Master Planner

Words Nivelle Dumlao | Photography Lincoln Gasmen


What exactly are the benefits of good urban planning? Highly acclaimed architect and urban planner Felino “Jun” Palafox Jr. is just the perfect man to ask.


Welcoming the team of Lamudi and MyProperty at his eponymous architectural firm in Makati, Palafox gave a jovial smile that signified the start of the interview. Inside the meeting room where he was to share his insights about urban planning were numerous awards and plaques on display, recognitions garnered over four decades of much admired professional practice.


The Pull of Architecture


It seemed that architecture and urban planning were already in the mind of the young Palafox. According to his mother, the young Palafox was to be the most artistic among her children—the fourth in a brood of 10. He refused hand-me-down toys; instead, he collected tin cans and made his own. There was also an instance when he suddenly found himself acting as the foreman of the construction of a local basketball court, collecting building materials from various sources. And as he grew older, he realized that architecture, along with medicine and priesthood, were his vocations.


Palafox entered the seminary in his teenage years, where he learned leadership by becoming president of the student council. He was later on exposed to international architecture thanks to his mentors from Europe and the United States. He also became a librarian, and books further piqued his interest in international architecture.


The Way to Urban Planning


While taking up his Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning at the University of the Philippines through a scholarship grant from the United Nations Development Program, he felt very fortunate at the opportunity to meet more people who are highly knowledgeable in his field.


“Most of the visiting professors from many parts of the world are experts in their own fields. I learned more about urban planning, urban transport planning, housing, traffic, and urban regional planning, and not just their physical aspects as we also gained knowledge on engineering, socio-economic aspects, and metropolitan planning,” said Palafox.


He then worked at what was then Public Works, Transportations, and Communications, which further taught him about urban and regional planning. And during his time as senior planner and team leader of Metroplan Manila at the age 25, he was invited to work in Dubai, becoming the first Southeast Asian and Filipino architect and urban planner to work in the Gulf city.


“It was a life-changing experience. Then a young city, [the authorities in] Dubai entrusted me with their urban planning, architecture, transportation planning, and traffic management. They also asked me to prepare and lead the Architectural Elevations Committee, which approved buildings not just for their structural soundness, but also the look from the outside, and how the buildings dialogue with the other buildings next to them,” shared Palafox. With the young architect’s family in tow, he planned to work there for good, but two prominent businessmen felt otherwise.


Setting the Standards for Metro Manila


While Palafox and his family were living in Dubai, two men invited him to go back home not only for a huge business proposal, but to help the country as well. Thinking he could not pass up such an opportunity, especially from two of the Philippines’ biggest business tycoons, he agreed to come back.


“It was the late Enrique Zobel of the Ayala Group and Henry Sy Sr. of the SM Group who encouraged me to go back to the country while I was enjoying my job in Dubai. If not for those two gentlemen, maybe I never would have come home,” shared Palafox.


Aside from being a consultant for Henry Sy Sr., he worked as chief architect and head of planning for Ayala Corp. and Ayala Land. He was involved in some of the developer’s projects that set the benchmark for residential and commercial properties in the Philippines, such as Ayala Alabang, Ayala Heights, and Cebu Business Park, as well as the redevelopment plans for the company’s Greenbelt commercial center.


Furthermore, the late Eugenio “Geny” Lopez Jr. hired Palafox and his team to do the masterplan for the redevelopment of a 15.5-hectare lot in Makati, which eventually became Rockwell Center. The project’s first five residential towers—Rizal, Luna, Amorsolo East and West, and Hidalgo—were all designed by his firm, and while revamping Rockwell, Palafox suggested building a ramp from the EDSA–Estrella intersection, opening up the development’s private roads to the public for ease of access.


The Rejected $1 Million Fee


But not every big-ticket project offer that lands on Palafox’s lap gets automatically accepted. Case in point: a hotel project in Subic with a $1 million architect’s fee. After winning the contract and learning that the client wanted to cut down approximately 300 decades-old trees, he declined to work on the said project as it is against Palafox Associates’ advocacy and principles.


“Everything we do is pro deo patria et terra. In English, ‘for God, country, and the planet.’ In every project we do, we keep these things in mind. We make sure to put the people first and their social equity; planet Earth or the environment because we just borrow the environment from future generations; prosperity, profit, and economic goals; culture, history, and heritage; and lastly, spirituality because we are just tools by the chief architect and engineer up there...not only to glorify Him but to help humankind,” explained Palafox.


His decision stirred up quite a controversy and caught the attention of the local and international media. “After returning the $1 million architect’s fee, CNN, BBC, and other international media organizations wanted to meet the crazy architect who gave up a million dollars just for a few trees. But for me, a 50-year-old tree yields a high value—the oxygen that it gives for 50 years, the rainwater it harvests, the fertilizer for the land, and the beauty and cooling effect it provides the environment,” continued Palafox.


On Good Urban Planning and Value Appreciation


According to Palafox, a good plan, or a good architectural design or master plan, is more benefit-heavy than cost-heavy. However, because the practice has always been to cut costs first, they have had to educate their clients first on the advantages of green architecture and building.


“Spend a little bit more on good design, planning, architecture, and construction with good materials, and you will be spending a little bit more only on the first three years. The next seven to nine years will be benefits, such as savings on energy, efficiency, and so on,” expounds Palafox.


He added: “An implemented well-thought-out urban planning and design not only realizes an ideal livable location, but consequently, it also increases the land value. Rockwell Center, for example, experienced one of the fastest land value appreciation in the past 25 years.”


Sometimes tagged by others as an architect-activist because of his unorthodox proposals to help improve the country’s landscape with economic improvement in mind, he cited one of his revolutionary recommendations: “Why don’t we lease out those islands we can never protect to friendly countries on 1,000-year leases? That’s not new. Dublin in Ireland is doing it for their brewery. Besides, there are Filipinos all over the world. Perhaps their employers are friendly. We must invite them to invest, and give them the opportunity to lease our islands. Otherwise, we will be losing most of our islands. And these are no-brainer. For me, I am thinking of that not as an architect, but as a Filipino taxpayer.”


On the Duterte Administration


While his firm is being commended abroad, Palafox laments the lackluster support given to urban and environmental planners locally. He adds that they are only remembered when disaster strikes, and that “the planners may have the best plans, but if the institutions of government do not support them, then it is not going to happen.”


However, Palafox is optimistic of the new administration. He points out that President Rodrigo Duterte has been open to suggestions and unsolicited proposals when it comes to urban planning. He also approves of the president’s proposal to move to federalism.


“I support the [federal movement] because urban planning is balanced. The development of our country is not balanced. Everything is all focused on Metro Manila. With federalism, every region has the opportunity to compete. Once we have regional centers, they can have their unique architecture. And then, each one of them can have their own international airports, international seaports, and so on. So there is autonomy, and at the same time interdependence and a friendly competition. Architecture and urban planning can play a good part in that,” stated Palafox.


Current Status


When asked how the Philippines fares when compared to other countries, Palafox stated that we are slow to reform. Compared to Dubai, he said that the city that used to be 200 years behind Metro Manila is now probably 100 years ahead.


That is why Palafox Associates educates their clients by introducing global best practices and trends. And Palafox is grateful that people are now more open and are starting to listen. He also invites Filipino millennials to participate and be more knowledgeable and active in urban and environmental planning.


“We are encouraging millennials to join us. That is what we are also doing now. Because who will be the beneficiaries? Your generation.”