring designs, but also praises for his good deeds. And the incident in Subic was not the first time that he exposed such kind or wrongdoings. An anti-corruption crusader and also an environmental advocate, Palafox admits that he probably gave up 30 percent of his potential clients simply because the project did not satisfy what he calls the 3 Ps: people (social equity), planet earth (environment) and profit (economic growth).

"What I did in Subic, or when I exposed a BIR examiner for extortion, is called patriotic architecture, democratic architecture or architectural activism by Harvard Graduate School of Design. They congratulated me and gave affirmation for what I'm doing," tells the multi-awarded architect.

Auspicious Beginnings

From building sandcastles in the pristine waters of his native Ilocos Norte to building award-winning structures, Jun Palafox has indeed come a long way.

Thinking back, it dawned on him that not once has he ever actually applied for a job. In fact, the job offer always came to him. He was handpicked to be the urban planner for Dubai back in the '70s when the small oil-rich emirate was still starting out. He proudly notes that he is the first Filipino architect/urban planner in Dubai and we were the first Filipino family," he discloses.

Upon his returns to the Philippines, Palafox had the good fortune to work with the top financial families in the country like the Ayalas, Lopezes and Sys. Working with them has given Palafox the opportunity to evolve more than just an architect or an urban planner. Instead, he has become a man who earned the reputation for being a stickler to rules. And this somehow became a deciding factor for some of his eventual clients who were not shy in telling him that one reason they chose him was not because he was a good architect, but because Jun Palafox is an honest man.

"An architect should not just be waiting for the paycheck. There should be a best effort to educate the client," tells Palafox.

True to form, Palafox has taken the role of educator with enthusiasm, much like the way that he approaches all of his projects. He has been a guest lecturer in various countries like Japan, Germany, Singapore, Korea and China talking about green architecture and the best and worst practices in urban planning. It is quite ironic though, that while the leaders of First World countries have recognized his expertise, his call for change is often left unheeded in the Philippines He reveals that he has prepared a technical paper on urban planning, architecture and engineering that addresses disasters and has submitted this to government, but for naught. That's why when Typhoon Ondoy wreaked such devastation in the country, specifically Metro Manila, Palafox could only shake his head.

"When (Typhoon) Ondoy happened, there was an announcement that the flooding was an act of God. I said it's not an act of God but a sin of omission of men and women in our country."

The Pledge

Taking a big leap of faith, Palafox started his own architecture firm in July 1989 and recently celebrated the company's 20 anniversary with a very special hardbound book detailing all the projects for the past two decades. From gargantuan malls to posh subdivisions, embassies to places of worship, , a steady influx of projects came to Palafox Associates, providing a creative release for its young and talented architects. Among their numerous projects, Palafox gives special mention to the schools that have helped Iran after the Taiwanese Buddhist organization Tzu Chi hired him to help this Muslim country recover in the aftermath of a major earthquake.

"So funding (came) from the Buddhists in Taiwan for the Muslim children of Iran and they hired Catholic architects and engineers from the Philippines to design the schools for them. We surpassed all the barriers: interfaith, universal and international," proudly shares Palafox.

As far as Palafox is concerned, his role as an architect should go beyond designing structures and should include caring for the environment, better known as "green architecture."

"In every project, we must respect the culture of the country also the natural environment and we fit into the urban fabric of the city, not just an island. And most important of all, we would like to be unique, memorable and identifiable. I think you could see all that in our projects."

And to prove that he means business, Palafox has made promise to himself and his firm, which he calls the 2030 challenge. "We are one of those very few architectural firms in the world that made a commitment that by 2030, all our projects would be carbon neutral. That's why we are responsible architects. We respect planet earth and the environment," shares Palafox while leaving us with the question that he often asks himself and on that we will have to ask ourselves soon.

"If not me, who else will do it? If not now, when?"